Public Transportation Versus You

Two fatal victims. That is Recife’s (capital of the state of Pernambuco, Brazil) public transportation system body count in 2015. On July 16, college student Harlynton dos Santos, 20, died after trying to climb a bus at 11:30 PM, being tossed out as the vehicle started moving. Camila Mirele was the first victim this year, on May 8. The 18 year old was hurled out of the bus, which was extremely crowded and had its doors open. By killing these two people, Pernambuco’s transit is well positioned to perpetrate a veritable slaughter against its passengers in 2015.

What’s perhaps more tragic in this situation is that the massacre against the passengers by the public transportation system — all over Brazil, not only in Pernambuco — occurs in homeopathic doses. It produces occasional victims that can be pointed to as “isolated cases.” The violence inherent to Brazil’s public transportation is silent. It sucks the vitality out of people, making their lives gradually more hellish every day. Step by step, little by little. The frustration with public transit is real, but unheard.

This precariousness, culminating in Harlynton’s and Camila’s deaths, isn’t an accident; it’s by design. Over the 2000s, in Recife as well as in the several other Brazilian metropolises, local governments worked diligently in building public transportation cartels. In Recife, that involved the prohibition of the independent vans that served passengers but allegedly “disturbed traffic.” Vans and the other public vehicles used to stand in stiff competition against municipalities’ approved buses. Generally, they offered better prices, alternative routes, and other conveniences. Under pressure from the owners of licensed buses, state and local governments abolished this system and forced passengers to utilize only approved public transit, making vans and other vehicles that provided transportation illegal. In 2008, this process came to a climax with the creation of the Grande Recife corsortium — effectively, a government cartel of bus companies that controls all public transportation in Recife.

A similar process took place in other Brazilian capitals, where there were several “restructurings” of public transit. Invariably, these reforms included the forced cartelization of service providers. In São Paulo, for instance, van owners were forced to associate to bus coops. This allowed the government and bus company owners to closely monitor all aspects of public transportation, ranging from prices to the number of vehicles supplied, their condition, and locations serviced. (Incidentally, the São Paulo cartel also allowed the involvement of the drug ring First Command of the Capital — PCC — with public transportation.)

The public transit cartel periodically celebrates make-believe public bids, which simulate some sort of “competition” between businesses. For example, in Recife, one of the warmest capitals in the country year round, after the local government had promised to provide air conditioning in the entire bus fleet after the 2014 World Cup, there was no bid at all by any of the bus companies to improve their buses — cartel bus companies simply refused to take part in the public bid. In Rio de Janeiro, comically, the local government pulled around 25% of the bus fleet so that it would actually “comply” with the goal of having 100% of the buses air-conditioned.

So, there was a collective effort by local governments and established business owners to gain full control over public transportation in the country. The current system of rising costs and ever-falling quality came about with the destruction of the previous, relatively competitive system. None of these consequences were unexpected — they’re the natural result of monopoly.

This iron fisted control of public transit in the capitals allowed the government to establish a virtually unassailable system of monopoly rents, and has also forced urban sprawl. Given the under-supply of public transportation inherent to monopoly, the cost of using it in densely populated areas rises (especially since they are always crowded), forcing  suburban growth and an increase in the bus routes out of the city centers — such lines evidently will have to be subsidized by the government, since they can’t cover the costs of operation, but can’t be supplied by anyone except government authorized companies.

The deteriorating public transportation system also increases the relative value of owning car. More people end up owning cars and traffic jams get even worse. Additionally, car prices become very inelastic — since there are no other comfortable alternatives to private vehicles. Thus, Brazilians witness their relatively not-too-dense cities, with their chaotic and jammed traffic and the most expensive cars in the world.

Oh, and occasionally someone gets killed. Like Harlynton and Camila.

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