Transformative roads: Three Brazilian cities toward sustainable transport

A wave of sustainable mobility is reshaping urban public transport in Brazil. From São Paulo’s shift to electric buses to the search for integrated urban transportation planning in Belém and Porto Alegre, explore how these cities contribute to a greener journey.

São Paulo, pioneering sustainable mobility

This is not just any city. It’s a “megacity” with a population of over 12 million. Like any other metropolis in the world, São Paulo has a transportation challenge as big as its size: Every day, 7 million people use public transport from home to work or school, back and forth. The journey takes them about two hours, and that’s when there is no traffic. In addition, the high demand for public buses contributes to 61% of greenhouse gas emissions. “In such a big city, we can not change the transport matrix, but what we can change instead is the energy matrix that feeds it,” says Edson Aparecido, Secretary of São Paulo City Hall.

São Paulo -which is hosting ICLEI’s World Congress next year- has been a pioneer in Latin America for a while. It introduced its Sustainability Action Plan in 2008. It reaffirmed its commitment to zero-emission through its 2021-2024 Goals Program, an ambitious 25 million-dollar program to adopt cleaner buses (2,600 e-buses by 2024). The city also banned new diesel buses aiming to cut pollutant emissions by 50% in 2028, in line with its Climate Law.

New bus corridors were built to decrease passenger transit time. The city amplified the mobility network with trams and bicycle lanes, a means of transport that São Paulo officially recognized as a city’s key piece of the transportation system. The city is also working on a project to build water transportation terminals in southern São Paulo, aiming to cut the two-hour ride from there to downtown. “Talking about sustainable transportation is not only about changing the energy matrix. This is about an even larger matrix that cuts across the environment, equity and justice, gender and race, and education. For São Paulo, that is the meaning of quality of life,” reflects Rodrigo Ravena, Environment Secretary of São Paulo City Hall.

Belém’s ambitions

With a population exceeding 1.4 million, Belém is the largest city in the Amazonian region, intricately connected to the river that shares its name. A unique challenge arises from two-thirds of its residents living across 39 islands, making transportation a complex task. “While most mayors seek resources for school buses, in Belém, most students rely on boats,” reveals Edmilson Rodrigues, Mayor of Belém and President of the Amazon Cities Forum. Presently, the city operates 35 boats and a fleet of 20 buses for student transportation, but persistent daily rains pose an additional hurdle, requiring constant upkeep of roads, houses, and buildings.

The host of COP30 in 2025, Belém is enhancing public infrastructure with support from Multilateral Development Banks, which includes the acquisition of 20 electric buses. Guided by ICLEI, the city is actively crafting an urban sustainable agenda, conducting analyses of vulnerabilities, and creating an inventory of CO2 emissions. Mayor Edmilson Rodrigues emphasizes, “Sharing good practices and respecting the knowledge of traditional communities can help us conserve natural resources while fostering socioeconomic development in our city.” 

Porto Alegre sustainable urban planning

In Porto Alegre, the transport sector contributes to 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, with public transport accounting for 12%. Amidst the challenges posed by climate change, characterized by more frequent heat waves and heavy rains, the city is actively addressing these issues through strategic initiatives.

One key focus is the procurement of electric buses to mitigate emissions from public transport. Simultaneously, the city is also considering urbanization as a way to improve its public transport, reduce its related emissions and adapt to climate change. For instance, they are Investing in urban water drainage projects as part of a comprehensive urban sustainability plan to deal with floods. 

However, Porto Alegre encounters a unique challenge in urban planning — the geographical spread of the urban population. This dispersion contributes to increased transportation usage and longer commutes. To address this issue, the city is formulating policies to regulate the real estate sector, compelling them to disclose the number of parking spaces assigned per resident. “New developments often require extensive parking space, and as these areas become scarce within the city, developers move to more distant locations, exacerbating transportation demands,” explains Germano Bremm, Secretary of Environment, Urbanism, and Sustainability at Porto Alegre City Hall.

In pursuing sustainable urban development, Porto Alegre is proactively tackling these issues to foster a greener and more resilient future. In achieving these goals, Bremm concludes, “Sustainable public mobility strategies demand reshaping our current policies, considering people’s movement within the city and our ability to adapt to the new reality of climate change. In this context, urban planning should directly result from comprehensive ideological, social, economic, and environmental perspectives.”


*This blog was written based on ICLEI’s COP28 session “Sustainable transformation: Public transport in São Paulo.” You can watch the livestream here.

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