Changing Commuters’ Choices Helps São Paulo Reduce Traffic Congestion

May 1, 2014


  • World Bank Group “Voluntary Corporate Mobility” pilot programs are designed to help ease gridlock in São Paulo and Mexico City
  • Programs are led by companies to reduce the commuting footprint of their employees
  • Both pilots delivered positive results for partner companies, and municipal officials are reviewing them as models for expanded programs

With 8.5 million motorized vehicles and 100-kilometer-long traffic jams, São Paulo is the sixth most congested city on earth and, like many others facing this problem, is looking for ways to shift rapid motorization to a more sustainable path.

The traffic choking Brazil’s financial center is driven by the city’s rapid economic growth—along with the rest of the country—over the past decade. “Brazil has been booming, and the first thing anyone moving into the middle class thinks about is buying a car,” said Georges Bianco Darido, a senior transport specialist with the World Bank Group. “This means that a lot of people are bringing new vehicles onto the roads, and are adding to the existing congestion.”

 But congestion means productivity losses, wasted fuel, and a health impact of vehicle emissions, São Paulo’s traffic jams alone were estimated to cost $17.8 billion in 2012 – equivalent to almost one percent of Brazil’s GDP.

" Tackling congestion in a city like São Paulo is a long-term process that requires a real partnership between the government and the private sector. The aim of our program was to demonstrate, on a small scale, how this could be achieved. "
Georges Bianco Darido

Georges Bianco Darido

Senior Transport Specialist, The World Bank Group

In recent years, the World Bank Group has taken steps to help São Paulo develop public transport infrastructure, such as providing over $1 billion in investment support to build new metro lines.

However, international experience suggests that while improved public transport services often provide viable alternatives to vehicles, complementary actions are needed to persuade many commuters to leave their cars at home.

In 2011, the Bank Group launched pilot “Voluntary Corporate Mobility” programs in São Paulo and Mexico City to ease traffic congestion in these two mega-cities, while also helping business and municipal organizations identify and adopt new ways of getting people to and from work.

Voluntary Corporate Mobility programs are company-led efforts to reduce the commuting footprint of employees. Common strategies include encouraging people to:

  • Use mass transit and limit their use of single occupancy vehicles
  • Commute during non-peak hours
  • Work remotely from home
  • Use non-motorized modes of transport such as bicycles  

Reducing use of single-occupancy vehicles reduces pollution and carbon emissions, improves traffic flow, and creates energy savings. Despite the two cities’ differences, common lessons emerged from the pilot programs, which were implemented by the World Bank’s Latin America and the Caribbean Transport Unit with funding from the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP)

  • Addressing parking is critical to the success of any voluntary corporate mobility program, as free parking is a subsidy to employees to drive to work. One effective method of reducing vehicle use is offering employees a cash payment in lieu of a free parking space.
  • Municipal and other governments can move beyond being primarily a supplier of transport infrastructure and services to proactively manage transport demand through a range of incentives.   
  • Private sector involvement, including top corporate management, is key to the long-term success of sustainable mobility programs.

 The São Paulo pilot program first focused on an office complex comprising several 20-storey towers, in which over 6,000 people work. “The surrounding roads were extremely congested, as people in their own vehicles arrived at and left their offices,” Darido said. “So we wondered: Can we reduce congestion by helping people explore new options such as switching modes, staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling?”

The pilot was conducted in two major business complexes in the Berrini Avenue district, with 18 companies participating. A transport coordinator for each one developed a “mobility plan” for employees who volunteered. Participants were surveyed on their daily commute and presented with alternative travel plans.  Four months later, a follow-up survey determined if single occupancy vehicle use had declined.

The initial survey of over 1,000 employees from Berrini Avenue-based companies indicated an average single occupancy vehicle rate of 57 percent—a number considerably higher than the São Paulo average—as well as average commute times of 52 minutes each way.

The transport coordinators at each company then guided participants in identifying new ways to commute, or in some cases, to work from home instead. Commuters tried the new options and off-peak travel times. Popular alternatives to drive-alone commutes included the Caronetas carpooling service which matched employees from either the same or nearby companies, telework programs, and reserved parking spaces for a car-sharing program.

A post-pilot follow-up survey found that the companies pursuing voluntary corporate mobility programs could influence the commuting behavior of their employees. Single-occupancy vehicle rates at Toyota, one of the companies located in the Berrini Avenue district, dropped from 51 to 35 percent over the survey period as employees found new ways to commute. At the Brazilian Institute of Corporate Governance, drive-alone commuting rates dropped from 41 to 27 percent as employees began to use a carpooling service, a new telework policy, and subsidized transit passes.

As a result of the pilot program, São Paulo municipal authorities are stepping up their involvement in traffic demand management. In Mexico City, the Environment Secretariat is considering incorporating a corporate mobility element into its broader regulatory framework to manage auto-related air pollution.

Both pilots are similar to work being undertaken by the World Bank and partners to encourage green commuting in Beijing, China.

Darido said the future replication of the pilot scheme would be the ultimate affirmation of its success.

“Tackling congestion in a city like São Paulo is a long-term process that requires a real partnership between the government and the private sector,” he said.

“The aim of our program was to demonstrate, on a small scale, how this could be achieved.”