A Deep Look Into Brazilian Public Transport

Let me take you on a ride through the Brazilian public transport system.

But first things first: To get a good understanding of the country’s public transportation system, we must first understand the country’s social, economic, and political context.

A research paper authored by Lars Friberg dubbed Innovative Solutions for Public Transport; Curitiba, Brazil, would be an excellent place to start.

The report gives a detailed overview of important factors that currently influence public transport in the country.

The paper observes that during the last 50 years, Brazil, just like any other country in South America, has witnessed rapid urbanization. The report notes that many of the country’s citizens leave the rural areas in droves and troop to urban areas searching for a better living.

This influx of people into urban areas from the countryside coupled with the already growing population in these areas, the report notes, has culminated into a growth of 5% per annum.

Away from migration, politics is also an important factor. The report notes widespread corruption in the country has directly impacted the ability of the Brazilian government to deliver essential public transport services, which includes a functioning public transport system.

Another paper published by the World Bank dubbed Boosting Quality of Urban Transport Service in São Paulo offers a different perspective, albeit focusing on the most populous city in the country — Sao Paulo.

The report notes that in the 1990s, the São Paulo Metropolitan Region (SPMR) was facing unprecedented challenges resulting from rural-urban migration.

According to the report, the unregulated urban sprawl led to various public transport challenges such as traffic congestion, more time spent on travel, and more vehicle ownership leading to massive air pollution and accidents.

On the other hand, the lack of integration of the public transport sector became a huge problem, especially for poor people.

What is Public Transport Like Now?

Now that we have learned the context of public transport in Brazil, the next obvious question is: What is public transport in the country like?

Although buses are the most dominant and most popular mode of transport across the country, light rails, taxis, and subways are options for citizens in major cities like Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Porto Alegre.

Multiple sources indicate that Brazil has a limited network of train coverage. According to Expat Arrivals, most railways have been set aside for cargo transportation, although there are a few tourist-oriented routes.

With this in mind, let’s look at the different modes of public transport in Brazil.

Bus Transport

As stated earlier, bus transport is the most common mode of transportation in the country.

According to data shared by the Brazil Business, bus transport accounted for 86% of the Brazilian public transport market share in 2014.

The publication attributed the high number to an increase in the number of buses as well as the quality of services available in buses

Because bus transport is the most affordable mode of movement, especially for low-income citizens, public transport authorities have mooted rethinking bus routes.

This ensures that they prioritize the needs of the people who depend on them the most – the low-earning population.

Recently, the formulation of public transport policy has greatly been influenced by the proliferation of traffic jams in Brazilian cities.

The bus models adopted in Brazil are structured such that it is easy for a commuter to identify the destination a specific bus is scheduled for. The major traffic routes are shown on an electronic display mounted at the front top of the bus.

On the side of the bus, a more detailed bus route is shown on a metal sign complete with five to seven of the major traffic routes that the bus passes through.

Passengers board buses via the front doors before paying the fare to a ticket collector.

When a passenger reaches their destination, they can exit the bus through the back doors.


The purchase/acquisition of e-tickets for public transport has been unified in Brazil’s major cities, including Sao Paulo, Brasilia, and Rio de Janeiro. This makes it easier to use public transport as they primarily operate on a credit basis, which means a commuter tops their card up and can use it multiple times until it runs out of credits.

A positive aspect about Brazilian public transport is that authorities in the country are aware of the need to make its facilities inclusive of sections of the society with special needs like disabled people, senior citizens, and children as highlighted below.

  • Children below five years are exempted from paying fare as long as they share a seat with a parent or guardian.
  • Senior citizens above the age of 65 are also exempted from paying fare as long as they provide documentation.
  • Seating priority is given to certain groups of people, including disabled people, people above the age of 65, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and overweight people.

Brazil has observed technological trends in public transport and has rightfully integrated the use of Big Data in its operations and decision making.

According to a media report published by ZD NET, the Sao Paulo city government, in February 2015, started trialling Big Data to improve the management of bus fleets of 15,000 vehicles by leveraging data analytics.

The project financed by the World Bank used technology designed by Google-backed US-based startup Urban Engines, which under the terms of the deal, provided São Paulo’s public transit authority SPTrans with a detailed view of the fleet and their ridership on a real-time basis.

Sao Paulo turned to Big Data because managing buses in the city was resource-consuming, and handling data that included arrival and departure times and operational details was proving to be a nightmare.

The dashboard produced by the Urban Engines system is fed with travelcard and GPS equipment data gathered from July to September 2013 and provides minute-by-minute information of where buses are located, vehicle capacity and how many passengers have boarded in each stop.

ZD NET Report

Light Rail Transport

Rio de Janeiro is the only Brazilian city with operational light rail lines.

The light rail system in Rio links the lower part of Rio and the Port Region via six lines and some 42 stations. The light rail stops in key areas like the Novo Rio Bus Terminal, Centro do Brasil, and Santos Dumont local airport.

  • Line 1 connects towns such as Praça Mauá and Cordeiro de Graça with Praça Santo Cristo and Cidade do Samba while line 2 runs all the way to Cidade do Samba.   
  • Lines 3 and 4 link Central with Santos Dumont Airport and Cinelandia.
  • Line 5 runs from Media Village and stops at Nabuco de Freitas, São Diogo, and Baron of Mauá before terminating at Central.
  • Line 6 links Cidade do Samba 2 with Media Village.

Brasilia, the capital city, has sadly seen plans to develop a light rail system derailed by corruption allegations.

A contract to develop a light rail system in Brasilia was cancelled in November 2012. Local media accused the federal district’s governor of conspiring with a powerful bus lobby to frustrate plans to set up a light rail system.

On a different note, similar to how Big Data is being used in other modes of transport, Brazilian Light Rail has been a big beneficiary of the effectiveness that accrues from applying this technology.

A report authored by European Union Agency for Railways dubbed Big Data in Railways (not specific to Brazil) notes that Big Data is helping railway authorities make informed decisions after analyzing data.

According to the CSM for Monitoring, data has to be collected and then analysed. An action plan should be defined whenever the analysis shows that targets are not met or that something in the system is not working according to the specifications. Decisions are therefore based on information extracted from the data collected during the monitoring process. The higher is the volume and accuracy of the information, the more effective the decision could be.

EU Report: Big Data in Railways


According to a travel guide by Global Exchange, Brazil has the most subways/underground train facilities in South America.

The country’s main cities, Sao Paulo, Río de Janeiro, Puerto Alegre, Salvador, and Fortaleza, all have underground systems.

One notable aspect of Brazilian subway systems is that they cover a limited area of each city when contrasted with most European subway systems. For instance, Rio de Janeiro’s two underground lines don’t cover the whole city.

But on the brighter side, they work seamlessly and are comfortable. They are also a good bet to move from tourist attractions such as Ipanema and Copacabana to the city centre.

Commuters can choose combined tickets that are used together with buses and the SuperVia, a rapid transit train service.

Additionally, Brazilian metros are cleaner than buses, and commuters do not have to be caught up in traffic congestion at all.

The use of Big Data is also visible in Brazilian subway transport as well. The incorporation of Big Data in the country’s subway transport is informed by the insatiable desire to keep improving, to collect data and to build on the passenger experience.

One of the ways Big Data is being used in Brazilian subways is perfectly captured by a media report by ZDNet that observed that in April 2018, Sao Paulo Metro started installing “Interactive Doors” that read the faces of commuters.

The technology involved fitting doors with screens that play two functions: collecting data and running commercials.

The doors are also fitted with lenses and sensors that collect data such as the number of people standing in front of the doors as well as facial expressions that could suggest four types of emotions: happiness, dissatisfaction, and surprise, as well as emotional neutrality.

ZDNET Report

Taxi Transport

Taxis are a common means of transport in Brazilian cities. This mode is mostly affordable, reliable, and safe.

Taxis look different depending on the city. They are yellow in Rio de Janeiro, orange in Curitiba and white in Sao Paulo.

Brazilian taxis vary in colour depending on the city. In Rio they are yellow, in Curitiba, they are Orange and white in Sao Paulo
Brazilian taxis vary in colour depending on the city. They are yellow in Rio, orange in Curitiba, and white in Sao Paulo. {Image Source: Iunera montage}

Taxi transport is confined to cities, and taxis rarely move outside cities because bus transport is cheaper for inter-city and long-distance travel.

Most taxis in Brazil use meters, but fares vary from city to city. But beware, some operate illegally and sometimes overcharge riders.

Water Taxis

Although water taxis are not found in many places across Brazil, two regions rely heavily on boat transport: The Western Coastal area around Sao Luis (a city located North East of Brazil) and the Amazon region.

It is possible to take a ride in a boat up the Amazon River and travel all the way to Venezuela or Peru. These rides, however, are notoriously slow and long, but one advantage is that they are cheap.

At the current rate, it is likely in ten years that taxi transport in Brazil will completely be different because of the gains that have materialized using Big Data.

A report authored by the International Transport Forum dubbed Big Data and Transport: Understanding and Assessing Options shows that Big Data is being used to facilitate ride-sharing to cut down on air pollution caused by emissions from too many cars on the road.

Reducing the number of taxi trips would lead to dramatic reductions in air pollution and traffic congestion. In the analysis performed by the MIT SENSEable City Lab, substantial benefits were observed in triple trip sharing models over double trip sharing. Logically, the environmental gains associated with reducing the number of taxi trips by a factor of 3 are greater than those achieved by reducing by a factor of 2. However, trip sharing equates to longer wait times at pick-up points and less direct routes to individual destinations. The viability of the triple trip sharing solution depends largely on patient customers.

REPORT: Big Data and Transport: Understanding and Assessing Options

Big Data and a Dream

What if a scientist developing the next big thing has a dim view of relocating to a major city in Brazil like Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro because they are discouraged by traffic congestion and environmental pollution.

What if cracking their invention hinges on working with other talented scientists working in a major city. After all, cities are hubs where professionals can easily find the tools they need to do their work.

Scientists work with evidence, so what if we could show this particular one there is a sustainable way to solve public transport challenges.

Their biggest problem at the moment is how public transport can be better.

There are numerous ways Big Data can improve public transport including; enhancing punctuality, curbing the spread of diseases such as COVID-19 through studying occupancy data, analysing the demand for public transport routes and stamping out recurring delays.

Currently, Big Data is at the centre of every attempt to improve public transport.

There are tonnes of evidence to prove that.