Traffic in Brazilian cities has become intolerable, but planning rules still require developers to make room for more cars.

To say that São Paulo has a lot of traffic would be an understatement. Fed up with traffic, the city's wealthiest citizens have taken to the air, making São Paulo's helicopter fleet the largest in the world. But for Paulistas who can't launch themselves into the sky every morning, solutions on the ground are urgently needed.

In addition to mass transit improvements, environmentalists and developers have suggested a decidedly less sexy goal: stop forcing builders to accomodate parking for cars that the city's roads can't handle.

A few decades ago Brazil joined a number of developing nations in adopting American-style minimum parking requirements for new developments, even as these so-called parking minimums are falling out of favor in the U.S. While planners seek to make sure everyone who has a car has some place to park it, critics contend that rather than simply making room for those who will inevitably drive, the policies are actively encouraging motorization. Reformers' efforts have yielded tentative signs of change, but the road to reversing Brazil's post-war planning trends may be as tough as a São Paulo traffic jam.

That Brazilian cities even have land use regulation may come as a shock to some. The favelas are the most familiar form of development to many foreigners, and indeed they mostly lie beyond the de facto reach of city planners, along with a lot of middle-class, single-family homes being built on the outskirts. But for the most valuable and accessible downtown properties, zoning codes and building regulations in Brazilian cities are well-enforced.

Brazil has a history of strict urban plans that goes back more than half a century, with the planned capital of Brasília, begun in the mid-1950s, being the most prominent example. Designed at the height of modernist planning theory, it eschewed the pedestrian-and-transit-oriented trappings of other cities. The city was originally envisioned by chief planner Lucio Costa as being without sidewalks or stoplights on the main boulevards, and the abundance of cloverleaf intersections testifies to the city's original planners favoring of motor traffic over all else.

Unlike Brasília, São Paulo was not built from scratch by planners, but it has nevertheless acquired a thicket of building regulations. All the usual suspects are there – limits on building height and bulk, for example – along with a few that don't even exist in the United States, like a requirement for fireproof elevators in tall buildings.


The Esther Building, completed in downtown São Paulo 1938, was the city's first large building with a dedicated parking garage.

Among the urban regulations that Brazilian cities share with American ones are minimum parking requirements. In São Paulo, the requirement is generally one space per apartment in residential developments, and one space per 35 square meters in commercial buildings. At about one space for every 375 square feet, the commercial requirement is lower than that of many North American suburbs, where requirements of one parking space for every 200 square feet are not uncommon.  But for a dense urban center serving a mostly car-less population, many believe the requirements are detrimental to growth.

While Brazilian cities have a reputation for auto orientation, Alejandra Devecchi, a project manager and environmental planner at global engineering and architecture firm AECOM, says that the vast majority of trips are not made with individual motor vehicles. In the greater São Paulo metropolitan region, home to 20 million people and the country's most extensive transit network, only 30 percent of all trips are made with private automobiles. And yet, Devecchi notes, We can easily see that much of the public space is designed for automobiles, shifting costs to the general public, carless though the average Paulista may be.

Residential builders in São Paulo – at least the ones operating under the watch of city planners – tend to build only for the wealthy, who demand lots of parking even absent the regulation, but retail developers often find their projects stymied by the city's parking requirements. But one São Paulo commercial developer, who wished to remain anonymous because she wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said that it's common for newly built malls to have as much space dedicated to parking as to actual leasable retail area.

Asked if developers are okay with providing so much parking, she replied, No, they are not happy, but it is what it is. It's the status quo, and no one questions it anymore.

And the requirements are not always predictable. Large projects in São Paulo, classified as traffic-generating centers, fall under the jurisdiction of the city's Traffic Engineering Company, which has the power to analyze individual projects and override the statutory parking requirements, usually requiring more parking than the standard formula for smaller projects.

One of the reasons often given for Brazil's parking minimums is that unlike large cities in developed nations, the transit infrastructure in Brazilian cities leaves much to be desired. And while it's true that São Paulo lacks the transit capacity of, say, New York City, land use decisions still lag behind the transportation investments that are made.

Malls adjacent to metro stations with as many floors of underground parking as above-ground floors of retail are not uncommon in São Paulo, and smaller cities aren't immune. The southern city of Curitiba, for example, was a pioneer in what is now known as bus rapid transit, in which dedicated lanes and pre-boarding fare payment allow for faster speeds and more reliable service than buses in mixed traffic, but without the capital expensive of laying rail.

The system has been wildly successful in attracting Curitibans to transit and has been emulated across the world, but, as Christopher Ziemann found during his research in Curitiba in 2005, regulations weren't updated to reflect the improved transit network. Curitiba adopted minimum parking requirements similar to most U.S. cities, Ziemann wrote, even along BRT lines.

There are, however, tentative signs that change may be coming. In a study completed in 2011 on the historical evolution of parking relative to building size in Brazil's largest city, Hamilton de França Leite, Jr. and his colleagues at the University of São Paulo found that the proportion of space dedicated to parking in residential buildings may have peaked around 2001, when for every two square meters of private apartment space built, one square meter of parking was included. The researchers found that the amount of parking fell slightly until the middle of the decade, but that after 2006, it resumed its upward trajectory.

And while many planners and architects said they've seen no change, the mall developer said that for the first time in her 15 years building in the city, the Traffic Engineering Co. eased up on the original parking requirement. But when asked if she thought it was an enduring trend, she hedged, saying, It's too soon to say that things are definitely changing.