Access for All: Rio Street Dwellers Blame Poor Public Transit
Many streetdwellers in Rio de Janeiro could sleep in shelters or at home if public transit were more accessible. Photo via JBOnline.

Many streetdwellers in Rio de Janeiro could sleep in shelters or at home if public transit were more accessible. Photo via JBOnline.

This is the first post in TheCityFix’s series, “Access for All,” about how we can use sustainable transportation development to ensure increased accessibility for poor city dwellers, particularly in developing countries.

As Rio prepares to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, the municipal government is grappling with how to quickly combat poverty and get the city’s street dwellers – with a population estimated at more than 5,000 by Rio’s Municipal Government – off the streets.

Last year Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, launched Operação Choque de Ordem or “Shock of Order” – to try to clean up Rio’s streets and combat “urban disorder.” The hard-line operation has been criticized, however, for focusing on Rio’s touristy southern zone and merely trying to herd streetdwellers out of central areas like Ipanema and Copacabana, and therefore, out of view of international visitors. Often, the city brings street dwellers to overcrowded public shelters in less bustling parts of the city; most leave the shelters almost immediately.

A more promising step toward actually helping Rio’s street dwellers lead more fulfilling lives has been Brazil’s Social Development Ministry’s (MDS) push to get street dwellers enrolled in Bolsa Familia (Family Grant), Brazil’s world-renowned program that provides the country’s poorest families with monthly subsidies for keeping kids in school and properly vaccinated. This will be logistically difficult, but it could be one important step toward relieving the street dwellers’ condition and restoring their basic human rights.

After all, by now  most organizations and agencies working on urban poverty reduction recognize that poverty is not just a matter of low income, but a deprivation of a broad range of needs and capabilities that should be considered human rights: nutrition, shelter, basic sanitation, personal security, health, education,  economic opportunities, along with more qualitative measures of people’s ability to achieve self-fulfillment and personal advancement.

Turns out, accessibility to the people and places providing these services, including schools, hospitals, and economic centers, is a crucial aspect of restoring these basic human rights to the poorest urbanites in Rio and other large cities in Brazil and around the world.

And Rio’s street dwellers appear to be staying in the streets in places like Ipanema and Copacabana to gain accessibility to such services and opportunities.


In Brazil, unfortunately,  Curitiba’s world-renowned transit-oriented development has been the exception, rather than the rule, across the 15 cities in the country with more than a million people. Most large Brazilian cities have developed in a car-centric (even helicopter-centric) manner, favoring the country’s highly unequal and quickly motorizing middle class, thus contributing to an “urban divide.”

So there is a latent, urgent demand for accessibility – for good public transit – which could be the answer to Rio’s and other cities’ attempts to combat poverty and help ensure that people stay in homes or shelters, not in the streets.

Last week, Marcus Quintella, a transport engineer and director of the Brazilian Urban Train Company, reported that a large number of Rio’s street dwellers refuse to stay in public shelters because of the long distances and poor transit from the shelters to their sources of income.

For example, security guard Jorge Luís da Silva, 30, told the Jornal do Brasil – Online that it is impossible for him to pay for daily public transportation from a shelter on Governor’s Island, in the northern part of the city, to his workplace in Copacabana. So he sleeps in the street.

Similar stories abound, across age groups and professions. Innumerable workers do not have the ability to pay for public transit from their home/shelter to their workplace and back; others come from places that public transit doesn’t reach. They prefer, then, to sleep in the city’s center and southern zone, rather than in more sturdy (albeit slum) dwellings or city shelters.

It’s time for cities in developing countries to start seeing urban accessibility as a matter of poverty reduction and restoring basic human rights to their residents. As Quintella wrote, the effective eradication of poverty in Brazil ought to start with the implementation of transport projects that produce real social, economic, environmental and human benefits for the entire population.

Now, with the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games, Rio and other Brazilian cities should embrace the moment to develop better public transit systems that improve accessibility for low-income residents. TheCityFix will be following developments toward this end in Brazil in the coming months.

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