What New York's Transit System Could Learn From São Paulo

São Paulo, the colossus of the southern hemisphere, is plagued by challenges. But one thing the city has managed to get right is its impressive metro system.

With clean stations and swift trains, the system is in many ways a model of modern infrastructure. It is used by everyone, affluent and poor, old and young. To a New Yorker's eye it has startling amenities. Some stations have small public libraries attached so riders can check out a book. Station attendants push those in wheelchairs and give general assistance.

The system isn't perfect. Its biggest challenge is its popularity. The system's four lines carry an astonishing four million a day. By comparison, New York City's 22 lines carry 5.2 million a day. For São Paulo, that means overcrowded trains and platforms, with no air-conditioning to cope with the hot summer.

The Metro has grown as Brazil has boomed in the last decade, along with China, now one of its principal trading partners. Much of this growth has occurred in São Paulo, one the five largest metropolitan areas in the world, with about 20 million people. Per capita income has grown and the middle class is expanding.

Despite this, the city and country remain a place of stark contrasts and inequalities. Downtown isn't considered safe at night, after office workers have retreated to their gated homes far away from the city center. Gleaming new skyscrapers stand near abandoned buildings, decaying sidewalks and a large homeless presence.

Given all this, the metro system stands out as a success, linking very poor and very wealthy neighborhoods. Although the system is limited — those four lines cover 46 miles, compared with New York's 660 miles — it is truly modern. There are automated trains, platform doors, and a frequency of service that make countdown clocks unnecessary. Add in artwork at most stations, retail, active station attendants and a strong police presence, and you have an environment that is not only tolerable but pleasant and convenient.

How has the Metro thrived, given the challenges of its environment? Probably the most important factor is that the transit system is one public service that almost all political factions in the country support. The care and upkeep of the state-owned transit company is a leading issue in São Paulo mayoral and gubernatorial election campaigns and debates. This contrasts with New York state and city, where, despite the fact that millions of people use subway and buses daily, transit issues play less of a role in elections.

This steady base of political support has given Metro managers in São Paulo the resources and confidence to tackle issues that are ignored in New York. To deal with high usage, the transit system has adopted various technologies to make wait time, or 'headways,' some of the shortest in the world — 101 seconds between trains on one of the lines, one that uses driverless trains. Other lines use modern signaling systems, known as Communication-Based Train Control, or CBTC, that also allow for short intervals between trains. The busiest stations are built so that passengers can exit the train on one side and while arriving passengers enter from the other side. At other stations, metal railings on the platforms separate riders who are going into the train from those leaving. Within the trains, the seat closest to the train doors has been removed, so that riders can more easily get in and out without causing delays.

São Paulo also clearly benefits from having a far younger operation than cities such as New York. São Paulo's first subway line opened in 1974; the first phase of the fourth line was completed in 2010.

In addition to technology and design, the Metro also has generous staffing. At busy train stations, platform agents are located at every train door. Station agents also help less mobile passengers find their way around the system. There is a priority boarding car at the front of the train for elderly, pregnant women and the disabled. This system works because other passengers respect this rule, no matter how crowded the other cars are. The staff keep stations clean and safe — the metro has a clean-up policy which requires any dent or piece of gum on the floor to be immediately fixed or removed.

As New York and the region continues to debate over how to care for its much used but stressed system, policy makers and opinion leaders could look south for inspiration.