Monday, September 2, 2013

Safe in São Paulo Part IV: Taxi and Public Transportation

Entrance to metro station, São Paulo: in reality, it's usually a lot more crowded!

Last week Born Again Brazilian and I discussed avoid crime while driving, parking or using a car. But what if you decide not to drive (because we scared you so much…)? Like any city, you have options for getting across town other than hoofing it.


In the central neighborhoods of the city, you’ll notice that on nearly every corner there is a ponto de taxi. These taxi stands are owned and operated by the taxi drivers you will see stopped there. Each taxi driver bought into the ponto, some more than 20 years ago; they maintain it and only they can park there. That’s why you might find that some stands have a television, a comfortable bench and some even host a small garden. The drivers put in those luxuries.

Using your local taxi stand is our best advice for taking taxis. You can even call them from your house or apartment and they will pick you up at your door. You can also often set a time for a trip to the airport, or to get kids to school. The main reason for our recommendation is safety. You will get to know these drivers and they will get to know you.  Many will give you their personal cards with their own cell phone numbers.

Once I forgot my passport at home while flying out of the national airport—they would not accept my US driver’s license as ID (obviously!! Blonde moment). I called the local taxi stand near my house, and the taxi driver there, a Japanese-Brazilian man who had an old black and white photo of his daughter stuck in the rear view mirror (this was in 1998 and I still remember the guy) passed by my house, picked up the passport from the house sitter and brought it to me at Congonhas airport.

Remember, though, if you use taxis on a regular basis that you want to vary routine, as in anything you do here. Use a different stand once in a while, change up the time of day that you go.  If you have flagged a taxi from the street and you are not completely comfortable with the driver, ask to be let off early near another taxi stand. Or have the taxi stop in front of the next building or house down from where you are actually going.

Flagging a taxi off the street can be hazardous. More than 20% of taxis in Sao Paulo are non-registered. As in not legal. You won’t necessarily be able to tell:  the cars are white with taxi symbols on them. Not all of the non-registered ones are bad guys. But how would you know? 

In reality, there is not much to fear from taxi drivers, other than possibly being taken for a ride (which is why you should always print out a map of where you are going if you are unfamiliar with the route). They also have reason for security concerns; they obviously have a stash of cash on their persons.  Talking with my taxi driver this morning, he told me that he has been robbed three times by someone getting into his taxi, asking to be taken to a “community” (favela or one step up) and then being robbed there. He will not anymore take people to a community called São Remo, or to the neighborhood of Grajaú. So they have their own worries.

For an added level of security, you can use one of the phone applications out now to order a car. Not only is this convenient, but you have record of who your driver is with all his work details. You can also track their route on their way to you, which means you are not waiting on some dark street corner. The one that is most popular with the taxi drivers is 99Taxis because they do not have to pay a fixed fee per trip, but there are many others including EasyTaxi and Taxijá. If you are going to use these apps, please make sure not to stand out on the street corner staring at your iPhone. You will be a target.

And to make the obvious point, don’t take out your laptop or iPad or iPhone and be playing around with it in the back seat of the taxi. It is not bulletproof. Those motoboys passing by will be looking into the taxis as well and they will hold you up at the next traffic light or convenient spot. Put your purse under your legs, and be aware of who is passing by the car, and put away the cell phone.  Smash and grab is as easy in a taxi as it is in a car. The taxi driver this morning also said to me that he is unhappy to take anyone carrying a laptop case in his car—people watching the pontos in front of large commercial buildings can see who is getting into which taxi with what. Then they can just call ahead to their buddy on the motorbike. Laptop cases should not exist  in São Paulo. I’m assuming we don’t have to review the need NOT to wear flashy jewelry or watches in the backseat of your taxi.

A final note on airport taxis. Guarucoop is the taxi cooperative at the international airport in São Paulo. While the taxi company itself is highly reliable, they use cars that are distinctive—white with blue stripes and the name Guarucoop on the side. While the crime is less common now than in last years, these taxis can be followed by bad guys all the way from the airport.  The probability of netting expensive electronics is higher when they rob an airport taxi. Think about it. Be alert.

Public transportation


You also have the option of using public transportation in São Paulo. My experience thus far with the subway system has been pretty positive. Most stations are large, well lit, well organized and clean. While the system is limited compared to other large cities, it can get you to most of the central neighborhoods of São Paulo, as well as a few of the outlying areas. And as the fare is R$3 (roughly US$1.50), it is an economical alternative to the taxi.

Some other advice would be to avoid carrying any laptop, or if you must, secure it in a backpack rather than a laptop case. We would also suggest getting a “bilhete unico” or stored value card that you can use to get on all public transportation in São Paulo. These are available at all metro and train stations, bus stations (the big ones, not the bus stops) and even the lotéricas (the lottery stores that sell stamps, bingo cards, etc). The best part of registering your bilhete unico is that if you lose it or it is stolen, you can cancel it (it is registered to your cpf number). For visitors, this benefit is not for you: you do not have a cpf.

If you do have to carry cash, and buy your ticket at the metro station, make sure you keep an eye on who is keeping an eye on you. There are folks watching where you put your wallet or change for a R$50 bill. Carry the minimum cash you can.


The city bus is the wave of the future here in São Paulo, and the future is now. The mayor of São Paulo, Haddad, has followed through on promises to make it bus “ueber alles.” In the last few weeks, he has put in dedicated bus lanes that have made commute times easily an hour faster for those who take the bus over those who do the same route in a car. Haddad particularly likes bus over metro and train because it is easy to change bus lanes and stops according to population growth in certain areas or commercial areas moving from south to north. You can’t move a train track and they cost a lot of money to build.

Our experience with bus travel is fairly limited. They are complicated in routing and there are no signs or maps on the bus stops. It is impossible to “work out” where you are going while you are on the trip. We highly recommend discovering your routing before you leave home by looking here. I have also arrived at a bus stop and asked people waiting there how to get somewhere and had excellent help. I speak fluent Portuguese though, so you might not want to attempt that if you won’t be able to understand the response.

One of the best and funniest write-ups on how to take a bus in São Paulo is available from a fellow blogger The Book is On the Table.  We are going to concentrate on how to take a bus from the perspective of safety.

So let’s just look at some of the precautions you should take when you are on a bus.

  1. Know where you are going.
  2. Leave valuables including cash, jewelry and watches at home. Try to carry exact  change or the bilhete unico (stored value card).
  3. If you must carry a purse or backpack, keep it in front of you and a hand on it. See my post on distract-and-grab tactics here.
  4. Try not to travel at rush hour times. Know the Police song about being packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes? Yes.
  5. While waiting at the bus stop, stay alert. If someone is approaching you with purpose, move into a group of people. Do not be looking at your iphone at the bus stop. Do we need to say that again?  No.
  6. While on the bus, stay alert.

As of now, we know of no good apps to find appropriate buses and routing. But it’s a matter of time. We will update as we go.

Public transportation should not be something you fear in São Paulo. In general, it is taken by hard-working, working class folks and at the end of the day, they just want to get home. Public transportation is not dangerous in a hold-up kind of way most of the time, but in pick-pocketing.  This is no different from any city in the world.

Private buses

Just a quick final word about the private bus system that is available in Brazil. There are many intercity buses which are extremely comfortable (some boasting sleeper seats) to get to cities from 2-10 hours away. Or more, if you really enjoy being showerless for 24 hours. There is no such thing as Amtrak, but the buses are impressively clean, on-time and efficient.  Things to remember if you take intercity buses:

1.  The rodoviarias or bus terminals are criminal dens. The ones at Barra Funda and Tiete. Seriously. My Brazilian husband was distracted by one person asking directions while the guy’s accomplice was stealing his laptop case from on top of his roll-aboard suitcase. Be more than alert at the bus station. I would recommend talking to no one, and being helpful to no one. Suppress your need to help even if it seems to be a nice person asking for assistance.

2.  Remember if traveling with children they will need to be carrying an ID that shows you are the parents. If you are traveling as a single parent, you will need to have a notarized letter authorizing travel by the stay-home parent. It is a law, and it is there to stop the vibrant market in child trafficking.  This is true of inter-city buses only—on a city bus, feel free to ride around with your kids.

Next week we will be talking about school security.

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