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Patrícia Cornils | The Black Box of Public Tranportation

Source: Brasilianas

City hall needs to publish the numbers — the cost spreadsheets and contractual conditions — of its contracts with the bus companies that service the city of São Paulo.

By Patrícia Cornils

On June 13, just a few hours before the state military police ambushed and bombarded citizens in the streets, the city administration released the results of a public consultation.

The document dealt with information to be used in setting the terms for the auction of new public transport contracts.  According to Exame magazine, these will be the largest contracts in city history. The two sets  of contracts (one for companies that will operate 15,000 buses and another for the operators of 7,000 vans) add up to R$ 46.3 billion, a sum superior to the entire city budget for 2013 — R$42 billion.

São Paulo’s public transport system is expensive and shows plentiful signs of breakdown. Those who live daily with these congested tides of humanity, funneled through corridors with no exits and enclosed behind  grating laid down by Metro and CPTM employees to try to bring order to the chaos, truly understand the risk and wasted resources the situtation represents. “The right to sit down” (ha! ha!) is the demand painted on one placard in a march held on June 20 in Recife, calling for cheaper, better public transport. The same goes for São Paulo.

The fact is that R$ 3.20 to ride the bus system and Metrô is quite expensive in relation to the minimum salary. It is also a fact that deciding to offer free public transport, as the Free Pass Movement demands, would force the city to divert money  from other areas.  But what money is this? How much? Mayor Haddad says it would cost R$ 6 bilhões. But how are we to know that this is the real cost? How do we know if it is worth investing this amount?

The mayor of São Paulo should open the books on transportation in the city.  Open up the cost accounting. Explain why fares have risen faster than inflation since 1994.  Demonstrate how the system works, who runs it and who profits from it. It is unacceptable to argue on budgetary grounds without revealing the detailed data.  It is unacceptable to debate public transport without confronting the fact that the model used in the city — which privileges private autos — has immense costs of its own, in investments and time spent in maintaining the qualilty of auto traffic, as well as the cost of accidents and … the fares paid by passengers.

It is possible to adapt this model to make it fairer and more accessible for users. Over time, however, these problems remain painfully obvious. The Bilhete Único — single pay, multiple rides — system is a very significant conquest, but who can show me that the concessionaires, who have received fare hikes outpacing inflation since 1994, are not recuperating any profit margins temporarily lost along the way. Do these companies have high profit margins? I have no idea. I have no access to their accounts. And if the companies want us to believe that their investments are not repaid, even though they offer lousy service to a huge captive user base, they should open their books and show us.  And if they could prove this, that would be more evidence that the system doesn’t work.

Contrary to what the mayor says, there is no “traditional dialogue” with the Free Pass Movement.  Not the kind of dialogue in which representatives of the street movement sit around a table and decide what to do. First of all, the movement is horizontal. There is no sound truck. There is no central figure, no microphone: the movement belongs to each and every person on the street.  Secondly, because the São Paulo demonstrations — Monday’s will be larger — massively outnumbered the brave militants of the Free Pass Movement. During the Kassab administration, when no one was marching in the streets and the official line used the term “vacating” public areas of the city, it was FPM that was in the streets demanding free public transport.

It is imperative to dialogue with the ideas these young people are bringing to the table.  It is imperative to dialogue with the city. The first step would be to reveal and debate, transparently, how,how much and based on what budget accounts the city administration plans to sign “the largest contracts in its history.” There is not a single item on the city Web site instructing citizens on how to participate in this debate.


This is not quite true: Each city secretariate has its own transparency page, with info on public consultations. It could use the attentions of  an information architect, to be sure.

And city hall has taken not a single step in this direction.  Since 2011, members of the Transparência Hacker community have been asking SPTrans for the georeferenced data of bus lines, stops and routes to be used in creating apps such as Cruzalinhas. Nothing. SPTrans supplies this information to Google, but is unable to organize a system in which developers and citizens can freely access the data.  No principal city in Brazil has been able to do so, so far. Why?

On Sunday, Transparência Hacker will hold a Transparência Hackday for Public Transport, in São Paulo. Hacking a system is understanding how it works and subverting it to serve our own ends.  Transparência HackDay is an event where hackers and activists create and make use of projects based on public data, digital technology, collective intelligence and political action.

In this  edition of the event, we will try to analyze, enter and hack the city’s public transport system. It will be the first of various events of this kind. Visit our Facebook page and see how it works. Also, please send us ideas on the public information we should be asking for from the city and state, under the Access to Information Law, in order to open this black box of public data. Not just financial information on public transport, but also public resources used to put down demonstrations.

The dialogue between the establishment and the citizenry should begin with these facts. It is not a matter of R$ 0.20. It has to do with the right to come and go. …