Lately, everybody seems to be stuck on – if not stuck in – traffic.
Last week, jaws dropped across the planet when global media reported on the surreal, 5-day, super snarl  that had brought cars and trucks to a halt on the Chinese highway leading from Beijing to North China’s Hebei province. And this week, my Moon.com colleague, Christopher P. Baker , wrote about the new traffic laws  being adopted in various Central and South American countries in an attempt to curtail rising urban congestion. Baker described legislation known as the “pico y placa” (rush hour and license plate) law whereby private vehicles are only permitted on the streets during specified days and hours, based on the last digit of their license plates.
As South America’s largest city (20 million and rising), São Paulo  is no stranger to such laws; in fact, the city’s so-called “rodízio” (“rotation”) system – in which odd and even-numbered license plates alternate days on the road (between 7-10am and 5-8pm) – dates back to 1997. Unfortunately, the law hasn’t had much of an effect; recently, Sampa was a shoe-in finalist for a Foreign Policy round-up of “The World’s Worst Traffic .” In the report – which focused on five global cities where “soul crushing gridlock is a way of life” - the Brazilian city’s “claim to fame” was the great engarrafamento of 2008. Measuring 165 miles, it set a record as the world’s longest traffic jam.
Trying to live down such fame hasn’t proved easy for city officials. Other measures aimed at easing the gridlock – such as creating exclusive bus lanes and extending the limited Metrô lines – have done little to make a dent in daily jams that often reach 100 miles in length and leave workers with daily commutes of between 2 to 4 hours every day. (On the upside, cell phone operators and street vendors – who weave between cars, hawking everything from CDs and newspapers to snacks and icy beer – are doing brisk business as are the many helicopter taxis that shuttle members of the country’s tycoon class to and from the city’s many rooftop helipads).
São Paulo may receive all the media attention, but other Brazilian cities have increasingly terrible traffic as well. Rush hours in Rio de Janeiro  can be long and brutal, especially during the dog days of summer. And Salvador , which five years ago didn’t even have such a thing as rush hour, is falling prey to serious congestion of its own along main arteries and in the center of town.
Lack of urban planning combined with woefully inadequate investment in alternative transportation systems are largely to blame as are city centers whose narrow streets are often a legacy of colonial times and simply can’t support 21rst-century traffic. However, another major factor is the incredible economic boom that Brazil has been enjoying over the last five years. The fact that so many Brazilians (an estimated 110 million) can now afford to buy cars has resulted in a massive and clearly perceptible increase of vehicles on the road. And there’s no sign of a slow-down: between 2008 and 2009 – in the midst of the global recession – auto sales throughout the country jumped by 11 percent and, this year, they’re expected to rise by another 10 percent.
Big city traffic can have major side effects for travelers as well. You should definitely take it into serious consideration if you’re contemplating renting a car in either Rio or São Paulo. (Generally speaking, I think renting a car is much more advantageous for getting from big cities to the surrounding countryside or hard-to-reach beaches than for tooling around town itself, aside from traffic, city driving can be a hassle due to poor signage, one-way streets, and security issues.)
Even if you don’t rent a car, rush hour traffic (particularly in these two cities) is a factor you need to keep in mind when you’re planning your day or making your way to an airport or bus station. This applies to taking public transportation as well (while buses can get stuck, Metrôs in both cities can get frighteningly crowded). Taxis are often the often the best bet during rush hour since drivers usually know all the ins-and-outs and shortcuts necessary – (not to mention some daring, even illegal, driving manoeuvers) - to get you where you’re going as quickly as possible.
Ultimately, you don’t want to waste hours of precious vacation time stuck in a jam when you could be doing something productive such as being sprawled on a beach.