The Need for Speed: 10 Things You Should Know about Driving in Brasília

First things first. Brasília was designed for cars. According to a recent guidebook on Brasília, the city did not even have stoplights until the 1970s! The city was constructed in the 1960s, which coincided with the rise of the automobile as a modern icon and status symbol. The layout of the city was intended, among other things, to be enjoyed at high speeds from the comfort of one’s private car (O Novo Guia de Brasília, 2015).

The lasting effects of these plans can be felt today. The transportation infrastructure still leaves much to be desired. There is, for example, a subway that runs down the south wing of the city out to the satellite cities, but it is often out of service and not always a reliable means of transportation. Buses remain a complete mystery to me, aside from the fact that I know to get out of their way when they go barreling down the road at break-neck speeds. Modes of transportation are also clear markers of social class: while the affluent possess shiny, expensive cars for almost every household member of driving age, the lower classes are relegated to using the public transportation systems—not unlike D.C and other major US cities.

I spend a good amount of time driving in the city and I admit that this was one of the things that was most difficult for me to grow accustomed to. So let me give you a rundown of driving culture here in Brazil’s capital.

  1. Round-and-round-we-go: The first thing one should know about driving in Brasilia is that almost every intersection is a roundabout, not a four-way stop. Brazilians are pros at roundabouts. They enter and merge seamlessly and somehow always find a way out of them, even if it means darting across two lanes of traffic to get there… However, some roundabouts take you by surprise—by this I mean you don’t even realize they are there and suddenly an oncoming vehicle is taking a left hand turn right in front of you, and you find yourself slamming on your brakes, cursing them out … only to realize that they, in fact, have the right of way.
  2. Thumbs up! Brazilians love giving thumbs up. And in the specific context of driving, I have noticed that this gesture can actually mean a number of things. For example, it can mean “thank you” if someone is helping you back up or if you stop for a pedestrian. But if you’re trying to merge into a lane and you see no possible way of doing so, you can simply roll down your window, stick out your arm and give a thumbs up. And most times it works and you are let it! But I have also seen it be used in a more aggressive manner, á la “I am going to cut you off right now and you are going to be ok with it. Cool? Cool!” Regardless, it is a vital key to driving in the city.
  3. Be polite, don’t beep! Something that struck me when I first arrived was the lack of beeping. It is actually considered quite rude to use your horn within the city. Coming most recently from the D.C. area, this was a very foreign concept to me and I unknowingly laid on my horn a few times before realizing this was actually a cultural faux pas.
  4. Smile, you’re on camera: Speed trap cameras are EVERYWHERE in this city. Brazilians living in Brasília have a special name for these: they dubbed them “pardais”, which is Portuguese for “sparrows”. They are spaced out about every half kilometer in the city and one kilometer along the roads connecting to the satellite cities. Speed is enforced only through the cameras (not through hidden policemen!) and you never know which camera happens to be on at any given time. So how do drivers deal with these? They go along cruising at 20-30 km above the speed limit, then slam on their brakes as soon as they approach one. Because that is safe, right?
  5. Watch out for pedestrians! I have been told that another unique aspect of Brasília is the presence of pedestrian crossing zones. Remarkably, cars (almost) always stop to people afoot. Now, speaking of hand gestures, when you want to cross the street, the common things to do is to raise your arm at an angle with an outstretched hand (coming from a German context, the gesture startled me a bit the first time I saw it (!!!), but that just goes to show you that cultural context matters!).
  6. Retorno! Another unique feature to driving in Brasilia? U-turns. Because of the singular design of the city, it is often impossible to exit a road when headed in a specific direction. In some cases, you might have to actually drive several kilometers before you get a chance to turn around! Another interesting fact: sometimes side roads or alleyways serve as U-turn roads—when you turn on them, you suddenly find yourself driving on the left side of the road. When this first happened to me, I panicked until I realized that I was still doing a U-turn and would not be hit by oncoming traffic.
  7. Sardine parking: I really don’t know what else to call it! Parking lots are tiny and always packed—but this is not for a lack of space necessarily. I think it has more to do with the fact that almost everyone drives their own personal vehicle. I am truly amazed at drivers’ abilities to squeeze their cars into spaces that I would never dream of parking in. I once had to do a 20-point turn to get out of a spot after cars not only parked within centimeters of mine on either side, but also in a row running perpendicular to our spots. I was sweating bullets coming out of that situation!
  8. Parking attendants and hawkers: Another thing we needed to grow accustomed to were (unofficial) “parking attendants” and hawkers. Sometimes the parking attendants are quite helpful and assist with groceries, backing out of tight spaces, etc. In these cases, I am more than happy to give a tip– but at other times they merely stand there and point to an (obviously open) parking spot. Hawkers are very prevalent at intersections with stoplights (mainly in the middle of city) and I have seen them selling everything from fruit, towels, mosquito zappers, cell phone chargers—you name it! I have actually witnessed men dressed up in tuxedos selling coconut water on a silver tray. (I guess they get plus points for creativity). Once in a while, you are also privy to a “show” by flamethrowers, jugglers, or gymnasts—all of which of course make their rounds afterwards asking for a tip.
  9. Fender benders – I was not surprised to learn that car accidents are among the top 10 leading causes of death in Brazil. We are witness to accidents in the city on an almost weekly basis and my husband and I have both been involved in fender benders in the past year. I am often baffled (and frightened) by the recklessness and impatience among drivers here—but I have also learned to be a much more defensive driver as a result.
  10. Exio de lazer – All that being said, one of the coolest things about the roads here in Brasília is that the main esplanade closes to vehicles on Sundays and holidays. On these days, only bikers, joggers, walkers, etc. are allowed to use it. This is an awesome feature of the city and just goes to show that there is more than one way to enjoy Brasília than in the car!
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