Brazil Protests 2013: Bus Fare Increases Just Add Insult to Injury

How would you feel if riding the bus cost you more than a quarter of the money you earned? Yeah, you read that correctly: Brazilians spend up to 26% of their incomes on simply bus fares, according to a standard back-of-the-envelope calculation laid out here. To add insult to injury, the buses themselves are often crowded, dangerous, and unreliable, and the Brazilian economy as a whole is growing at a snail’s pace.

Such a statistic not only highlights the shamelessness of the Brazilian government, but also renders the Brazilian bus system absolutely self-defeating. A service like public buses intends to provide affordable, reliable means of transport to the neediest of a population. Though when buses become so costly, the system itself collapses onto its own uselessness. The working class in Brazil — especially in exchange for the heavy tax burden it faces — without a doubt deserves from the government this basic human decency of a way to get to work every day.

By now, most of us have heard about the massive protests that erupted in Brazil this Monday, supposedly the greatest in 20 years. Yet what some in the global community were taken aback by was the initial cause of these demonstrations: the equivalent of a nine-cent increase in bus fares in Sao Paulo. Naturally, what incited the roughly 240,000 people across Brazil to protest included lackluster public services, rampant political corruption, and a stagnant economy. Regardless, exploring this atrocious bus crisis in greater depth is surely worthwhile. 

The bus system is a product of systemic failures and a tricky economic scenario. The first apparent problem is that of corruption: While clearly not an obstacle faced by Brazil alone, government corruption creates much inefficiency and waste throughout the Brazilian economy, particularly when it comes to public services. To make things worse, simply investing more into subsidizing the bus system to reduce fares would run contrary to the current monetary policies in place to rein in inflation, as the resulting increase in aggregate demand would raise the price level and thereby worsen inflation.

On the flip side, it is still possible for cities across Brazil to adopt Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems that have proved remarkably more cost-effective and reliable, especially in comparison to rail-based systems. Also rather than increasing total government spending, funds can be diverted from the Herculean task of preparing for both the 2014 World Cup — for which we know Brazil is spending $14.3 billion dollars — and the 2016 Olympics. This is obvious: The priorities of the working poor come before the amusement of sports fans. With these few common-sense measures, in addition to the already-made decision to increase bus fares, perhaps Brazil can succeed in partially ameliorating the inflamed passions of its people — those people who have so justifiably taken to the streets to request meaningful reform to an obviously broken system.