Riding the metro in Brazil is quite a cultural experience for foreigners coming to the country. In this article we will explain why you shouldn't be annoyed by the usual Brazilian costumes on the metro.
Call it subway, underground, tube or metro – the rail system that takes you from one place to another is quite similar around the world, despite variations in length and differences in name. What really differs, however, are the local usage customs of this type of transportation.
Coming to Brazil and transiting is quite a headache due to the road-based system in which the country was established. Brazilian governments were never interested in building or expanding railways for metros and trains. Instead, roads took precedence in the country, and it became hard to go from city to city – and even from one point of a city to other in the same city – without having a car or depending on buses.
Not all the state's capitals have metros. Only 11 out of 27 cities – Belo Horizonte, Brasília, Fortaleza, João Pessoa, Maceió, Natal, Porto Alegre, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and São Paulo, which represent less than 1% of the 5565 municipalities in the country – have a system in place. The common factor between these system is the usage saturation i.e., unbelievably crowded.
Coping with a Crowded Metro
Foreigners who come to Brazil are normally shocked by the sheer amount of people using the metro during rush hour. The volume of people is even worse when something is broken or there's been an accident, which is also quite a common situation in Brazil. Notice that by “crowded” we mean “absolutely no space” inside the train car.
In São Paulo, for instance, the train cars get completely full – there are no seats available and people actually squeeze themselves against other passengers so they don't have to wait for the next crowded metro. During peak hours, it may take more than 1 hour to travel a route that would normally take 20 minutes during non-peak hours.
Besides, there is the fact that a lot of Brazilians consider the subway like a mother's heart, where there is always room for one more (even when there is not). So if being really close to another human is not something that you appreciate and you prefer to have your own space, then stay away from São Paulo's metro between 6-8 am and 5-7 pm in the workdays.
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro's metro also has crowded peak hours, and worse than it, there have been registered cases of rape inside the train cars. The measure taken by the government to avoid this occurrence was to provide exclusive train cars for women during rush hour. Since 2006, during workdays, from 6 to 9 am and 5 to 8 pm, there is an exclusive car for women. There is no punishment for men who are caught in women's train cars, only for the metro company that doesn't provide the special train car.
The system was also implemented in Brasília's metro, in July, 2013, and by the same time, São Paulo's government was considering doing the same in the city's metro too. However, as it happened back in Rio in 2006, there's a criticism that argues that this is a sexist and stopgap measure. The method projects women as fragile people who can't defend themselves and men as sexually uncontrolled people, and that it doesn't actually try to solve the issue, which is men raping women. People who are against the measure say that it legitimates the violence that happens inside the train cars, and that instead governments should provide educational programs to target the root of the problem.
The access to public means of transportation in Brazil involves buying tickets in the Bilheterias, the ticket offices, of the own stations and passing through gates or turnstiles. The fare is the same regardless of the distance traveled or number stations traveled. There are no ticket inspectors once you are inside the train car, and people under the ages 6 and over the age of 65 ride free.
Once you got into the train car, keep in mind that people will answer their phones as well as make calls inside the metro. Some of them speak lower so they don't bother other passengers, but some of them actually scream on the phone as if there was no one by their sides. It's not difficult to find people arguing on the phone inside the train cars, so get used to the fact that you will listen to the details of others' lives and conversations.
Apart from that, also have in mind that you will listen to other passengers' set lists, whether you like it or not. This is due to the fact that some people on the metro like listening to their favorite songs loud and clear – without headphones. And don't be so sure that they will turn the music down neither if you politely ask them to or if you give them a dirty look.
This practice was getting so common that São Paulo's metro started a campaign asking for passengers to wear their headphones and avoid bothering other people. Rio de Janeiro also had a campaign asking for more kindness in the metro: respect to the priority seats, use of headphones, among other requests.
Usually metros are equipped for disabled people; most stations have lifts, tactile floors and employees ready to help. There are also exclusive spaces for disabled people inside the train cars, like the special seats, painted in a different color than the normal seats.
In Brasília, the train car that is exclusive for women is also exclusive for disabled people. The exclusivity is valid in the peak hours; from Mondays to Fridays, between 6 am and 8:45 am and between 4:45 pm and 8:15 pm. In São Paulo, visually impaired people have preference entering the second door of the first train car. There is also a space inside the first train car, where the wheelchair can be placed. The metro also has employees who help the entering and exiting of the train.
In São Paulo, people with visual, hearing, motor and intellectual disabilities have to fill out an online form in order to get a Bilhete Único, which is a single card that provides free passages. Rio de Janeiro has a similar system, named Cartão de Gratuidade do MetrôRio, which also provides free access to disabled people and their legally authorized assistants. To get the card, it is necessary to go to a Posto de Gratuidade, a kiosk at Central station, which is open from 8 am to 6 pm on week days and between 8 am and 12 pm on the weekends, except on holidays.
Some stations in Belo Horizonte's and São Paulo's metro have public telephones for people with hearing disabilities. The equipment works as a small portable computer which has a keyboard and a screen and is used to send and receive messages.
If you're coming to São Paulo, get used to the fact that it rains a lot in the city. There are people who actually carry umbrellas from their houses to their works or study places all year long, because the water may fall from the sky when you least expect it. Also, when it starts raining, the doors to access the metro are usually the spot for umbrella sellers.
So if you're taking the metro after a heavy rain – or even a light one –, make sure your umbrella is not leaving a trail of water behind you. There are no rules for it, but it is kind from one's part to have a plastic bag where to put a wet umbrella, so other people don't get wet in the public transport.
Food and Drinks
In São Paulo, it is also common to see people eating inside the subway. They usually don't do it during rush hour, since it is practically impossible to move inside of the train car, but it's not difficult to see children eating snacks and other people having little noshes. Note that there will not always be napkins involved in this situation – which is why a lot of people don't really like it when others eat inside the metro.
Drinks are a bit more accepted, as long as they're in cans or in closed recipients, not in plastic cups. Alcoholic drinks are not allowed into the metro, nor are people under the effects of alcohol.
There are no rules that specify what kind of clothes you can wear or not in the metro. Belo Horizonte metro's editorial asks passengers “not to wear inconveniently”, without establishing exactly what “inconvenience” means – only showing a picture of a male wearing underpants.
São Paulo once was the stage for the flash mob “No Pants Subway Ride”, which started in New York and already occurred in 59 cities of 27 different countries. Some passengers didn't approve the act, but it happened anyway. The metro was previously informed of the event, though.
Passengers have to wait for other passengers to get out of the metro so they can get in. That is because most stations only have platforms for one side of the train, which can cause problems with getting on and getting off the metro. To make matters worse, people usually don't wait until the passengers come out of the metro so they can get it. In São Paulo, the metro stations of the Yellow Line have signs asking for people to wait other passengers to get out before boarding in the glasses and on the floor.
Bikes and Skateboards...
You can take your bike inside the metro, but there are specific rules for it. In São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, for instance, you can only carry your bicycle on the metro after 8:30pm from Mondays to Fridays; only after 2pm on Saturdays and at any time on Sundays and holidays while the metro is working.
It's prohibited to ride bicycles, roller blades or skateboards inside the stations; all these items must be carried by hand, and in determined hours, according to the metro. Also, in the case of Rio de Janeiro's metro, surfboards can be taken in the train cars at any time during the weekend.
Notice that not all metros work during the same time. Once you are in Brazil, check out when the local metro operation hours. In São Paulo, for instance, there are variations in the closing time of each station, which you can check here.
Also have in mind that some rules for carrying objects may vary from one cities metro to another. Before taking your bike to the station, for instance, make sure you will be able to get inside the train car with it.