Walking the Minhocão

The Minhocão (known officially as Via Elevado Presidente Costa e Silva), is a 2.2 mile (3.5km) long elevated highway that perhaps exemplifies best how São Paulo came to privilege driving over walking and using public transportation.

Built in 1971, during a period in which the car industry was highly influential* and the city experienced rapid and unplanned growth**, the Minhocão was seen as being the solution to the problem of urban mobility – although today it instead symbolises all the worst aspects of São Paulo’s outdated infrastructure.

The highway earnt its nickname (Minhocão means “big worm”***) from the way in which it snakes through the city, from Barra Funda in the west to República in the centre. However, it might just as well be called “the thrombotic vein”, seeing as it is forever clogged with cars**** being pumped towards the beating heart of the city centre.

My first experience of the Minhocão came one rush hour morning as I caught a lift into town with my father-in-law, and I couldn’t help but be struck by how both sides of it are hugged by office and residential high-rises, although moving at speed made it difficult to fully appreciate this peculiarly intimate relationship.

Of course, the best way to explore the Minhocão would be on foot, although you’d imagine this might be a bit difficult given that it was constructed solely for the use of cars – and at the expense of pedestrians and public spaces.

However, since 1976 the Minhocão has been closed to cars on Sundays and public holidays, and one recent Sunday afternoon I took a stroll to take a closer look. What I found is that the Minhocão, intriguing enough from within the confines of a car, is fascinating on foot. Rather ironically, it offers the walker some of the best views and means of exploring the city.

One thing it reinforced, as I’ve written previously, is that São Paulo’s urban sprawl and skyline, dominated by high-rises and said to be intimidating to first-time visitors, are strangely intriguing marvels.

The calm before the commuting storm.

It reminds me of how philosopher Alain de Botton defines the concept of sublimity in relation to locations that: ‘gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events’. In other words, places – albeit usually deserts or rainforests – that remind us of our relative insignificance and which enable us to put our daily woes into some sort of perspective.

At street level it is certainly easy to understand how one might become overwhelmed by São Paulo’s vastness. However, up on the Minhocão, with the buildings shrunk to half their size, you are provided with a far more manageable – and voyeuristic – view of the city.

Rear windows
Rear windows

At times you almost feel like L.B Jefferies from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, seeing as you’re often within touching distance of the windows and balconies of the bedrooms and living spaces of residential apartments. However, instead of a static view, as Jefferies had from his wheelchair, the Minhocão is a 2.2 mile conveyor belt of intimate insights.

The proximity of the buildings leaves you wondering whether the Minhocão was just carved straight through the middle of them, perhaps mimicking how the bandeirantes hacked their way into uncharted regions of Brazil between the sixteenth eighteenth centuries.

The Minhocão’s elevated viewing points also offer alternative views of some of the city’s most well-known landmarks, including Edifícios do Banespa and Itália, as well as Niemeyer’s wavy Copan – all of which are, of course, high-rises.

At the same time, you’re not spared the sight of some of the city’s grittier features, namely the pichação tags and blackened car fume stains which cover the crumbling façades of the highway and surrounding high-rises.

I often think the word ‘urban’ was created with São Paulo in mind.

Unsurprisingly, as São Paulo has emerged as a global city there has been talk of pulling the Minhocão down, so that urban regeneration can be encouraged and more efficient and environmentally friendly forms of infrastructure implemented.

I tend to agree, but part of me also hopes it will be preserved and opened up permanently to pedestrians so that it can stand as a monument from which to admire the city’s ugly beauty.

*In the 1950s, Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek, as part of a vast development (called the Plano do Metas (“Goals Plan”)) which had the famous slogan “Cinquenta anos em cinco” (“Fifty years in five”). helped promote the car industry through implementing the construction of vast interstate highways – at the expense of investment in and construction of railways and other public transportation. 

**27,000% increase in population and 40,000% in urban territory.

***The Minhocão is a quasi-mythical earthworm or snake that is said to reach lengths of upto 75 feet long and reside in the forests of South America.

****80,000 cars are said to pass over the Minhocão each day.