When considering solutions, a radical diet might sound promising, but could a city of this size survive on a strict low-car regime? And what about holistic mobility concepts that meet all individual needs? Or the notion of an entirely car-free, unpolluted, and quiet city – a hippiesque 1960s pipe dream and urban fairy-tale? What would happen if urbanists actually designed a city that works without any motor vehicles? Would anyone want to live in such a city? Does it make social, economic, and aesthetic sense? Is it possible to lose the automobile while retaining its promise of fast and flexible mobility? Might such a scenario even be an improvement for cities as congested as Sao Paulo?

In 2006, the writer and sociologist J. H. Crawford published a book and design manual called Car Free Cities. On the eponymous website, he takes us through a step-by-step process for designing car-free urban environments. His perfect example of real-life no-car living is Venice, a city built on and around water – and boat transport – more than 1,500 years ago. While this might sound like a bright idea, there is no way to translate the insights from this mid-sized Italian city (pop.: 270,000) to Sao Paulo’s 20 million megalopolis.

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Inching a little closer to realistic concepts, two urban approaches of car-free days and car-free places spring to my mind. To see how such a scheme might work in a city like Sao Paulo, I decided to investigate the Minhocão, an elevated inner-city highway that has been closed to vehicle traffic every Sunday since 1976.

While the highway’s official name remains the Via Elevada Presidente Artur da Costa e Silva, the concrete thoroughfare is better known as the Minhocão (Portuguese for earthworm) among Paulistas, referencing a legendary creature that is said to roam the Amazon rainforest. Traditional lore describes the behemoth as a 80-foot, Nessie-like creature that glides through the forests of South America and likes to snack on human beings.

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On my arrival, I find myself both impressed and terrified by the long concrete structure, winding its way through the skyscrapers of the sun-flecked South American city. But once you scale the Minhocão highway, you find yourself immersed in a surreal scene and atmosphere: Once a week, a strange mix of people, dogs, and other indefinable creatures sets out to reclaim the cement serpent for all kinds of leisure activities. Here, you might come across kids riding bikes, old men taking a walk, couples caressing each other, family having a picnic, or film crews working on small independent art house productions. Suddenly, everything seems possible in this place; a place that appears to have swapped Sao Paulo for a future urban utopia. And most of the visitors are just like me: standing or walking around open-mouthed, intrigued and perplexed in equal parts by the captivating energy of this unusual setting.

The paradox of the Minhocão – and probably also its attraction – roots in the fascination of having no cars in a space that was clearly designed and built for such vehicles. Just like a desert or moonscape, the Minhocão is not a particularly welcoming environment for human beings. But its spectacular views, surreal energy, and exhilarating freedom of movement transform it into one of Sao Paulo’s biggest attractions.

In a city lacking social and economic equality while dealing with huge transportation and mobility issues – highlighted by the latest Brazil-wide protests – this is a truly public space and a social one at that: accessible, free of charge and open to all.

Even if the Minhocão remains an all-too-real architectural monstrosity, it has become a place of empowerment and urban democracy for Sao Paulo’s appreciative citizenry.

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Text and photos, including the header image: Claudio Rimmele