The Van: Rio’s Truly Public Transportation

How to get from point A to point B is an essential question in virtually all cities across the globe. Transportation is inextricably linked to labor, education, and leisure, and in cities these linkages are even more pronounced. Conventional means of transportation like cars, buses, taxis, and subway systems fail to adequately serve a city’s needs. Here in Rio de Janeiro, I have used the extensive, yet often very confusing, public bus system, the rather limited subway system, and I have occasionally splurged and hailed a taxi. Despite the availability of these traditional means, a fairly unique method of transport has emerged in Rio: the van.
“The van,” the blanket term that refers to the ubiquitous white van/bus/truck borderline-street-worthy vehicles, graces the Rio streets 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On the surface, these vans seem to be just another form of transportation. However, after routinely riding in them I have discovered a microcosm of that embracive yet elusive Rio carioca culture. The van system initially began as a relatively inexpensive transportation service to and from Rio’s sprawling favelas, or slums. The routes tend to originate and terminate in the favelas and traverse the most affluent areas of the city, like the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. They provide resources that city-funded public transportation fails to supply.

By connecting socioeconomically disparate neighborhoods, they provide a forum for rather interesting cultural, political, economic, and even religious exchanges. Personally, I was rather nervous the first time I rode in a van. I heard a language that was far from the Portuguese that I was learning in class, and I had very little knowledge of the streets it was whizzing by. Nonetheless, as van rides are becoming more common in my everyday routine, I’m able to get past the initial discomfort and absorb the nuances of my immediate surroundings.

Due to its original purpose, the van’s passengers tend to live in extremely low-income neighborhoods. However, they are joined more and more by Brazilians of all types and economic classes. In a city where the two ends of the socioeconomic spectrum seem to almost never come into contact, the van offers a rare opportunity to witness a convergence. In the van, class seems to disappear. Everyone is just trying to get from point A to point B, and everyone pays the same fare to do so; the van strips away status. In the van, I have had conversations about the upcoming municipal elections, conversations about where to get the city’s best açaí, and I have even discussed the religious significance of Rio’s famous “Christ the Redeemer” statue.

My friends and I often joke that no two van rides are the same. During one ride, the driver might be dancing in his seat as samba music blasts out of the radio, and during another ride, the passengers might be intensely debating whether or not the city will be ready in time for the 2016 Olympics. Every time I enter the van, I know that somehow I will be educated on the carioca way of life. People keep to themselves on buses, but in the van, passengers are forced to squeeze together on ripped pleather benches. They welcome new passengers in as they invite perfect strangers to join the conversations, the debates, the complaints, and even at times the parties. In a city where there is noticeable bifurcation between rich and poor, the van is a truly democratic space.
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