Cultural Shocks in a Built Environment

Imagine you are a friend from Brazil and I’m writing to you to share the wonders (from my point of view) of North American cities in my first year back in 2016. I don’t name the city I live in (although it is easy to find that out) because this little story applies to many cities in Canada and the United States, so if you want to use this story to illustrate your own experience or city, you probably will be able to do so with little change to the original text here.

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Hi my old friend, how is it going there? You always ask me about what has changed in my life since moving to Canada, so I thought I’d share some ways things are different around here.

Obviously my main concern moving here was biking, especially in the winter. After doing some research about bikes and gear, I was riding on snowy roads just one week after I moved here last December! My Canadian friends seemed to be surprised. I don’t know exactly why. I know they enjoy the outdoors in the winter. They build their own skating rinks in neighbourhood parks, use every hill available for tobogganing, find spots in and around the city for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Even toddlers join in the fun. Plus all the snowman/snow fort building and snowball fights we used to see in the movies! Canadians can spend hours outside in below zero temperatures. But for whatever reason, some of them think they can’t bike in the winter – I’m not sure why that is. I think Mikael Colville-Andersen is on to something with his idea of Climaphobia.

“not a phobia of extreme weather – just the regular stuff that happens outside your home wherever you may live.”

The Life-Sized City Urbanism Podcast

In my neighbourhood there are some bike lanes, one that goes directly downtown and a few other ones that even have some form of barrier to protect from cars during the warm months. What a surprise when I learned that there are almost two hundred kilometres of official cycling infrastructure in my new city with only 400,000 people. I couldn’t wait to explore them. Curitiba (pronounced kr uh chee buh) with a population of 2 million had a little less than that when I moved away. And the streets here are super wide making it so much easier to ride a bike here compared to Brazil. It feels incredibly safe compared to those narrow streets with cars zooming by at 60 and 70km/h!

And the buses are way more respectful! So many cyclists are hurt or killed in Brazil by bus drivers. It reminds me of that training for bus drivers promoted by a cycling advocacy group where the bus drivers experienced what it feels like to ride a bike beside a bus. And you won’t believe it. Here they have bike racks on the front of the bus! The buses also “kneel” to make it easier for people with mobility issues. And all the buses only have the driver. They never have a second person to charge you money – the driver does both. A lot of people just use a tapping card but still, unbelievable!

I confess I was a bit disappointed the first time I rode downtown. Imagine Rua das Flores (Flower Street), that pedestrian street in Curitiba. You know how it is, from early in the morning to late evening there are so many people on the street that it feels like there’s a big soccer match about to start in a nearby stadium and people are rushing in to see the game! Plus all the street vendors and street artists. All right, I know it doesn’t really feel like that because there are also a lot of people just sitting on benches, chatting, looking into shop windows and chilling. But you know what I mean. The closest to that here is a musical festival in a park downtown during the summer. It is called Sunfest. Walking around the vendors between stages in the park feels a little bit like Rua das Flores. The difference is that Sunfest is a huge endeavour that happens only once a year, not just the typical everyday downtown life.

Now imagine Brazil soccer team in the finals of the World Cup. Remember how everything shuts down, everybody gets the day off so we can all watch the game and the streets are a desert. That is how it feels EVERYDAY downtown here. I just couldn’t understand – I thought I was in the wrong place or the wrong time!

Rua das Flores – Pedestrian Street

And it is the same with buses. Rare to see a bus full of people, I mean really crowded. You would think this is a good thing, not to feel like a sardine, but you know what, without enough demand, public transit really sucks. I remember walking to the bus stop in Curitiba and seeing the bus coming when I was a couple of blocks away from the stop. There was no point in running. By the time I got to the bus stop another one was already coming. A bus every five minutes! I know, your bus line took forever but c’mon the main arterial BRT lines are super fast.

Here, the wait is so long anywhere, anytime, it feels like torture! If I bike the kids to school it takes me 25 minutes. When we have to take the bus it can be over an hour, and I live in the “core area”. Speaking of which, there are whole areas of the city that are really underserved. If you don’t have a car, too bad for you! It’s so bad that on top of car rental, taxis and ride-sharing services, there is a whole industry of private companies offering services to drive people around. They call it Paratransit. One of the companies is among the top 20 biggest employers in the city. There are also nonprofits that match cars and drivers with people who can’t get around because driving sometimes is the only option.

They even put in some job descriptions: “Access to a private vehicle”. That means that in many cases, if you don’t have a car, you don’t even get a job interview -no matter how qualified you are. I’m talking about office jobs. Can you believe that? Pretty cuckoo! A very different picture from our idealized view of a “developed” country. I met quite a few immigrants who thought they would either bike everywhere or take the bus because here is the first world. Soon they realized they need to dive a little deeper in their savings to get a car if they want to get anywhere in life here. By the way, when I got my driver’s licence the closest bus stop to the driver’s centre left me with a 30-minute walk going over a highway. Now it is a bit better, there is a bus service to get there, it only takes one hour and a half and three different buses to get there. By car, it is a 15-minute drive  So, you need a driver’s licence to be able to drive a car but the only convenient way to get there is driving. Ironic, isn’t it?!

Of course, if within the city is like this, can you imagine between cities? There is no bus to go to any beach, even though they are only 45km from here. Even on trips to big cities, there are not many available times on a weekday. Remember when we wanted to go anywhere, cities big or small, we just went to the bus station and there would be buses every hour to dozens of places! Oh, and this will blow your mind. Here, buying a bus ticket is like buying a plane ticket. The price fluctuates and the closer it gets to the date, the more expensive it is! Not the fixed price we have in Brazil where if the price changes at all, it’s a discount price when you buy right before departure and the bus is not at full capacity.

But I know you don’t actually get it. You need to actually see how small bus stations are. I will paint you a picture. Think about Foz do Iguacu, it has 250,000 people right? The bus station in Foz do Iguacu is much bigger than the one here. And I’m not talking about my city. It is bigger than Toronto’s bus station, a city with over six million people!! The first time I went there I thought: “Oh neat, they have a decentralized system of bus stations.” It was so small that the only logical explanation for me was that there were multiple stations all over the city. It turns out that was the only one! Curious to know how our bus station is here in my city of 400k people? It is more like the one in Rolandia. You know that small town with 65,000 people.


Foz do Iguaçu Bus Station

Rolandia, Bus Station

It’s funny, even though I read about this a lot studying urban planning, I never had the lived experience of what urban sprawl really means. To give you an idea, this North American city is pretty much the same size as Curitiba, the same area! Remember I told you about the population, a fifth of Curitiba’s population. Everything is super spread out! Suddenly all those kilometres of bike lanes didn’t seem like that much anymore. In fact, it is even worse, because even though we have roughly the same ratio of bike lanes per square kilometre, without the density there is much less to see and do. Things are much further apart. And there is sooo much parking space for cars. Everywhere and of all sorts, you name it. City parking lots, private, multi-level, on the street, underground. It is crazy!! If you see a city block from above they look like swiss cheese. Hollow, underutilized dead space. Even downtown!!

Remember I said streets are super wide? Well in fact the cars are crazy big. I thought people liked big cars in Brazil but here is a whole new level. Imagine the biggest trucks you see in Brazil, well they are bigger than that here. And the SUVs are GIGANTIC. Maybe this explains why there is so much hoarding going on here. Or it might be the other way around. They already had too much stuff so they needed bigger cars. In fact, they have so much stuff they have personal storage warehouses in different locations around the city.

You probably have no idea of what I am talking about. I know, I was puzzled too when I got here. I saw these odd buildings that would stretch for almost a block with multiple units like little cabins or garages. They made no sense to me. They couldn’t possibly be residential units, too small. I thought maybe some sort of animal shelter, but it was super clean and I didn’t hear any noises. In fact I never saw anyone coming or going. Which made me think it couldn’t be some sort of commercial space either. Maybe offices, but there were no windows. And no signs. Was it private, public? A water treatment station? Energy? For the life of me, I could not understand what those buildings were. Finally, a little embarrassed to expose my naivete about something that seems to be a common element in the urban landscape, I asked someone. My friend simply said: “It’s storage.” For a moment I felt I finally understood it. Yes, storage! But then, I wasn’t satisfied yet. Storage for who, for what? It turns out it’s personal storage, the extra stuff that for whatever reason you don’t have anywhere to put and then you PAY to store it and leave it there for god knows how long!! Don’t ask. I still don’t fully understand.

Anyway, I could go on and on about the differences, the good and bad surprises. I will leave it at that for now. Maybe I will share some more crazy stories another day. Take care my friend.


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