Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Economist's Notebook: Helicopters

From my office at the Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo, I look out on this view. Fortunately, I have a window that opens.  I am on the 13th floor and so I can hear the faint hum of the horrendous traffic below.  It soft and unintrusive.  What is intrusive is the noise of the multitude of helicopters flying all around (there is one on the top of the apartment building in the picture but a bit too small to see perhaps).  As FGV is right in the central business district, just off the Avenida Paulista, we are in seriously rich businessperson land.  And what do the super-rich do when the traffic in a city becomes too much?  Take to the air, of course!  As I flew into the small airport in the city you could see hundreds of helipads on the apartment buildings.  Its all about the marginal cost, marginal benefit calculation.  The marginal cost of helicopter travel is high and always has been, but the marginal benefit (avoiding hours stuck in traffic) is now very high as well.  So, yes, I can confirm that the legend is true - there are lots of helicopters flying around São Paulo.

Ironically, I was told that one of the most uncorrupt agencies here is not the police, who are corrupt but not too bad (unlike the ones in Rio who are pretty badly corrupt), but the traffic bureau who have a type of traffic cop who can issue tickets, etc. They are everywhere, making sure nothing happens to disrupt traffic.  Traffic is such a politically radioactive topic here, no politician can afford to have a corrupt and inefficient traffic bureau.  Again, its all about the incentives.  And they are efficient: an illegally parked car was causing a bit of a jam yesterday and so I saw the traffic bureau swoop in with a flatbed tow truck and remove it in seconds flat (with alarm screaming) they left a big sign on the curb that said "ILLEGALLY PARKED CAR HAS BEEN REMOVED." No ticket, no warning - boom - car gone.  

Note to self: never rent a car in São Paulo.

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