Notes on São Paulo, in four apps

Aerial view of São Paulo
Aer­i­al view of São Paulo

I’ve just come back from two weeks in São Paulo, Brazil, vis­it­ing friends and fam­i­ly (my wife’s side). I last vis­it­ed three years ago, and since that time there’s been a clear increase in smart­phone use. Brazil’s smart­phone pen­e­tra­tion is about 40% (of mobile users), and in com­par­a­tive­ly wealthy São Paulo it’s like­ly much high­er than the nation­al aver­age. I saw a few ways where the preva­lence of smart­phones has enabled big behav­iour­al changes in the three years since I last vis­it­ed; in each case the changes were in fun­da­men­tal­ly new ser­vices, exposed to users through a mobile app.

As I’m curi­ous, I made a habit of ask­ing peo­ple about the ser­vices, the apps, and the changes in behav­iour, and my obser­va­tions are writ­ten here. They aren’t in any way meant to be com­pre­hen­sive, or even nec­es­sar­i­ly to have any con­clu­sions drawn from them. I’ve writ­ten this arti­cle sole­ly out of inter­est.

And I want to make clear that I’m not try­ing to make gen­er­al­i­sa­tions about the city as a whole; from a munic­i­pal pop­u­la­tion of some 12 mil­lion peo­ple, my obser­va­tions are based on a lim­it­ed sam­ple of peo­ple I met and spent small amounts of time with: most­ly mid­dle class friends and fam­i­ly, and work­ing taxi and pri­vate hire dri­vers.

A quick note about the prices in this arti­cle: the cur­ren­cy of Brazil is the Real (R$). R$1 is worth about £0.25, or $0.30. Min­i­mum wage is R$880 (£225 / $275) per month. Lux­u­ry goods tend to be priced equiv­a­lent­ly to West­ern mar­kets, mak­ing them rel­a­tive­ly much more expen­sive.

Two men holding a banner advertising a prayer app
Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians adver­tise a prayer app


The most com­mon­ly used mes­sag­ing app, by quite a mar­gin, is What­sApp (known col­lo­qui­al­ly as Whats). Every­one I asked uses it. Mes­sen­ger is also known, but appar­ent­ly used main­ly to reach the few friends you don’t yet have in your What­sApp con­tact list.

When I arrived at Guarul­hos air­port I bought a local SIM. Tech sup­port was pro­vid­ed as a What­sApp num­ber. Around São Paulo there are all sorts of infor­mal ser­vices offered — these range from receiv­ing nude pic­tures, to small scale witch­craft (love spells, and the like). They’re all organ­ised through What­sApp.

What­sApp is so preva­lent that it’s includ­ed as an incen­tive in mobile tar­iffs; for exam­ple, the tel­co Claro are pro­mot­ing a pack­age offer­ing 600MB of data, but unlim­it­ed What­sApp. For users in a devel­op­ing coun­try, even in com­par­a­tive­ly wealthy São Paulo, free call­ing is a no-brain­er.

Showing three uses of WhatsApp in advertising: Free use in a mobile tariff; nude photo exchange; love magic
What­sApp (L‑R): free use in a mobile tar­iff; nude pho­to exchange; love mag­ic


There are some 12 mil­lion peo­ple in the city of São Paulo, and over 4 mil­lion cars. Almost half the house­holds in the city com­mute by car. And, with very few excep­tions, all jour­neys by car involved Waze.

Every taxi or pri­vate hire dri­ver used it, and most cit­i­zen dri­vers too. São Paulo is a sprawl­ing city with a chron­ic traf­fic prob­lem, and Waze helps dri­vers find their way, and avoid some of the worst con­ges­tion. Waze was seen as bet­ter than Google Maps for direc­tions (the few dri­vers I asked didn’t know that Google own Waze).

One thing taxi dri­vers didn’t like about Waze is that, in São Paulo, taxis can avoid con­ges­tion by using bus lanes at peak times; but Waze doesn’t know that it’s being used in a taxi, so doesn’t rec­om­mend those routes. When enter­ing a taxi, the dri­ver would often ask “is it OK if I use Waze?” – let­ting the pas­sen­ger give direc­tions if they know a bet­ter route, to avoid accu­sa­tions of rip­ping off.

Aside: all the taxi dri­vers were using Android phones, most­ly Sam­sung or Motoro­la. A pop­u­lar phone seems to be the Sam­sung Galaxy J1, which costs R$600 new (or 14 month­ly pay­ments of R$60). For com­par­i­son, the entry-lev­el iPhone SE starts at around R$2,100.

São Paulo (L-R): external power cables; shattered bulletproof glass in a metro station; free phone charger in a bar
São Paulo (L‑R): exter­nal infra­struc­ture; shat­tered bul­let­proof glass in a metro sta­tion; free phone charg­er in a bar

Uber & 99Taxis

São Paulo’s pub­lic trans­port infra­struc­ture has prob­lems. The metro is formed of four under­ground lines con­nect­ing to a hand­ful of train lines, serv­ing only a small por­tion of the city. Some of the sta­tions are (or at least, feel) dan­ger­ous, with groups of home­less drug addicts sleep­ing rough and beg­ging for mon­ey. Each metro jour­ney costs $3.80.

Many peo­ple rely on the bus, although that suf­fers from a lack of timetable infor­ma­tion and sig­nalling at bus stops. It costs the same as the metro, so is com­par­a­tive­ly quite expen­sive. (It also has a rep­u­ta­tion for being dan­ger­ous.)

There are plen­ty of taxis, but they’re also quite expen­sive, start­ing at R$4.50 plus R$2.75 per km.

Giv­en all of this, it’s not sur­pris­ing that Uber is very pop­u­lar among those that can afford it (large­ly the mid­dle class­es). Many jour­neys that would have been tak­en by bus, espe­cial­ly, are now tak­en by Uber instead; when peo­ple are shar­ing a car for a short trip the cost is only a lit­tle more than a bus tick­et, with the advan­tage of pick­ing you up and drop­ping you off wher­ev­er you want.

There are a hand­ful of local rivals, of which 99Taxis (usu­al­ly known as 99) is the best known. 99 began as a free app to con­nect users with the local taxi com­pa­nies, before launch­ing a mobile pay­ments plat­form. It offers taxis at the gen­er­al low­er rate, a 30% dis­count over the stan­dard street pick­up tar­iff. Recent­ly 99 expand­ed to include 99POP (pri­vate hire dri­vers) and 99TOP (pri­vate hire lux­u­ry car dri­vers). 99POP under­cuts the prices of taxis, even with the dis­count, so some taxi dri­vers are boy­cotting the plat­form and using alter­na­tives.

Many pri­vate hire dri­vers are reg­is­tered with both Uber and 99 (and some­times oth­er ser­vices too), pick­ing up whichev­er call arrives first. 99 offers the bet­ter deal for dri­vers, tak­ing only a 15% cut com­pared to Uber’s 25%. Uber is much eas­i­er to sign up to, how­ev­er; reg­is­tra­tion can be done entire­ly through the app, where­as 99 requires dri­vers to reg­is­ter in per­son and under­go some test­ing.

In a coun­try where many peo­ple don’t have access to a cred­it card, both Uber and 99 offer an option to pay for a jour­ney in cash (Uber launched card-only, but lat­er dropped the require­ment). This lets more pas­sen­gers onto the plat­form, but decreas­es finan­cial secu­ri­ty for dri­vers; one dri­ver told us that he took a pas­sen­ger on a ~R$30 trip, only for them to flee on foot when they arrived near the des­ti­na­tion.

Anoth­er of the advan­tages for dri­vers of 99 over Uber is that 99 lets dri­vers choose to accept requests only from pas­sen­gers with reg­is­tered cards. Uber doesn’t per­mit that option, although appar­ent­ly will refund dri­vers for any lost fares through bad pay­ments or crim­i­nal action.

Like so much of life in São Paulo, crime is rife with pri­vate hire ser­vices. Anoth­er dri­ver told us that he got called out to a remote address, only to be robbed of his mobile at gun­point. It seems that crim­i­nals steal mobiles from peo­ple in the street then use them to call Uber, know­ing that at the very least they’ll be able to steal anoth­er phone, a wal­let, and pos­si­bly even a car. Anoth­er sto­ry we heard, although not first-hand, was that crim­i­nals would call Uber­POOL and rob all the pas­sen­gers on board.

All of this crim­i­nal behav­iour was a risk for taxi dri­vers before the advent of pri­vate hire apps, but the apps have put more dri­vers on the road and cre­at­ed more oppor­tu­ni­ties for crime. The pos­i­tive impact, how­ev­er, is that two peo­ple I spoke to told me that access to ser­vices like Uber and 99 has meant that they can get rid of their own cars and still feel able to get around the city eas­i­ly and safe­ly.