Why you should care
Because urban development often creates unintended consequences — like a thriving black market.
On a typically beautiful Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, a family from the burbs will pack into the car and head to Ipanema Beach. They’ll find the perfect parking spot, parallel to the beach. As they lock up, a disheveled man, barefoot and with a dirty rag in hand, will come running toward them. He’ll look like he might be on drugs, then demand cash — around 10 bucks — for what might otherwise be a free, public parking spot. If the family refuses to cough up the cash, their car might get keyed or its tires slashed.
This is how parking works in Brazil’s growing cities. Here, parking attendants known as flanelinhas — named for the piece of flannel rag they often wave to signal an available spot to drivers — have become an integral part of the informal economy, as well as a constant lurking threat. Given this industry’s informal nature, it can be difficult to estimate how many flanelinhas actually “work” in the country, but experts say their ranks are growing. São Paulo, for example, counted 250 flanelinhas in 2012, up from just nine in 2011. Other cities, like Cuiabá and Vitória, have seen similar jumps.
As it turns out, this is a growing global problem, and local governments are increasingly trying to curb extortion, where pseudo parking attendants overcharge for city-sanctioned spots. Some are trying to formalize the work. In Cape Town, new laws passed over the past decade designate certain districts to informal parking guards as a way of regulating the space. In Manila, local officials have installed parking meters and trained roving — but city-sanctioned — attendants on how to enforce them. Other places, including Mexico City, are replacing attendants with parking meters in an attempt to “bring more certainty to how public space is managed,” says Michael Kodransky, a global research manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a nonprofit advocacy group.
The risk of parking with … them usually outweighs the benefit.
Wagner dos Santos Souza, a city-paid parking attendant in Rio de Janeiro
While some cities have successfully professionalized street parking, others are still struggling to execute the right balance. Back in Rio, Wagner dos Santos Souza’s job is the result of the city’s efforts to formalize the work of attendants and redirect money to the local government. The 39-year-old city-paid official works a tree-shaded block of Copacabana as a parking attendant, where today he’s sporting a navy-blue vest with the words “Rio Municipal” and carrying a stack of tickets. He jogs after cars and waves down motorists cruising for parking spots, breaking to tell OZY that his black-market colleagues “dirty the work that we do.” He recalls the full-on street brawls he’s gotten into with flanelinhas who’ve been on drugs and tried to steer away drivers, describing a Wild West–like parking scene, in spite of the sheriff’s regulations. “You should be careful,” he warns. “The risk of parking with some of them usually outweighs the benefit.”
Of course, some argue, this problem is the result of the vacuum that’s created when municipalities inefficiently manage parking — informal attendants step up to fill the void. And the issue is expected to only get worse for places without a solid system already established. Today, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and the U.N. predicts that by 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people will be crammed into cities — many with limited parking options. Add more cars, such as in China, where the country’s stock of vehicles is expected to increase twentyfold — to 390 million by 2030 — and parking is likely to become an even bigger headache.
That short supply of spots and high demand for space is also driving another trend: creative solutions to parking challenges. In New Orleans, a city-sanctioned civilian patrol group is now monitoring illegal parking in the French Quarter. In Rio, government officials are toying with the idea of issuing “moral fines” rather than tickets, as a kind of warning to those drivers who stop to, say, grab a juice or snack and leave their car where they shouldn’t. Sure, it’s a somewhat friendlier stance, but Santos, São Paulo city alderman Kenny Pires Mendes argues regulation is the best path forward. His proposed law would allow the city to sell parking cards to sanctioned flanelinhas working during business hours in the central zone of the city; each flanelinha would earn about a dime per card. “Then all the other flanelinhas outside of that zone would be operating their profession illegally and could be fined,” explains Mendes.
The job of an informal parking attendant is an appealing option for unemployed, unskilled workers here in Brazil. They’re not dealing drugs, after all, and the job allows a marginalized segment of society to play a role in the informal economy. For a country in the midst of what some fear is an economic free fall, that informal sector will become all the more essential for people with fewer options.
Nevertheless, flanelinhas in Brazil are under the gun. In São Paulo, a flanelinha was recently convicted of extortion. And Brazil’s Supreme Court is currently deciding whether flanelinhas are illegal altogether. But for the time being, most Brazilians will keep paying to park. Each day when she returns from her office, Natasha Gonçalves, a lawyer in Brasília, pays a flanelinha who lurks in her apartment parking lot. Why? “He knows where I live,” she says, “and I’d rather pay him than live in fear.”