Abstract Background Air pollution in São Paulo is constantly being measured by the State of Sao Paulo Environmental Agency, however there is no information on the variation between places with different traffic densities. This study was intended to identify a gradient of exposure to traffic-related air pollution within different areas in São Paulo to provide information for future epidemiological studies. Methods We measured NO2 using Palmes' diffusion tubes in 36 sites on streets chosen to be representative of different road types and traffic densities in São Paulo in two one-week periods (July and August 2000). In each study period, two tubes were installed in each site, and two additional tubes were installed in 10 control sites. Results Average NO2 concentrations were related to traffic density, observed on the spot, to number of vehicles counted, and to traffic density strata defined by the city Traffic Engineering Company (CET). Average NO2concentrations were 63μg/m3 and 49μg/m3 in the first and second periods, respectively. Dividing the sites by the observed traffic density, we found: heavy traffic (n = 17): 64μg/m3 (95% CI: 59μg/m3 – 68μg/m3); local traffic (n = 16): 48μg/m3 (95% CI: 44μg/m3 – 52μg/m3) (p < 0.001). Conclusion The differences in NO2 levels between heavy and local traffic sites are large enough to suggest the use of a more refined classification of exposure in epidemiological studies in the city. Number of vehicles counted, traffic density observed on the spot and traffic density strata defined by the CET might be used as a proxy for traffic exposure in São Paulo when more accurate measurements are not available.