San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Drive Limits Seem to be Working

Open spaces punctuate the parking lot downtown where José Alfaro works as an attendant.

Alfaro says business has slowed by as much as 40 percent since the government passed new driving restrictions one month ago.

“For me, it’s worth it,” Alfaro said, referring to the restrictions. Gas consumption is out of control, he added, and “people drive their cars around for everything.”

Instead of driving on his restriction day, Alfaro takes the bus.

“Everyone has to make a sacrifice,” he said.

Though evidence like emptier parking lots so far is just anecdotal, Ticos appear to be thinking twice before grabbing their car keys every workday since the law went into effect June 26. While some prefer to park their car and take public transportation, others carpool, sneak by transit police via alternative routes, or ignore the restrictions and risk a ¢5,000 ($9.25) fine.

As of Wednesday morning, Transit Police had meted out 11,547 fines.

German Marín, director of the Transit Police, was pleased with the restrictions’ results, noting that traffic flows more freely, and commuting time has decreased along some routes by 15 minutes.

“(The restrictions) have had a good effect since many drivers have taken to the measures,” Marín said.

Drivers are prohibited from traveling within the Circunvalación – the route that runs the perimeter of San José – from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday according to the last number of their car’s license plate.

Vehicles with a 1 and 2 are forbidden on Monday, those with a 3 and 4 on Tuesday, 5 and 6 on Wednesday, 7 and 8 on Thursday, and 9 and 0 on Friday.

Heavy cargo vehicles face additional daily peak-hour morning and afternoon restrictions, but their license plates follow the same weekly guidelines.

The more mischievous drivers have discussed playing with their plate numbers to by-pass restriction guidelines. But that would take some creativity.

The National Registry issues one set of plates per vehicle. The only exception is in the case of robbery when the car owner can request a replica set, according to Luis Mastroeni, marketing director at Toyota dealership Purdy Motors along Paseo Colón.

Purdy Motors, similar to other car dealerships, regularly obtains license plates for clients when they purchase new cars When making a stop, transit officials should call the Transit Police’s central dispatch to verify that license plates match the car to which it is registered, Marín said.

Using a license plate that does not meet a car’s description violates the law and is considered falsification of a public document.

“We haven’t seen a situation of that kind,” Marín said.

The Public Works and Transport Ministry and the Public Services Regulatory Authority, which sets fuel prices, have not conducted recent studies on the number of drivers choosing public transportation over their own cars since the restrictions began.

Despite rising gas prices worldwide in recent years, the percentage of Ticos using public transportation was on the decline in Costa Rica, dropping from 75 percent in 2000 to 64 percent in 2007, according to a study conducted by PRUGAM, a Costa Rican-European Union organization that conducts regional and urban planning studies in the greater metropolitan area.

“Those passengers turned to private vehicles,” said Tomás Martínez, a PRUGAM regional plan coordinator.

Martínez pointed to the availability of credit and cheap used cars as reasons for the 8 percent annual increase in the number of vehicles on local roads.

However, one form of public transportation is on the rise: the urban train.

Passengers can ride from Pavas to San Pedro for ¢300 ($0.55). In the past two years, train usage has increased by 231 percent, according to the Costa Rican Railroad Institute.

Those people who prefer more control over their schedules opt to drive, even if it is with less frequency.

Down the street from Alfaro’s lot near the court complex, Parqueo Canario attendant Salvador Danilo González said business has decreased by as much as 50 percent. He pointed to high fuel costs and the restrictions as reasons people were driving less.

“It’s a fact that (the restrictions) are working,” González said.


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