San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Op-Ed

Why San José’s epic traffic jams are also an opportunity

Josefinos and the rest of the Central Valley’s commuters lament the morning and evening standstill traffic. Cars are suddenly turned into turtles, inching forward slowly but surely. The autopista is no more. It’s merely a glorified concrete trail.

Ticos who take their coffee with the cup half empty might see this as a nuisance that comes with life in the Central Valley. The cup half full? It’s actually an opportunity. After all, no law exists saying that this needs to be the reality forever. There can be alternatives to this mind-numbing lifestyle that keeps us hunkered down behind the wheel for hours on end in any given week. Alternatives that keep us moving, taking pollutants out of the air we breathe, and allowing us to spend more time with our families – already a priority in the Costa Rican lifestyle. As commuting in a car because less and less attractive, the door opens wider and wider for improved public transportation.

We’re already seeing alternatives take hold. Cartago recently opened Central America’s first bikeshare program to complement their bikeway. The Association of Athletes Against Road Rage and Disrespect (ACONVIVIR) are busy advocating for another bikeway that will connect La Sabana with the University of Costa Rica in 20 minutes, or 15 minutes for cyclists with a little extra fire in their engine. Finally, the Costa Rican Institute of Railways (INCOFER) is actively bringing back train transportation to Costa Rica.

Lest we get too glossy-eyed with visions of hopping from bike to train, there is still the risk of taking unnecessary steps backward. The $485 million highway-expansion project of Ruta 32 comes to mind, which calls for expanding the two-lane highway into four lanes for 105 kilometers.

Don’t Be Phoenix

Widening Ruta 32, we’re told, will ease congestion. It makes perfect sense, if you don’t think about it too much. More concrete means more space for more cars. That, however, is precisely the problem: It will bring more cars, negating the point of widening the highway in the first place. Unless you’re Phoenix, Arizona, with endless vistas of beautiful land to soil with ever-widening slabs of concrete, it’s not a particularly feasible solution. Plus, it’s ugly. Just take a look at Phoenix.

Professors Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner studied this phenomenon of road widening in 2011 at the University of Toronto. I can spare you the academia and summarize their conclusion: more roads cause more traffic. It turns out that widening highways to relieve congestion is akin to loosening your belt in order to lose weight.

Sadly for U.S. citizens, this has been the infrastructure development strategy of the United States. We built highways, and cars came to those highways. Suddenly too many cars were driving on the highways, so we expanded them. Then we did it again, and again, and again. Suddenly, historic neighborhoods were sliced in half so Mr. Jones could get home to the wife and kids without activating those muscles in the left ankle for braking. Many were fine with this system, so long as they weren’t the ones getting the raw deal. Now the United States is in an infrastructure crisis, unable to maintain overbuilt roads and highways, or raise taxes to pay for them. Bridges are crumbling across the country while some states continue with attempts to move boldly and blindly ahead with multi-billion dollar highway projects. Bucking the status quo isn’t easy.

A Chance to Change Course

Some Ticos and longtime expats might think Costa Rica is truly experiencing the infrastructure crisis. Tico roads are legendary among just about everyone who has had the pleasure of bouncing along on them. That said, at least Costa Rica doesn’t have concrete pouring out of every corner of the country.

This is an opportunity. Costa Rica can take a look at countries that have become the car’s best friend, namely North America – especially the United States – and see what that wormhole has led to. Obesity, asthma, poverty, segregation, abandoned neighborhoods, and far less opportunity than what Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty promised.

At least the United States can’t afford to keep mowing down the highway. Change is inevitable and has been happening. But we are at an extreme disadvantage compared to a country like Costa Rica, because we’ve already devoted so much space to auto-oriented infrastructure. We have created cities based entirely around the automobile. Cities around before the car were, in many cases, simply gutted to make room.

Costa Ricans can make a choice. They can look at clogged Ruta 27 or 32 and see an opportunity to move Ticos differently. Rail trafficked goods just fine until President José María Figueres Olsen pulled the plug on the national network, allegedly in an attempt to boost the trucking industry. Now INCOFER’s annual budget is but a fraction of just one road project at $17.3 million. These mixed-up spending priorities became a rallying cry of the university student activist group Nuestro Nombre Es Costa Rica during the last presidential election.

Look Around

Young people the world over, especially in Costa Rica, are increasingly environmentally conscious and prefer to move around on foot and bike. Good thing we recently found out that a whopping 98 percent of Ticos believe in climate change, so it shouldn’t be difficult to show the country that bringing more cars onto the roads through highway expansion is a bad idea.

Look at countries that have invested in alternative transportation. This is the Switzerland of Central America, eh? Well, Switzerland has 5,063 kilometers of rail compared to Costa Rica’s 278 and not coincidentally ranks first in Yale’s 2014 Environmental Performance Index. Costa Rica ranked 54th. Or how about the Dutch, our friends who helped make the bikeshare in Cartago a reality? The Netherlands boasts over 35,000 kilometers of bicycle paths with more on the way. Looking at Latin America, Colombia in particular has taken a very progressive approach to providing alternative transportation infrastructure. Their Ciclorutas de Bogotá is one of the most extensive systems in the world.

With the recent anniversary of Costa Rica abolishing the military, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the benefits that decision has had for human development in this country. One was the government’s ability spend those funds on education and healthcare. Smart spending choices are a national tradition. So it’s not only sensible, but very Costa Rican, to ask whether spending $485 million on expanding a highway for a system of travel only accessible to the only 18.8 percent of Costa Ricans who own a car is money well spent.

Costa Rica is a jaw-droppingly beautiful country. The highways and the congestion they demand offer a contrarian image. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate transportation spending priorities to keep this country beautiful, and invest in alternative forms of transportation that all Ticos can enjoy for generations to come.

See also: Four ways San José excels at urbanism – no, that’s not a typo

Joe Baur is an author, writer and filmmaker who has worked for a variety of publications, including Matador Network, Yahoo! Travel, National Geographic and BBC Travel. He lives in Ciudad Colón. Follow him at @BaurJoe and joebaur.com.

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Ken Morris

Yes, indeed. Although it’s counterintuitive, traffic jams are a blessing–unless the loggerheads just build more roads, which in turn produce more traffic jams that call for still more roads and so on. Costa Rica still has an opportunity to take an environmentally sensible and humane path to transportation, although unfortunately I see next to no progress in this direction.

However, let me caution those of us in our camp: Getting a viable “alternative” (I hate this word, since it implies that motor vehicles are the standard) transportation system is a lot tougher than most people realize.

Take bikeways. Unfortunately, they’re almost always a lousy idea. When they are separated from the roads, they tend to attract pedestrians, joggers, skateboarders, and so on that impede bicycle transportation. They are also invariably poorly maintained. When they are lanes on the road, they attract debris thrown off by motor vehicles (it’s just the physics of motor vehicles) that can make them dangerous for cyclists, plus they create problems at intersections when cyclists want to turn left. Most cycling crashes occur at intersections, so this isn’t a concern to take lightly. Not least, motorists seem to feel that bicycle lanes are parking lanes for them (of course, motorists also park on the sidewalks), forcing cyclists out into the street anyway.

There are other issues, like trucking. I’m not sure that I oppose the widening of Route 32, since I suspect that trucking is important and can’t be replaced by trains. We also want ambulances to be able to go quickly to their destinations.

I am a bit of a veteran of bicycle activism, which included involvement in transportation planning, and it pains when well-meaning people with the right goals don’t champion genuinely viable “alternative” transportation systems. The goal isn’t unreachable, but it can’t be reached unless a lot of careful thought is put into it. Also, while there are exceptions, there’s usually no alternative to planning for a mix of transporation modes on the existing roads. Basically, we need to calm motor vehicle traffic in ways that provide safe and agreeable space for bicyclists and pedestrians, and realize that while trains can help for some routes, they aren’t a panacea. The trick is to get the mix right, and it’s not easy.

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Luis Loría

Insightful and interesting article on an issue that we as Costa Ricans complain, but fail to propose solutions..

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mpiedrav

An insightful article! I would really like to experience a pedestrian-friendly San José and modern trains connecting Costa Rican cities.

One reason why several ticos choose to drive cars is the (false) sense of security. But parking a car is no longer safe, even in the parking lots of apparently safe shopping malls. Neither is getting stuck in a traffic jam in some parts of San José.

Also, there are correlations between the walkability of a city and physical/mental health, crime reduction, civic engagement, and some other factors: http://www.citylab.com/design/2014/12/growing-evidence-shows-walkability-is-good-for-you-and-for-cities/383612

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Juan Mayer

Hello Joe!

Congrats on this valuable piece of writing!

I 100% agree with you and couldn’t have said it any better!

Instead of silly road expansions like the recently ongoing one in Liberia they should build or recover railroads.

A thing that might be the cause for these decisions in favor of motor ways might be the relatively high initial cost for railroads.
For example one kilometer of high speed train in China costs about 200 million Yuan (32,5 Million US$). In the newspaper “la nacion” they cited Incofer stating that one kilometer here in Costa Rica would cost around 8-20 million US$.

Comparison:
The 48 Km long improvement of the route from Liberia to Cañas costs about 75 million US$.
From that money you could build merely 10 Km of railroad.

In spite of that it’s worth investing money in trains. Being well implemented trains are the safest means of ground transport.
Costa Rica is infamous for the high number of traffic victims of which the state has to take care of (and pay for via CCSS or INS).
So investing a bit more in train infrastructure could get down the number of traffic victims and save the state money on the long run.
In addition you get a comfortable means of transportation (much better than wasting your time in traffic jams) . How cool would it be to get from SJ to Limón or Puntarenas by train in say one or 1,5 hours?

Cheers,

Juan

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