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.
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.
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.