San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
No Sugar, Please

Cars, cars and more cars: Costa Rica's worsening love affair

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I love talking to Costa Rican friends who live abroad and come back from time to time, because they bring a fresh perspective: they have become unaccustomed, and notice things that here we might think have been the same our whole lives.

When it comes to Costa Rica’s traffic problems, we know that the problem is one that exploded in 20th century Costa Rica, but various expatriate friends of mine tell me that they think it was in the past two years when it really reached apocalyptic levels.

They might be right. The years 2015 and 2016 saw the highest levels of new car registries in the history of the country. The year before last, the total exceeded 130,000 vehicles, and last year it was 178,700, according to my colleague Diego Arguedas in Ojo al Clima. He dared to compare car importation figures to the country’s birth rate and found that the number of chineados that consume fuel is beating out, by quite a lot, the number who consume milk. A friend tells me that maybe the problem is that we spend too much time driving and not enough having sex.

See also: Road safety in Costa Rica – the law of the jungle must rule no more

What do cars have to do with our birth rate? Plenty.  For every 100 Costa Ricans in 1990, there were nine cars. Now there are 30, and we’ve got the same streets.

If you don’t think that comparison is useful, let’s look at fuel consumption, because we don’t buy cars to leave them in a parking lot. The consumption of hydrocarbons for vehicles increase by 7% in 2015 and again in 2016. This increase is double our economic growth, and that’s the problem: as a society, we’re burning more fuel – and time, and patience, and mental peace – in an unproductive way, without seeing the results anywhere.

Cars line up in front of a toll booth in Alajuela, just a short distance from Juan Santamaría Airport.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

Of course, there are those who see results. Besides the great business this gives to agencies that import cars, the tax revenue that the Tax Administration receives, and the permanent benefit to banks that finance car purchases, there are others who win, too.

That’s what my friends from abroad have noticed. “Mae, there’s a car wash on every corner,” they say, and it seems to be true. Battery shops, gas stations, tire stores, car decoration stores. If we look a little more carefully, we can see all those who have decided to take advantage of our special relationship with vehicles.

And there are others: street salesmen. One of them told me last year that his “boss” (provider of fried plantains and coconut sweets) used to use Waze to figure out where the worst traffic jams where and take one of his salesmen there on a motorcycle. That reminded me of the methods of a group of guachimanes, those who watch over parked cars on the street for a fee: they would check the paper for obituaries to figure out where funerals of wealthy people were taking place, knowing that those who attende would be willing to give more than a coin or two.

Others who win out are the organizers of car fairs. We had Expomóvil this month, and one news story announced that it was still going to take place despite the traffic jams caused by the repairs to “La Platina” bridge on the General Cañas Highway. These are the ironies of our times: the number of cars on the street proves bothersome to a fair whose objective is to increase the number of cars on the street, but don’t worry, that won’t stop anyone! Let’s not be surprised if 2017 breaks records once again for car registries.

(Infographic courtesy of GPS)

In that case, Waze might worsen Costa Rica’s ranking on the list of the world’s worst countries to drive in. In 2016, we are already among the 10 worst. And if Waze says this, I believe it, because it’s our inseparable companion even for routes we’ve traveled our whole lives – it can tell us what to expect along the way. It’d be perfect if it could tell us which streets has the fewest potholes, or which area is the least unsafe at night.

Because the security factor is another key element in our love affair with cars. I know women who prefer to get in the car to travel just one kilometer in order to avoid harassment on the street, or to avoid walking through areas they consider dangerous. “I’ll take 15 minutes on foot or 20 in a car,” one of them said to me.

So things get worse and worse, with the contribution of each person. Nothing promises a change in the near future. Restricting the days we can circulate according to our license plate number? It’s just a Band-Aid solution that has caused many families to buy an additional car to face their restriction day. It backfired: el tiro por la culata.

“We have to get rid of the cars,” President Luis Guillermo Solís told me in an interview. And we all agree with him – just as long as the cars they take out of circulation are other people’s. Never our own.

(Don’t feel strange if you just read this column without moving even a meter in a San José traffic jam. It’s the reality of the 21st century.)

Read more of Alvaro Murillo’s “No Sugar, Please” columns here.

Álvaro Murillo is an experienced journalist who specializes in political coverage and has written for La Nación, Semanario Universidad and El País. In “No Sugar, Please,” his twice-monthly column, he explores politics in its broadest terms, from the halls of government to community life. Connect with him on Twitter.


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The day is coming San Jose will just be grid locked day and night.

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Juan Mayer

Hi Ken!
That’s a great and thorough analysis!
New streets attract more cars – a proven concept.
Also the point with status and perceived security is valid.

I don’t think it’s safer to go around dangerous places with the most valuable item (car) you possess than without anything, just walking or on a bicycle?

Another point is, that the common perception in Costa Rica is, that only poor people that can’t even afford a bus ticket go by bicycle.
And if you don’t want to be seen as such, you need to get an expensive bike and wear lycra. It would help a lot trying to change this concept with a country wide MOPT campaign.

The issues with the costs of driving a car is relevant in other countries as well.
If people knew the real costs, maybe they’d think twice.
I heard once the suggestion to have all cars equipped with taximeters that show the real costs per kilometer.

Another approach would be to lower public transport rates to almost none. If you have a car, and have already paid all fix costs, you tend to prefer it before public transport – you’ve already paid for it.
But if public transport becomes so cheap, you might decide to leave the car parked and after a while notice, that you get along without it quite well.

Sprawl is another issue, which even makes public transport more difficult, as there are less possible users per square meter. However, I think this is being addressed already and you see more and more vertical construction in San José.

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Ken Morris

This is a better article than most about this problem (and yes, it is a probem), since it is fairly fact-driven, but its explanations of the problem (and therefore any chance of solving it) is too scattered and conjectural to be of much use.

Let’s start with the headline, borrowed from a phrase in the article, about an alleged “love affair” with cars. This is often used to explain auto-dependency in the US too, but I don’t think it’s true there or in Costa Rica.

People loved their horses too–and in fact many still love horses–but nobody now rides a horse to the local grocery store. Instead, they keep their horses in the country and ride them there. Personally, I “love” a couple cars (and if anyone has an old VW bus with a split windshield or a Mercedes 240D in decent shape for a good price, let me know) but this “love” doesn’t cause me to want to drive to the local grocery store.

Maybe the money that is made from cars is an explanation, and this article does a good job discussing that, but why would consumers spend money on cars that allows others to profit? Personally, I’m interested in my own money, and not particularly interested in giving it to car dealers or car washes. The fact that someone else makes money off of cars doesn’t seem to me to explain why consumers would give them this money.

Actually, my view for a long time has been that the costs of car ownership and driving are largely hidden from the consumers, or at least easy for them to deny, and thus lead to their miscalculating the costs vs. the benefits. That is, once a person already owns a car, plus a garage, and has already paid their insurance, cars seem quite cheap to drive (plus they sometimes go fast). Amazingly, motorists still complain about the price of gas, but that’s really the only cost they see most of the time. Driving is therefore encouraged by the illusion that it’s a lot cheaper than it is.

But are consumers really this dumb? Well, some are, but not all of them. There has to be another explanation.

I like this article’s mention of driving as a way to avoid street harassment, and suspect that’s true, but I further suspect that this is only the tip of a larger and uglier iceberg.

In reality, driving allows people to isolate themselves from public life altogether, and if the goal is merely to avoid harassment, it’s unlikely to be achieved. In reality, thugs target motorists at traffic lights for muggings, so I’m not sure anyone is really safer in a car. There is perhaps the illusion of protection and privacy, but I suspect it’s more of an illusion than real.

However, the ability to avoid public life in a car does have a clear snob appeal. Who wants to rub shoulders with the lower classes on a bus when they can drive their own car? Not many. And who wants to deal with a smelly cab driver when they can own their own car? Not many. Add that merely owning a car in Costa Rica signals that a person is in the upper quartile economically, and the mere ownership is a status symbol.

So, with some exceptions, I think this is what’s going on: People are miscalculating the true costs of driving while buying status enhancement. But importantly, there are exceptions. Some people, such as real estate salepeople who have to go all over creation for their work and actually many “soccer moms” who are all the time dropping off and picking up kids while trying to work themselves probably almost need cars. I’m pretty anti-car, but I’m persuaded that cars are helpful for some people and don’t mind them driving.

But there is something else going on too. Economic planning in Costa Rica has long been suburban-oriented rather than urban-oriented. The damn government keeps creating free trade zones in the distant suburbs. As a result, people who live in say Cartago have to get to jobs in say Heredia, and vice versa.

This is horrible land use, and a recipe for a car-dominated sprawling mess. It would be much better for transporation (and much else) if the free trade zones were in San Jose. This way, transportation could follow a spokes of the wheel pattern, which is much easier for public transportation to handle.

As far as public policy is concerned, I therefore think that the problem is economic planning for sprawl and the solution is to start centralizing economic development initiatives. As long as Costa Rica continues to promote sprawl economically, it’s going to get more cars and more of a traffic mess.

My second public policy recommendation is to stop building new roads and expanding old ones. That is, traffic has a natural tendency to curb itself once traffic jams become bad enough. Take New York, where most people can afford a car and many own one, but next to nobody is foolish enough to drive in the city. Instead they sensibly take the subway and leave their cars parked, if they own one. The more roads Costa Rica builds and widens, the longer it will have a car and traffic problem.

BTW, traffic jams are great for bicyclists–and for the most part better than bike lanes. Once traffic gets snarled enough, bicyclists have an easy go of it. There’s a reason why New York has bicycle messengers, after all: They get to their destinations faster than cars.

Anyway, there are things that Costa Rica can do to address its car problem, but fretting over an alleged “love affair” with cars isn’t one of them. Indeed, if Costa Rica proceeds smartly, people will still be able to love their cars and even enjoy some of the snob appeal that comes with owing one. They’ll just usually leave them parked in the pasture with their horses.

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Ivo Henfling

Great article Alvaro, you hit it smack on. President Luis Guillermo Solís is unfortunately only adding to the mess. Why do we keep trying to invent the wheel by taking 3 months to add a couple of lanes to an existing bridge? Maybe we should send all the MOPT and Conavi people home (without a $30K pension each month) and start from scratch….

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Jame Krab

Not just cars, but trucks as well. There is only a small railroad there. Where is the vision and leadership to build, at least, freight hauling railway system to link the major cites and both coasts? They never re-built the railroad to Limon.

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Aaron Aalborg

I admit to being part of the problem. CR might gainfully look to countries that have resolved or who are working on this problem. When i lived in Singapore in a well paid job I chose not to have a car. Why? 1. They auctioned off a limited number of car buying permits. This made owning a car hugely expensive. 2. They had a mandatory electronic charging system on all vehicles. The charges went up, if you drove in traffic hot spots at heavy usage times of day. 3. They had strict enforcement and incorruptible traffic cops. They were diligent. That change here would be very difficult to achieve here. t requires an anti corruption drive across the whole of the administration. 4. This last point is in many ways the most important. They built a world class integrated, low fare transport system, to include taxis, busses and light railways. There are also lessons from Germany where tailgating, over taking on the inside lane and using phones, drinking coffee etc are verboten. All traffic rules are ruthlessly enforced. In the UK learner drivers have to carry “L” plates. This makes others more wary off and more patient with them. The UK also charges for access to London.

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William Bailey

As a retired 22 year veteran police officer, I must say, I DO get intimidated driving in the San Jose area. When I have friends visit I scare the crap out of them by the way I drive. I told them that if you do not drive agressive here you will never get anywhere. Until CR starts enforcing traffic laws the problem is only going to get worse. Enforcing the traffic laws would also help with the reduction of drivers. People drive here with no fear of enforcement….fun at first but I’ve learned how scary and deadly these roads can be.

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