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Last Updated: 01/05/2015
Costa Rica's Emphasis On Cars Challenges Environmental Narrative
Joe Baur

Key terms: Costa Rica, Tourism, Environmentalism, Transportation, Car Culture

Costa Rican tourism has done an excellent job of selling an environmentally-conscious image abroad. The result has helped transform the tiny Central American nation into a tourism heavyweight, logging a record 2,427,941 international inbound tourists in 2013 according to the Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT) (AFP, 2014). This breaks the previous record of approximately 2.3 million visitors set in 2012, which itself had broken 2011’s record of 2.2 million (La Voz, 2013). Nicaragua, geographically larger and more populous than Costa Rica, received just 1,180,000 arrivals in 2012 when the World Bank last measured inbound tourists (The World Bank, 2014). Thus, it seems clear that travelers specifically yearn for Costa Rica’s green pastures set amongst a backdrop of picturesque beaches and rainforests. Smiling sloths commonly seen hanging overhead with their little one in tow doesn’t hurt the industry either.

Usually, tourism-fueled environmentalism attracts travelers to the Pacific and Caribbean coasts in gringo shuttles. Upon arrival, white vans marked “turismo” take tourists from the airport straight to their hotel in paradise. During their time in Costa Rica, most tourists only get a glimpse of the Central Valley where a majority of Costa Rica’s population resides. Without spending much time in the polluted capital city, San José, it’s understandable why many tourists return to their respective home countries singing the praises of Tico environmentalism.

However, it doesn’t take long for a tourist who spends more time in the Central Valley to find evidence of the inaccuracy of Costa Rica’s environmental image.

Trash disposed into tree hollows, plastic bottles lining the sidewalks, and floating garbage in the Nicoya Gulf are some of the common sites in San José. Even more perplexing is the prevalence of cars in the Central Valley. Despite just 188 cars per 1,000 Ticos, vehicular transportation is the norm (Furey, 2014). The increasing number of cars on San José's roadways has encouraged the Solis administration to move forward with a $485 million highway expansion project. This project will expand Route 32, a two-lane highway, into four lanes for 105 kilometers (Arias, 2014). Yet the idea that highway-widening relieves congestion has been disproven by a number of studies. In fact, a study from the University of Toronto in 2011 using data from various metro areas in the United States found that building more roads simply creates more congestion (Schwartz 2011). This phenomenon is explained by the fundamental law of highway congestion discovered by Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner: the result of expanding highways is more drivers on the road. In other words, expanding highways encourages someone who typically carpools or uses more environmentally-friendly public transportation to instead use a car.

Considering Costa Rica’s supposed commitment to sustainability and moniker as the Switzerland of Central America (The Economist, 2004), one might think there would be an emphasis on clean, alternative transportation such as cycling or railroads. To the contrary, however, Costa Rica continues to expand its highways and has only 278 kilometers of railway. Ticos can thank former President José Maria Figueres Olsen, who shut down the national railway system in the 90s, allegedly in a preferential nod to the trucking industry (Isenberg 2011). This was a primary complaint of Nuestro Nombres Es Costa Rica, a student-led activist group that encouraged educated voting during the most recent presidential elections. A narrator in the group's introduction video expresses this sentiment, stating "First you took our tram, and then the trains. While every other country laid new rails, you dirtied our lives with traffic, potholes, faulty bridges and expensive by-paths" (Nuestro Nombre es Costa Rica, 2013).

Switzerland, on the other hand, is recognized for its dense and extensive rail network, cycling and walking paths. Railroads have helped the Alpine nation maintain its top status in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, whereas the ranking of countries like Canada with aging rail networks, continue to plummet (Yew, 2014). In addition, Switzerland's national cycling and walking paths outnumber the country’s roadway network in sheer length (Bewes 2010). If Costa Rica hopes to maintain its title as the Switzerland of Central America, one might expect a similar commitment to transportation alternatives and sustainability.

The disappointing reality in Costa Rica is that vehicular transportation options abound due to increased funding by the federal government. Only recently have rail lines made a comeback in the Central Valley. Sadly, the Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles (INCOFER), which is responsible for Costa Rica’s railway network, has a meager 2014 budget of 9.329.880.500,00 colones or approximately $17.3 million USD (Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles, 2014). This is about a twenty-eighth of the price tag for the aforementioned $485 million highway expansion project. This meager budget exists as a result of bullying by private highway developer Autopistas del sol in the construction of National Route 27, which forced INCOFER to give up a section of rail between San José and the port of Caldera where trains -- primarily freight and a tourist trains -- ran until 2011. Though trains could technically still run, officials at INCOFER believe that running them would be unsafe. The dispute has yet to be resolved (Ramirez, 2011).

While cycling is on the rise along with the construction of separate infrastructure for cycling in different pockets of the country, adequate funding for these projects is still lacking. Many Ticos and expats still consider bike commuting in San José a suicide wish due to perceived aggressive driving habits and a severe lack of infrastructure to protect cyclists from cars. Projects that would cater to younger citizens who prefer cycling to driving continue to be questioned for their cost despite being significantly more affordable than roadway projects. San José’s proposed ciclovia, a separate bike path that would connect La Sabana park to the University of Costa Rica for a 15 or 20-minute ride, has been stuck in the planning phase for five years and continues to lack funding (Guerrero, 2014). Despite these examples of lacking support for alternative modes of transportation, it is important to note that Cartago is the site of Central America’s first bikeshare system (Isenberg, 2014).

Costa Rica is hardly alone in its double standard of transportation priorities. Cycling and rail projects are frequently questioned vehemently in the United States for their cost despite being much more affordable in the long term and having a minimal environmental impact compared to highway projects. The Solis administration recently recommitted to achieving the goal of becoming the first carbon neutral country by 2021, however, there is little evidence that Costa Rica is moving in this direction at the necessary pace. Sadly, this sort of commitment seems impossible to achieve without immediate and drastic changes in Costa Rica's transportation funding priorities.

Works Cited

AFP. (2014, 1 17). Tourists flocked to Costa Rica in record numbers in 2013. The Tico Times.

Arias, L. (2014, 11 5). Retrieved from:

Costa Rica Breaks Tourism Records in 2012. (2013, 3 10).La Voz de Guanacaste. Retreived from

Costa Rica's Solis administration seeks changes to $485 million China-backed highway. The Tico Times , p. 1. Retrieved from:

Guerrero, A. (2014, 10 26). Ciclovia lo llevaria de La Sabana a San José en solo 20 minutos, sin presas de carros. Costa Rica Hoy , p. 3. Retrieved from:

Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles. (2014). Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles. Presupuesto Ordinario del 2014 Proyeccion de Ingresos (En Colones). San Jose : Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles. Retrieved from:

Isenberg, R. (2014, 10 16). Video New Project Introduces 100 Public Use Bicycles to Cartago. The Tico Times. Retrieved from:

Isenberg, R. (2014, 08 27). Lost Highway. The Tico Times. Retrieved from:

Furey, M. (2014, 6 20). Is Costa Rica Really the Switzerland of Central America?. Global Interactions Retrieved from:

Not So Swiss After All. (2004, 11 27). The Economist, p. 38.

Nuestro Nombre es Costa Rica. (2013, 12 27). Nuestro Nombre es Costa Rica Video. San Jose, Costa Rica. Retrieved from:

Ramirez, E. (2011, 6 8). INCOFER incumplio con restauracion del tren San José-Caldera. Semanario Universidad. Retrieved from:

Schwartz, A. (2011, 06 3). Building More Roads Only Causes More Traffic. Fast Co-Exisit. Retrieved from:

Yew, M. A.-T. (2014, 9 3). Aging roads, rails, pull Canada down competitiveness rankingThe Toronto Star, p. 1. Retrieved from:

(2014). Nicaragua. Retrieved 12 2, 2013, from The World Bank :

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