Some notes on the transportation geography of San José, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is in many ways one of the world’s most admirable countries. It gave up its army in 1949 and has been a democracy ever since, holding freely contested elections every four years. No other Latin American country has come even close to this record. Costa Rica has other virtues as well. It instituted a national health service in the 1950s and has taken any number of steps in the years since to improve the nation’s heath, for example, by providing clean water almost everywhere. As a result, the country has a longer life expectancy and a lower infant mortality rate than the United States. No other country with Costa Rica’s income level has such great health statistics. Costa Rica has also been more serious than almost any other tropical country about preserving its natural heritage; something like 25% of its land area is protected in one way or another, and “ecological” consciousness is clearly widespread.

Costa Rica is by no means a perfect place, however. Its economy has been growing fairly steadily (with some substantial interruptions) since the 1940s, but, with a gross national income per capita of $10,400 (PPP1: $14,910), it is definitely still not rich. And it has been subject to the same temptations as nearly every country to move in the direction of “neoliberalism,” removing as much of the economy as possible from state control. One of the apparent results of this tendency has been an ever wider gap between the well-off and the poor. Costa Rica’s Gini coefficient of approximately 48 or 50 is higher than that of the United States and (by one measure) even of Brazil. The dream of an egalitarian society that was shared by Costa Rica’s 1948 revolutionaries has not come to pass. An excellent and well-known economics book by Leonardo Garnier and Laura Cristina Blanco describes Costa Rica as being “a developing country that’s almost a success2,” focusing particularly on its growing inequality and the fact that a substantial part of its population seems mired in poverty.

I’ve been in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, twice in the last six months. The chief purpose of both trips was dental tourism, but I managed to get in quite a lot of urban exploration as well. I was struck by the extent to which San José’s urban geography (like the urban geography of most cities) reflects national tendencies. It is in some ways an admirable place, with reasonably good public transportation and with a healthy central city that is fairly comfortable for pedestrians. But, like most of the world’s cities, it has allowed the automobile to dominate most newly urbanized areas even though, as is true in most middle-income countries, a large proportion of the population does not have access to automobiles3.

When I talk about San José in these paragraphs I’m usually referring to an urban area that now has a population of something like 2.2 million, almost half of Costa Rica’s total population. It includes not just San José canton (population 288,000) or even the San José Metropolitan Area (population something like 1,500,000) but a rather larger area encompassing the once quite separate cities of Alajuela, Heredia, and Cartago and the spaces between these cities. This larger area is sometimes known as the “Gran Área Metropolitana” (the “GAM”), or Greater San José in English.

San José, Costa Rica. Map emphasizing Tren Urbano.

Greater San José. Derived from GIS data downloaded from the BBBike.org version of OpenStreetMap.

Greater San José is not particularly dense. It stretches something like 32 km from west northwest to east southeast and no more than 15 km from north to south. Because it includes some substantial deep ravines and mountainous areas, the area is not completely filled in, but, still, its effective population density of something like 5000 people per square kilometer (my estimate), while higher than that in United States urban areas, is not enormous by world (or Latin American) standards. There are several dozen tall or tallish apartment buildings in the central city and in certain high-prestige suburbs, but, generally, both rich and poor tend to live in low dwellings.

The medium population density is partly a function of San José’s distinctive history. The place was truly tiny at the moment of Costa Rica’s independence in 1821. The city of San José remained small, really, until the 1950s. Virtually all the city’s inhabitants lived in an area of three or four square kilometers that was furnished with a traditional Spanish grid of narrow streets (roughly between the two train stations on the map above). The urban area only became a substantial place when the economy took off after the 1948 revolution.

The fact that urban development has largely occurred since the 1940s has had the usual effects. The post-World-War-II city is very car-oriented. Several freeways have been built (although none quite reach the central city). These freeways, however, have not come close to keeping up with the growth in car use, and traffic jams are frequent. A great deal of time is spent sitting in traffic.

Many—perhaps most—people in San José, however, still get around by bus and on foot. Buses are all run by private companies of which there are dozens. Except for a few inner-city routes, the bus lines have comparatively few stops and end up at terminals in the center of the city. There are something like fifteen bus terminals, scattered widely in the historic central city, the casco urbano. Passengers typically walk from the terminals to their actual destinations. It’s possible that a notable portion of the casco urbano’s pedestrian traffic consists of these passengers.

The center of San José has remained fairly healthy by Latin American standards. Most government offices are still there, as are nearly all the city’s major cultural facilities, for example museums and theaters, as well as numerous hotels. Many private firms—notably banks—have kept their offices in the center of San José, and there is still a great deal of retailing.

San José, Costa Rica. Bulevar on Avenida Central.

The pedestrianized Avenida Central in San José’s casco urbano.

As in many other Latin American cities, though to a lesser extent than in some places, certain well-off people have been avoiding the casco urbano for decades. There is a feeling that it isn’t safe there. There is also the issue that heavy traffic makes access by car somewhat difficult. My impression was that most of those one sees in the casco urbano are people of modest means, joined by tourists. Retailing seems to be oriented to a large extent to the former.

Many of the well-off live in post-World-War-II suburbs, mostly built to the east and west of the casco urbano. Some of these aren’t far away. There are office buildings, upscale residences, and major hotels around the Parque Metropolitano La Sabana to the west of the casco urbano and around the University to the east, in both cases just outside the gridded area. These areas could be considered extensions of the traditional CBD, much like North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. They are not nearly as built up as the casco urbano although the buildings are often taller, and they are still fairly walkable, although pedestrians must often thread their way through a landscape built partly for cars.

 

San José, Costa Rica. Pedestrians on a street designed in part for cars.

Rush hour on a sidewalk just north of the Parque Metropolitana La Sabana. Note the high-rise office building in the background.

Much of the growth, however, is further out, typically along the freeways or major highways that extend from the central city in several directions. Malls of various sizes have been built in these areas, as have office buildings and hotels. Much of the roadscape of outer San José does not look very different from the roadscape of North American suburbs. The affluent and middle-class residential neighborhoods just off the highways are somewhat North American in style too, although there are many more (and higher) walls and a great deal more barbed wire in San José than in North America, perhaps because San José’s suburbs also include shantytowns, typically hidden out of sight, for example along ravines.

San José, Costa Rica. Pedestrian bridge.

Pedestrian bridge over a freeway near Plaza Itskatzú in San José’s western suburbs. Note the paved sidewalk along the freeway in the rear and its dirt continuation between the road and the bridge. Walkways along freeways constitute the one feature of this landscape that would be improbable in North America. The roadside business will look more familiar.

Government policy on cities has (as in most places) been somewhat contradictory. There wasn’t much government policy for the first couple of decades of Costa Rica’s democratic era. Then, in the 1970s, the government accommodated urban sprawl and rising automobile ownership by building freeways, thus encouraging more urban sprawl and more automobile ownership. It was not really until the 1990s that the government tried hard to do something about improving conditions in the casco urbano. It fixed up several of the urban plazas that (as in just about all Spanish-speaking Latin American cities) constitute important urban features4. Even more important, over several years (and after numerous studies), it pedestrianized several of the streets in the casco urbano, a process that has continued. The most important of these “bulevares” (as they are called) is a twelve-block stretch of the Avenida Central, traditionally the most important east-west axis in the city, and the location of numerous shops and government buildings (see first photo, above). The parallel, more modest retailing strip of Avenida 4, was pedestrianized somewhat later.

San José, Costa Rica. Bulevar on Avenida 4.

The pedestrianized Avenida 4. I walked up and down this street at least half a dozen times while I was in San José and never saw a cyclist on the brightly painted bike lanes.

Several connecting streets have also become bulevares. Much of the casco urbano has become as a result quite a comfortable place for pedestrians, although walking along the non-pedestrianized streets can be difficult.

San José, Costa Rica. Avenida 1.

The unpedestrianized Avenida 1. Streets like this are slow going for both cars and pedestrians. Note the high-rise apartment buildings in the background. There aren’t many such buildings this close to the casco urbano, but there are a few.

Generally, central San José seems like a fairly healthy place for people who do not depend on the automobile. Government has responded to the perception of a crime problem by beefing up central-city police forces. Police personnel (sometimes on bicycles) are a common presence in the central city. The bulevares and adjoining streets are crowded until late in the evening. And, in the casco urbano at least, automobile drivers seem to be quite law-abiding about red lights (although not so much about yielding to pedestrians at turns).

The problems start further out. Except in the very center of the city, sidewalks—apparently the responsibility of the municipality rather than of property owners—are maintained poorly. There are a huge number of irregularities that must be extremely awkward for non-able-bodied people.

San José, Costa Rica. Sidewalk.

Cracked sidewalk, high walls, barbed wire. This is not an ideal walking environment.

In addition, the open street sewers (common enough in tropical cities) can be quite deep and wet and present a major problem at corners. The condition of San José’s sidewalks seems mildly shocking given the country’s egalitarian ideals and its claims to ecological virtue.

San José, Costa Rica. Sewer.

Open street sewer along narrow sidewalk.

Conditions for pedestrians and bus riders are even worse further out. Sidewalks are often rougher, and bus stops are scarcer. But things are never as bad as they are in parts of North America. Buses run even to low-density places (although the absence of maps or schedules is a problem), and there are places to walk along most roads. Even the freeways have formal or informal sidewalks, which lead to occasional bridges (see the third photo, above), and there are regular, if somewhat forlorn bus stops.

San José, Costa Rica. Bus stop.

Forlorn bus stop on freeway near the Plaza Itzkatsú.

Urbanists will be interested in the government’s one attempt to provide an alternative to road transportation: the revival of the urban parts of the country’s railroad system. Costa Rica’s meter-gauge railway lines to both the Pacific and the Caribbean had been all but abandoned by the 1990s. The lines needed more investment than anyone could justify. But, starting in 2005, several urban stretches of these lines were fixed up. There are now three such lines: from the Estación del Atlántico to Heredia and Alajuela in the northwest and to Cartago in the East, and from the Estación del Pacífico to Belén in the west. In addition, a few of the trains from the Belén corridor connect the two stations and constitute a kind of fourth line (see the map above).

San José, Costa Rica. Contraloria Sabana.

Pedestrian bridge over a major highway at the Contraloria Sabana station. Train (right) was acquired from FEVE. Note the adjoining bus stop in the extreme right of the photo.

The trains run mostly during rush hour (generously defined), when there is service in both directions, at intervals of approximately every half hour (although the schedule has recently become more complicated). There is also hourly Saturday morning service5.

Incofer Tren Urbano, Heredia, Costa Rica.

Crowd waiting for the arrival of a train at the Heredia station.

Rolling stock is a mix of quite old traditional carriages pulled by (often badly polluting) diesel engines—and self-propelled cars acquired from FEVE, northern Spain’s narrow-gauge railway. The trains provide some of the bumpiest and slowest commuter service in the world. Average speed is about 20 kph. One reason for the slow speed is that the train lines are all single-track, with only a few sidings for passing. In addition, there are numerous hills and sharp curves. Also, some of the rights-of-way lie in the middle of active streets. And there are also hundreds of grade crossings and hardly any crossing gates or flashing lights. Extraordinarily loud train whistles warn away drivers and pedestrians. Accidents are apparently rarer than one might expect.

Incofer Tren Urbano, San José, Costa Rica. Estación Cementerio.

One of the older diesel trains at the Cementerio station.

Train lovers will be delighted by what I think it’s fair to call a somewhat primitive railroad. Passengers who depend on it for daily commutes might be less pleased.

The system is considered a success, however. Something like 20,000 passengers a day use the system. Trains can be very crowded. The trains are actually not much slower than buses, which are often caught in traffic jams. Fares, typically a little under a dollar a ride, are about the same on trains and buses6. And the modest train stations are much nicer to wait at than the freeway bus stops.

Incofer Tren Urbano, San José, Costa Rica. Estación del Atlántico.

Waiting for a train at the Estación del Atlántico. All the trains shown in this photograph consist of older rolling stock.

There has been talk of building a light rail system or engaging in a more thorough renovation of the train lines, but these would cost money that the government says that it does not have. Short extensions of the lines beyond Alajuela and Cartago are more likely to happen. They would, like the lines now in place, be pretty cheap to establish.

Buses remain, however, overwhelmingly more important than trains, accounting for more than 95% of transit trips (I’ve been unable to obtain precise figures). It’s hard to imagine this changing.

There is of course probably no way to make all parts of a city completely comfortable for both pedestrians and automobiles, and San José doesn’t solve this problem. But on the whole it doesn’t do badly for a Latin American city. To paraphrase the title of the Garnier/Blanco book cited above7, it’s a pretty good example of a middle-income city that’s almost a success.

 

  1. “Purchasing power parity.” The raw GNI is based on the current exchange rate with the U.S. dollar; the GNI corrected for PPP uses an exchange rate based on the cost of goods, which, in Costa Rica, is approximately 40% less than in the United States at the current exchange rate.
  2. Leonardo Garnier and Laura Cristina Blanco. Costa Rica, un país subdesarrollado casi exitoso. San José : Uruk Editores, 2010.
  3. Some of the general information on San José in this post derives from the following excellent sources: (1) María del Carmen Araya Jiménez. San José : de “París en miniatura” al malestar en la ciudad : medios de comunicación e imaginarios urbanos. San José : EUNED, 2010. (2) Setha M. Low. On the plaza : the politics of public space and culture. Austin : University of Texas Press, 2000. (3) Salvador Pérez Mendoza y Rosendo Pujol Mesalles (editors). Desafíos de los centros de las ciudades mesoamericanas : los casos de tres metrópolis. San José : Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Sede Académica de Costa Rica, 2003. (4) La nación (Costa Rica’s major newspaper, which has fairly good coverage of urban issues). None of these sources really discusses urban transportation geography at great length, however.
  4. See On the plaza, cited in footnote 3.
  5. Up-to-date timetables can be found by clicking here, choosing “Transporte de Personas,” and selecting a line.
  6. Rides through the central city, or to Alajuela, require two fares. Bus fares are again comparable.
  7. See footnote 2.
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2 Responses to Some notes on the transportation geography of San José, Costa Rica

  1. orulz says:

    This (along with all your other articles) is absolutely fascinating.

    Before reactivation for commuter service, you mention the rail lines were “all but abandoned”, but were they completely derelict? Or were they used for some degree of freight or passenger service? How much refurbishment (if any) was needed?

    I see this is branded as interurban service, which seems like exactly the right terminology given that significant stretches run on-street. How does this rail service integrate with bus service? How do the trains interact with cars when running on-street?

    This part of the world is very interesting to me – though I’ve never visited, my sister lived in Panama for a while and my brother spent some time in Costa Rica during college.

    • Christopher Winters says:

      Thanks for your comments.

      I’m pretty sure that–with the exception of the revived passenger lines in the San José area and some very short segments near the Caribbean–all of Costa Rica’s railroad lines have been out of service since the 1990s. You can find out more at the Incofer Website (http://www.incofer.go.cr/) and elsewhere. Also, after I put up the post, I discovered an excellent three-part video series from La Nación (http://www.nacion.com/gnfactory/investigacion/2017/trenes/primera_entrega/index.html?desktop=true). It’s got some terrific footage from the days when the railroad was pretty central to Costa Rica’s economy.

      The lines around San José do seem somewhat like interurban lines, but, unlike U.S. interurban lines, they’re not electrified and they end up at “real” train stations rather than at street corners. I don’t think there is any coordination with buses at all, and cars are just expected to stay away–those horns are really loud.

      Chris

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