Cycling Against All Odds in Costa Rica

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With a good idea, enough capacities and a suitable plan, what could possibly go wrong? As the pilot project on the “Promotion and development of urban cycling in Montes de Oca and Curridabat” proved, there is a multitude of obstacles to overcome in order to successfully improve the conditions for urban cycling. In two municipalities of Costa Rica’s capital, an example of how to keep focused, flexible and determined was set that opened pathways to further contributions to the mobility transition.  

The context of the project seemed hands-on and pragmatic: two municipalities are interested in establishing cycling a safe, healthy, efficient and accessible means of transport in their jurisdictions. There is more to it: they even teamed up across institutional barriers to seek financial and technical support from the Euroclima+ programme. With a straightforward plan to improve cycling capacities of current and potential future cyclists and the construction of a network of bicycle paths that would connect the two municipalities, the tone was set for a successful pilot project with the support of Euroclima+.  

Kicking off in August 2018 the project was innovative from the very beginning. Participatory planning processes, data gathering, educational measures and complementing studies would constitute the panorama of project activities. The plan was to let this lead to the construction of bicycle paths that would directly respond to the communities needs’ and demands.  

In January 2022, the project ended and many of the activities were carried out differently than foreseen, encompassing new elements, ditching others and replacing yet others. To find out how this project turned out to be different than planned and still very successful, this article will revisit several of the challenges that the project overcame. 

First of all, why should we even bother with cycling in a car-centered country such as Costa Rica? Local authorities in Costa Rica just like in many other Latin American countries find themselves in a context where nationally determined contributions already include targets on the transport sector, but the local level has yet to develop its individual strategies to the mobility transition. On country level, the transport sector is responsible for 54% of the greenhouse gas emissions, which policy makers are determined to change according to their NDC and Long Term Strategy. Against this backdrop and considering the limited scope of action that municipalities have, cycling is in an important opportunity to route the transition towards more sustainable modes of transportation. Apart from contributing to climate change mitigation efforts, improving conditions for active mobility furthermore does its share for public health and wellbeing, facing inequalities and enhancing air quality in the city. If this is not convincing enough, the project also helped to build alliances and synergies between different institutions, fostering coordination and cooperation, and strengthening the working relations between the involved parties.           

Most importantly, this team of committed individuals in different institutions who on the one hand are convinced about cycling and on the other hand, willing to tear down the barriers between their respective institutions. This is how a project team could be formed with members from two different municipalities, both embedded in a metropolis, with support from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport of Costa Rica. This team persisted despite administrative changes, methodological setbacks, and the delays caused by the pandemic. 

Tropicalizing established methodologies 

In the beginning, it was foreseen to use the Dutch CROW methodology, made by an organization which reunites the Dutch government and businesses to provide guidance on the design, construction, and management of road infrastructure and more specifically, of bicycle infrastructure. Drawn from and enriched by the experiences in the Netherlands, the methodology would prioritize track segments that permit direct and fast connections with a higher level of commercial activities, low slope, and illumination. While this would have led to a large cycling network with relatively low cost, it did not factor in how the social condition of the different populational groups would be affected by the new infrastructure. The characteristics of the neighbourhoods and local planning policies were two other aspects that could not be covered by the CROW methodology.  

Therefore, the authorities decided to adapt and tropicalize the methodology in order to account for the specific needs of the vicinities and populations, for example enabling travel by bicycle between the areas of Miravalles and Lomas de Ayarco, which is a common commute of many domestic employees and gardeners.  

The tropicalization of the methodology represents an important learning journey and highlights the importance of questioning established methodologies and knowledges to assess whether they are suitable for the local context. In the case of CROW, there were mainly questions of inequalities that could not be integrated and therefore, required an adaption enriched by information gathered in group workshops. Although the application of the methodology “went wrong”, it actually enabled a process of reflection and improvement instead of following the textbook, making the final infrastructure more adequate for the need of the population.  

Collecting and using adequate data  

Data is key to many projects. Therefore, the project initially foresaw the documentation of daily trips by workshop participants in an early stage of the project in 2018. They were asked to register their trips on the free app Strava and to take photos of the improvable road conditions they would encounter. Again, the plans had to change as only 20 trips were recorded on Strava, leaving the project team with a very limited database.  

Further information on frequently used routes and reasons for this preference, as well as conflict zones and suggestions for improvement could be gathered in group workshops and bilateral talks in Montes de Oca.  

In search of complementary quantitative data, Strava was contacted to gain access to the Strava Metro platform which collects aggregated user data on active mobility usage based. In the form of heat maps, the data of 100 trips made in Montes de Oca could be used to enrich the planning process. Additionally, site visits were another important component of the data collection to review the conditions of the infrastructure.

With these different sources of data, the data collection was on more solid feet and left the understanding why data collection is so important for designing cycling infrastructure. Again, data collection was hampered by the changed mobility patterns during the pandemic and had to be carried out differently than planned, but the need to gather further data to improve the constructions in the future became evident. The experience with different types of data planted the seeds for further enhanced, data-based monitoring of the infrastructure through cyclist counts and sensors.  

Communication is key to communities  

Another challenge the project faces was backlash from local communities. In a context where the road space is usually understood as destined for motorized vehicles, redistributing public space is likely to rise local discontent. Although workshops with local communities were carried out, neighbours complained and institutions were reluctant to support the project. The solution the project team found to this issue was to enhance communication. Therefore, a broad campaign was set up by local consultants to educate the population of the two municipalities about the use and benefits of the cycling paths taking into account all street space users. Due to an electoral communication ban, communication could not be carried out as originally designed. However, an opening event of the first 4 km in Montes de Oca could be realized, 18 press articles covered the story in a first phase and 6 additional articles were published in a second phase. Visually appealing material on the bicycle paths and urban cycling was created and distributed, both in the articles and in flyers to be distributed in the neighborhoods to respond to the negative reactions. Maps representing the new lanes were an important tool to present the results in terms of newly gained access to infrastructure, while virtual educational workshops on urban cycling to get in touch with the communities.  

A video that presented the results of the project was another emblematic communicational activity that helped to showcase the success of the project. 

Once again, the communication activities had to be flexibly adapted to respond to the changing circumstances. However, the resources developed and the capacities installed during the project will serve as a base for further campaigns that could foster cultural change towards active mobility.  

What’s next?  

Learning as a team, cooperating, and coordinating has been crucial for the success of this project. It shows that change on a local scale can be reached with limited resources and capacities.  After all, with the main aim to position the bicycle as a convenient, safe and efficient means of transport, the project was an innovative approach across institutional, municipal and team boundaries.  

In the future, the existing infrastructure and usage will need to be monitored. As future opportunities for infrastructure improvements were foreseen in the project design, this remains a challenge in the hand of the project team. Maintaining the construction and improving it under the same conditions of cross-institutional collaboration will require additional effort. However, the involved parties count on their knowledge and experiences gained during the project and can continue to flexibly react to any challenges that they confront.  


Ana Eugenia Ureña Chaves