Can green pioneer Costa Rica get citizens on their bikes?

Costa Rica gets 98% of its power from renewables, yet has one of the biggest carbon footprints in Central America. Now, it wants to clean up transport, but can cycling improve its image?

Costa Rica has a proud international reputation as an eco-paradise. Home to more than 500,000 species of plants and animals, it offers tourists the chance to spot tapirs — large pig-like herbivores with stumpy trunks — lethargic three-toed sloths, and vibrant red-eyed tree frogs.

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It would be easy to spend weeks touring the country's 28 national parks, which cover around a quarter of the country's territory.

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Read more: Ocean College: Guardians of the rainforest

Costa Rica is also a pioneer in renewables, getting 98% of its electricity from hydropower, biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar energy.

And yet, the country has the second-highest CO2 footprint in Central America. That's because it is home to so many cars — 231 per 1,000 people.

Read more: Top UN court orders Nicaragua to compensate Costa Rica for environmental damage

That might not sound bad compared to Germany's 561 cars per 1,000 people, or the United States' 756. But it's a higher rate than anywhere else in Latin America except Mexico and Argentina, and transport accounts for 60% of Costa Rica's CO2 emissions.

Read more: Drinking coffee for the climate

Costa Rica's capital of San José is blighted by traffic jams. Traveling just a few kilometers by car can take an hour.

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And that means terrible air quality too, which the government says has led to a rise in eye and skin disorders as well as respiratory diseases, such as asthma, bronchitis and pulmonary hypertension.

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Getting Costa Ricans on their bikes

The government wants to clean up Costa Rica's air and make the country climate neutral by 2050. One way to do both is to encourage Costa Ricans to switch to cycling.

Read more: Battling smog: Swapping cars for bicycles in Beijing

New legislation voted through parliament and planned to come into effect this year, will grant companies tax breaks if they build bike racks and buy bicycles for their employees, and will compel municipalities to build bike lanes into all new roads.

At the same time, bike safety will be declared a national interest and the government will run national information campaigns to make drivers more aware of cyclists.

Traffic jams mean short journeys across the Costa Rican capital can take an inordinate amount of time, with cars chugging out emissions that harm both the climate and human health

"We want to fundamentally change our people's vision of transport," said Carolina Hidalgo Herrera, president of Congress for the governing center-left Citizens' Action Party.

"Private cars have up until now been one of the main means of transport," she added. "We have kept building new roads over the past 30 years instead of rethinking the system to adjust it more to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists."

Can cycling shed its shabby image?

Herrera has been cycling to work for years. She says one the biggest challenges is changing its image.

"When I first came to work by bike, my colleagues asked me if I had financial problems, if that was why I couldn't take the car," she says. "Cyclists still have the image of being poor."

Not a bike in sight - yet

Which is why she wants bicycle ambassadors to improve the image of cycling. People like Erick Solís, who has been riding his bike everywhere for 15 years, and is a member of Ciclistas Urbanos Costa Rica — Urban Cyclists of Costa Rica.

"We have, for the first time, real allies in the government," he told DW. "And international pressure is mounting to bring down our CO2 footprint. People have finally understood that there's real urgency to act."

Yet Solís remains cautious — at least for now.

"There is a lot of bureaucracy and sometimes a lack of political will in Costa Rica, and it can take ages for plans to be implemented," he said. "Some laws voted in the 1990s still haven't come into effect."

Read more: How to make the world affordably carbon-free

Beyond bikes

But even if the government takes action and Costa Ricans fall in love with cycling, it won't be enough to fix the country's CO2 problem, says Leonardo Merino, who covers transport for the Estado de la Nación, an annual independent review of Costa Rica's social, economic, environmental and political policies.

Leonardo Merino is looking for ways to cut pollution levels in San Jose

"A lot of Costa Ricans live too far away from the center to come to work by bike," he said, adding that San José has spread outwards, not upwards, over the past 30 years. "That's why it's important to create more jobs in the periphery."

For people living on the city's outskirts, public transport would be the only alternative to private cars. "Except for that it often isn't — it's highly inefficient and unsafe," explained Merino. "Plus, buses and trains are themselves one of the country's main polluters."

The government acknowledges that making public transport cleaner and more efficient — for example by having more electric buses — must be part of its strategy towards carbon neutrality.

Read more: Latin America grows fond of electric buses

But that might take some time. The bus service is contracted out to private companies, and the terms under which they operate are only up for negotiation every six years.

What too much traffic does to our environment — and to us

Testing your patience

Getting into a traffic jam is every driver's nightmare. Endless minutes (or worse: hours) in which nothing's moving forward can turn what should be a short car-ride into a seemingly never-ending odyssey. But congested streets aren't just annoying for commuters — they have far-reaching consequences.

What too much traffic does to our environment — and to us

Higher emissions

Turn off your engine when you get into a traffic jam! You'll save fuel after 20 seconds of standing still already. Letting your engine run while your car's idling burns one liter of fuel an hour, according to Germany's technical inspection agency TÜV Süd. A higher fuel consumption rate means that more CO2 is blasted into the atmosphere, which we should avoid if we want to fight global warming.

What too much traffic does to our environment — and to us

Germany's congestion capital

Germany saw roughly 745,000 traffic jams in 2018, according to German automobile club ADAC. That's a three-percent increase compared to 2017. According to GPS-maker TOMTOM's last survey, Cologne's streets were the most congested (as shown above). On average, travel time increased by more than a third because of congestion, compared to free flowing traffic.

What too much traffic does to our environment — and to us

Traffic breakdown in L.A. and Moscow

GPS-maker INRIX uses different calculations and has identified Munich as Germany's traffic jam capital. Drivers there were stuck in congestion for an average of 51 hours a year. That's nothing compared to the world leaders: The world capital of traffic jams is Los Angeles, where drivers were stuck in traffic for 102 hours a year, followed by Moscow (pictured here) and New York with 91 hours each.

What too much traffic does to our environment — and to us

Endangering your health

People who are stuck in traffic frequently have to deal with serious health problems. When traffic isn't flowing as it should, your body releases stress hormones. Your immune system is weakened and your blood pressure rises. People who are frequently stuck in traffic jams, like commuters, are even likely to develop burnout syndrome.

What too much traffic does to our environment — and to us

Billions in economic losses

According to INRIX, the costs caused by traffic jams in Germany amounted to 80 billion euros in 2017. Goods don't reach their intended recipients on time and more fuel is burned. Both companies and private drivers suffer financially. Traffic jams "threaten economic growth and stunt quality of life," INRIX head economist Graham Cookson said.

What too much traffic does to our environment — and to us

Ride-sharing apps made things worse

For a while hopes were high that ride-sharing services like Uber would bring down traffic. If people could easily get a ride, maybe they'd leave their own cars in the garage more often! But traffic researcher Bruce Schaller found out that the opposite was true in US cities. People took Uber instead of the subway or their bikes, while car owners kept driving their own vehicles.

What too much traffic does to our environment — and to us

Traffic just one contributor to air pollution

Afghanistan's capital Kabul is also dealing with congested streets. But that's not the only factor contributing to dangerous air pollution. In winter residents have taken to burning coal, car tires and trash to generate heat. Add to that diesel generators and many, many cars and you get smog that Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) calls "deadly."