Who Says You Need a Car?

By Joe Baur

One of the perks of moving to Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica was knowing that we would not need a car for our year abroad. Without knowing much of anything about life in Costa Rica, we at least could see that the small town 20 kilometers west of capital San José is constructed in a walkable grid.

Thanks, Google Earth.

We also knew our apartment would be just a couple blocks away from the grocery store. Our year without a car was set in stone.

Now three weeks into our move, I can honestly say without reservation that we have not missed a car. Buses are plenty frequent to San José if there’s a major event going on, such as last weekend’s Feria del Libro.

Otherwise, Ciudad Colón has everything we need.

In fact, our lack of access to wheels didn’t even cross my mind until a recent discussion on developed and developing countries. This being the idea that countries like the United States are “developed,” while others like Costa Rica are “developing.”

But what does it say about the United States’ status in terms of development that having a car is seen as a necessity? Y’know, on par with food, shelter and car. This of course ignores the millions of Americans who either cannot afford a car or simply do not want one.

“But how do they live!?”

Somehow, I guess.

Granted this is not true everywhere in the United States, but it certainly is the perception in Cleveland. Even before my wife Melanie could sell her car, we were told that purchasing one immediately upon our return is a necessity.

Why? Are we not more developed than a Costa Rica? Wouldn’t the status of a “developed nation” come with having options in life, such as choosing to own or not own a personal vehicle?

Ironically, Costa Rica is a car country. If 10 minutes go by without hearing a motorcycle or truck roaring their engine up the hill outside, then it must be the middle of the night. In fact to my dismay, pedestrians are far from taken care of here. Several Ticos have explained that if a car hits a pedestrian, they think it’s the pedestrian’s fault for not getting out of the way.

Sure, there are plenty in Cleveland who likely feel this way. But that attitude is very much integrated into the infrastructure here, more so than Cleveland. It would make a Solon driver jealous.

Granted this is merely a generalization from the locals, but our anecdotal evidence supports their conclusion. We’ve wondered time and time again why oncoming cars cannot simply move over just a little to at least give us pedestrians the illusion of safety. Or, God forbid, slow down.

I share this not to chastise our hosts. To the contrary, we love life in our adopted home. So much so that Melanie and myself have greatly toned down our pedestrian rage. What I mean by that is; we will not yell obscenities at close-encounter drivers as we would with ironic glee in Cleveland. Mostly because we feel we are a guest here, so we have to live by their rules. Even if that means testing my patience as a bit of an urban snob.

Still, a big check in Costa Rica’s plus column is the fact that you do not need to own a car. It might be seen as a positive or a status symbol, but it does not seem to be frowned upon like back home. Nobody, including our incredible Tico landlords, has asked us in horror how we plan to get around without a vehicle. The attitude is simply, “pura vida,” a common Tico saying plastered all over gaudy tourism merchandise.

Our Spanish teacher Roxanna says the phrase is “a blessing and a curse.” If something good happens, “pura vida.” If you step on a pile of dog turds, “pura vida.”

So when someone in Cleveland asks how we’ll manage to get around without a car upon our return, now I know what to say.

“My legs, you imbecile!”

Oh, and pura vida.



Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at http://JoeBaur.com and on Twitter @BaurJoe.



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6 Responses to “Who Says You Need a Car?”

  1. WELCOME back! THOUGHT YOU had left….believe me..at times THINK a GOOD idea to park old Grey 4 wheeled mare and go back to…unfortunately way things spread out good luck with THAT…SOMETIMES able to do that or use RTA or…

  2. PS…THEIR balance of payments among other things would GO OUT the window if paid for fuel way WE do…take solace…SEEMS sorta reverting back to old days… I THINK what it was was folks got back from WW2 etc.and wanted OWN place, QUIET,etc. CONSIDERING what went thru Oh yeahh… had LOT of other ‘baggage’ which CAN fill a whole book but NOT going there..I dont have time,stomach,etc. Think what BARACK went thru…

  3. QUITE frankly considering WHAT OUR OWN local politicos and certain intersts were doing NO wonder folks fled OVER county line…wasnt just THAT… had housing inflation thing…COULD remember the 1970s…new housing at decent price with more space and NOT CMSD’s *$*@&^%%$$ …Oh yeahh… THEN ’79 and “TerroranGate” (hostage thing) hit like a bomb and opened way for the Great Gipper and well HEY….

  4. Take solace..MY dad was born in ’39…grew up in Parma..(born Cleveland). Moved to SW burbs…LONG story and LONG before mass exodus…marriage thing among other things…help grandfolks…got free land to build small ranch house..ANYHOOTS..HE always kinda missed stuff like sidewalks,etc. What gonna do… NOTICED ANYONE near a strip shopping ctr walks,bikes or pushes stroller over…SORTA recreated the old stuff….WINTER is ANOTHER story… EVEN then depending on what going on…

  5. Evan

    I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the way things are going in the city-center of Cleveland.

    What with a major grocery story going up and building upon building converted into apartments or condos, this area is turning into a true car-less enclave.

    One of the repeated compliments I always heard from the thousands of participants of the highly successful Gay Games is how walkable everything is and how accessible mass transit is.

    With the free trollies, the Healthline BRT, the regular bus service (some 24/7) and the rail system, you can go to any major and secondary destination in the city.

    The trick is to continue educating an obstinately car-centric populace, but that seems to be happening, too. All we need is a little patience.

  6. Citybird

    I recently challenged myself to live car-free in Cleveland for one year. That year passed in August and I have no intentions of returning to car ownership in the near future (or ever) – or leaving Cleveland to continue life without a car.

    I expected days to be difficult and trying, but was pleasantly surprised at my seamless transition. I don’t live downtown and I don’t live in a transit-friendly neighborhood, but I’ve managed quite well over the past year. Overall, life without a car has been more convenient and enjoyable (even in the winter).

    I find that it’s easy to yell at cars who do not yield to pedestrians, and complain about the quality of public transportation, but your loudest voice is the one that chooses to be car-free – even if the city isn’t ready for you. Others will take notice and they will follow.

    It absolutely is not a necessity and I hope that you continue to live car-free when you return to Cleveland.

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