A handful of young people got together in May and began dreaming the impossible dream: a bike-friendly San José.
The trio, who would eventually call themselves ChepeCletas, wasn’t disillusioned by the challenge. They knew what they were up against.
They saw the shoulder-less streets that are often treated as racetracks. They knew people were afraid to drive in the city, much less be caught outside a locked car. And they accepted that if San José would ever become bike friendly, a shift in mentality would be needed.
So they are starting with the basics. As a way to ease people back into the city, they’ve been offering night tours – not on bikes, but on foot.
“We wanted to show that the park spaces are being used,” said Sandra Guzman, as she trailed a tour of thirty Ticos who were rediscovering their city. “Maybe people aren’t ready for bikes, but they can go on foot. And if the city is seeing that we are taking advantage of the spaces we have, there is more incentive to make new ones.”
ChepeCletas has been leading the tours for three weeks now, visiting new restaurants, wandering through the Culture Ministry, the Atlantic train station and several artistically-lit parks.
“People have been taught to be afraid of San José and it’s hard to lose that,” said Ayal Bryant, one of the founders of ChepeCletas. “I was terrified of San José. But the more I walked around, the more I was able to relax.”
But the walking tours are just the beginning. The group has hopes of resurrecting the Sunday closures of Paseo Colón to auto traffic, building bike paths and outfitting parking lots with bike racks. They want to inspire flash mobs to overtake the city by bike, introduce pedacabs (pedal-powered taxis) and provide incentives for people who arrive at eateries and bars without a car.
They are gaining traction with the higher-ups: San José Mayor Johnny Araya has given them full backing, the United States Embassy has expressed interest, and, each week, they are joined by more people who want to help realize the dream.
Some of the infrastructure to create a more bike-friendly San José has already been installed. According to Bryant, the city has plans for bike paths and has allocated the ₡800 million ($1.6 million) required to build them, but officials are still working out a few trouble spots before construction can begin.
The architects of Chinatown have pledged to incorporate bikes into their plan, and if you stroll down Avenida 4, the east-west pedestrian walk just south of downtown, there’s a small bike drawn into the concrete and the outline of a track. However, when Bryant hopped on his bike to ride it, he was pulled over by police within two blocks.
Robert Faulstich, co-owner of the downtown Tin Jo restaurant, rides his bike into the city from Escazú nearly three times a week. He gives clients who do the same a 50 percent discount.
“It’s not that dangerous,” he said. “I feel comfortable, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that San José is bike friendly.”
He said the large troughs on the side of the road can be scary, especially when drivers come too close, but he’d much prefer his bike to a car.
Bryant tried his bike in the city for the first time when his group met with the mayor. He said he was surprised at how quickly he could move through the city.
“It’s perfectly doable,” he said. “And the best part? It gets you out of your car and into the streets. It’s a more social experience. You become a person and not a car.”
He said the traffic moves so slowly that the real problem is not the cars, but the pedestrians, who aren’t accustomed to looking out for cyclists.
It’s Bryant’s hope that the presence of bikes will beget more bikes, simultaneously increasing the interest in a car-free environment.
“You have to ask, which comes first? The infrastructure or the bikers? Well, there’s not much we can do about the infrastructure, but what we can do is create a demand for it.” Bryant said.
For more information about the ChepeCle-tas, visit their website: www.chepecletas.com.