It’s startling at first. Motorcycles and scooters outnumber cars. People outnumber motorcycles and scooters. Throw in a handful of bikes and some roadside stands. There isn’t much room left for cars. It’s chaos… and it’s perfect.
Nicaraguan streets were not designed with the car in mind. Which is probably why they work so well for those NOT in a car. For someone only used to driving in the US, it took some getting used to. It doesn’t seem safe. It doesn’t feel safe. I don’t think I took a breath as we took our first drive through town. It was madness.
Weaving between dogs in the road and kids on bikes, passing slower scooters, getting passed by dirt bikes, slowing down for a bus, watching for people standing alongside the street, half the motorcycles have kids on them, some of them had babies on them, some of those babies were driving. Everyone is making their way somewhere, and no one is making it all that fast. I instantly got the sense that there isn’t much hurrying to be had. How nice.
Over the past few years, we have become very close with a family in our neighborhood. We enjoyed weekly family dinners, celebrated birthdays, created a quarantine bubble and got out for bike rides whenever possible. Last year, all eleven of us traveled to the west coast of Puerto Rico together. Then, last summer, they moved to Nicaragua. I hate them.
When they came back to Pittsburgh for the holidays, they told us all about their dusty and crusty life back in their small town on the Pacific. Surfing, volcanoes, warm weather, and a sloth that lives at the kids’ school- well, color me intrigued. While I prefer the moody trappings of the north, Amber explained that any thoughts of continued marital bliss hinged on a respite from the dreaded February in Pittsburgh. Tickets were promptly acquired. I like winter, and I like fireplaces, and damn- do I like drinking bourbon and reading by the fireplace. Add to those facts that my complexion is far more suited for candlelight than sunlight, and you can see my struggle. But it was too hard to pass up an adventure, some sorely missed faces, and free accommodations (thanks for the room, Sammy!).
San Juan Del Sur sits at the south end of Nicaragua on the Pacific, about 40 kilometers north of Costa Rica. The town is home to around 8,000 people, mostly Nica, with a small ex-pat population and a steady stream of surf traffic moving up and down the coast. It is not a wealthy place. Sadly, Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the America’s with a poverty rate hovering around 25%. There is a certain guilt that comes from enjoying a place that is struggling to provide the basic necessities to its residents. We were lucky to have the chance to visit and remained very aware of our privilege while in country.
So, on Super Bowl Sunday, we landed in Liberia, Costa Rica and made our way up to the Nicaraguan border at Peñas Blancas. Because Nicaragua does not receive many visitors, there are very few flights in and out of the country. Most people make their way up from Costa Rica, a tourist Mecca. Walking across the border to Nicaragua is a bit of an intimidating experience, but everything worked out fine. The Spanish I learned in high school and from working in restaurants is still muy bueño. Picked up by our friends, we continued north to their town on the Coast.
The streets of Nicaragua served everyone. These weren’t car streets, they were just streets. Public ones. Used like people would have used streets from the advent of cities up until the 1930’s. Some of those streets were playgrounds, some were soccer fields, some were kitchens and some were small business incubators. Those streets were for walkers, bikers, and drivers. For cats, chickens, horses and dogs. Those streets were definitely for kids.
As we bumped over ruts and dodged chickens, with the kids in the back of the pickup, I was reminded of the concept of ‘safety in chaos’. Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman pioneered the idea in the 80’s. He found that the more traffic safety measures the Dutch Government provided, the more dangerous streets became. The concept being- more signage, wider lanes, more separation from pedestrians and so on would help keep everyone safer, but it had the opposite effect. These well intentioned initiatives actually lead motorists to drive faster and pay less attention. It is this false sense of safety that ends up being the greatest danger. Upon digging deeper, Monderman found that the more chaos a driver experienced, the more closely they paid attention. It was a revelation that changed how the Dutch design roads and intersections. This is one of the primary reasons The Netherlands has experienced a 48% reduction in traffic deaths in the last 20 years and has one of the lowest traffic fatality rates in the world.
Case in point- traffic circles. Traffic circles, roundabouts, rotaries- whatever it is you choose to call them- are good. Traffic circles are chaos, and traffic circles reduce accidents and injuries. No one would dare read text messages while traversing a traffic circle. When a road is perceived as safe and boring, people travel fast and fiddle with the radio. On busy, hectic roads, people pay close attention because they are very well aware of the risks. We build our roads to move cars as fast as possible with almost no thought given to the inherent risks for traveling at such excessive speeds or the risks they impart on anyone unlucky enough to find themselves near those roads. American roads are for cars and cars ONLY. Yes, they might be paid for by human taxpayers, but if you are not fortunate enough to be a car or a Transformer, well then- you are out of luck, pal.
Nicaraguan roads require a driver’s full attention. They seem scary at first, but they aren’t. They are busy and they are hectic, but what seems scary is the chaos and this is exactly what makes them safer. There is not a moment where a driver would feel comfortable TikToking or scanning the airwaves for the latest Nickleback release. These roads require everyone’s vigilance. With so much going on, it becomes increasingly difficult to get distracted. And speeding is simply not possible. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association shows, “Fatalities rose from under two percent of struck pedestrians in crashes where the speed limits were below 25 mph to over 22 percent in crashes with speed limits of 50 mph or more.” The design, or lack thereof, of the roads keeps traffic moving at relatively low speeds, which keeps anyone from getting significantly injured.
Whether by choice or by necessity, the condition of the roads in Nicaragua provide something beautiful… a place for people to go about their lives. The streets were lively, they were social, and they were fun. Taking a stroll didn’t feel like you were unwittingly thrust into a game of Russian Roulette. Quite the opposite, instead of feeling like your life was in danger, you had the sense that you were surrounded by life and experiencing it to its fullest.
Walking down a street in town was to be a part of something so much bigger than yourself. Kids kicking around a soccer ball, an old woman grilling chicken where a car might be parked, teens on dirt bikes doing their best to flirt, music pouring out of shops and bars, people everywhere, happily going about their routines. The streets were alive and people were connected. Neighborhoods were not severed by thoroughfares. The fabric of community had remained intact and tightly woven.
The feeling of walking through San Juan Del Sur took Amber and I both back to what we loved about our time in Paris. The street life. That feeling of being in the thick of humanity. The sense of vitality you get when you are surrounded by people. The beauty of watching everyone go about their lives. The joy of getting to be a part of it.
Paris is spending millions to claw back their roads from cars. Nicaragua benefits from never having made the same mistake. Both examples prove the same thing, the better roads are for cars, the worse they are for people.