The lost legacy of Costa Rica's streetcars

The streetcars represented the rapid modernization of Costa Rica.

Anyone who has tried to drive through San José knows traffic in Costa Rica is remarkably bad for such a small country. And anyone who has tried to take a bus across the city knows public transportation isn’t a suitable alternative, either.

But in the early to mid-1900s, Costa Rica actually had a modern, efficient form of public transport: streetcars.

Inaugurated in 1899 in San José, the electric tram was Costa Rica’s first successful intra-city transport for the masses. Run by the Costa Rica Electric Light and Traction Company1, the streetcars connected the growing capital from San Pedro to Sabana (and beyond); by 1925 more than 20 trolleys crisscrossed the city.

The trams were a point of San José pride. Smoking, intoxication and loud conversations were all forbidden on-board.2 Neighborhoods threw parties when service was established to their barrio.

More than just a means of transport, the streetcars represented the rapid modernization of Costa Rica. Trams meant electricity, which also meant lights, telegraphs and telephones.

“They promoted and consolidated San José as the economic, industrial, financial and population center of the country,” writes the UCR’s Isabel Avendaño-Flores.3

What happened to Costa Rica’s streetcars? Conventional buses began offering the same routes at the same fare, and they had the benefit of adding new service with minimal investment.

By the 1940s, the streetcars were largely seen as obsolete. They were too slow and occupied valuable street space, and thus they were considered an impediment to the modern automobile.

Rather than investing in improvements, Costa Rica shut down the service for good in 1950. More than seven decades later, few people even remember the streetcars that were so important to the capital’s growth.

“Just as one day, on the eve of a new century, the eyes of the Josefinos saw the advent of the tram with delight, so too, with total indifference, they saw it disappear,” remembers La Nacion.

“Today, when the city is asphyxiated by the smoke of motor vehicles, the tram revives as a warm and powerful longing that it may materialize again in the not-too-distant future.”

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1

Majority owned by Minor Keith, he of Costa Rica railroad fame.

2

In a critical interpretation, this might be considered classist, as the rules largely prevented poorer Costa Ricans from riding.

3

Isabel Avendaño-Flores explores the streetcar’s role in Costa Rica’s cultural heritage. Her paper on the subject is an entertaining read and was the source for much of this story.