As a transportation nerd, I spent part of my recent vacation in Playa Del Coco, Costa Rica observing how people move through the main street. What I noticed most was the bike culture, which resembled organic chaos where everything still managed to run smoothly.

A bike rack outside of the main grocery store. Note that none of the bikes have locks! All photos by the author.

In Playa Del Coco, people bike on the main street all day and night long, and there are very few rules of the road; the way people move would give most traditional traffic engineers a mild heart attack. But at the same time, everything seems to work.

Here are some takeaways and photos from what I observed:

1. No one wears a helmet. I did not see a single person wear a helmet while riding a bike. I also did not see any crashes. Perhaps given the volume of people who bike, motorists know to look out for bicyclists. This would support the findings of a study from University of Colorado Denver that concluded the safety of people riding bikes increases with more bikes on the road.

2. Woman Power! Anecdotally, most of the people that I saw riding a bike were women and girls. Many of these women and girls biked around with small children. A few had bike seats for the children, however, the majority of children were sitting on a back rack meant for a pannier or the top tube.

A woman biking with child on rear rack.

3. Tandems not required. It is not uncommon to see two adults on a bicycle built for one person. As a child, I remember riding around with my cousins on handlebars or seats. However, until my experience on Costa Rica, I had never seen two adults on a bike.

4. Feet to the left. Whether it was adults or children, most “passengers” sit on the top tube of the bike with their feet to the left. Perhaps since most people have their children sit that way, it is a habit that carries into adulthood.

5. Take your time. Compared to people who ride bikes in the District, people in Costa Rica who use bikes for transportation bike slowly. Most of the bikes were beach cruisers that do not lend themselves to Tour de France-esque riding. In addition, the culture has a slower pace than urban areas in DC, which likely plays into the slower bike riding culture.

6. Bike lock optional. One thing we can file under, “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it,” is the fact that people in Playa del Coco rarely lock their bikes. They leave their bike on the bike rack or leaning against a building or street post. Some people lock their bikes, but it is rare.

A man biking with a woman sitting on the top tube.

Often times planners in the US look to Europe for examples of bike culture as seen in the growing popularity of protected bike lanes. My experience in Costa Rica has shown me planners should consider lessons from other parts of the world including Latin American.

This post originally ran on Nspiregreen’s blog.

Veronica O. Davis, PE, has experience in planning transportation, urban areas, civil infrastructure, and communities.  She co-owns Nspiregreen, LLC, an environmental consulting company in DC.  She is also the co-founder of Black Women Bike DC, which strives to increase the number of Black women and girls biking for fun, health, wellness, and transportation.