The Efficiency of Common Space

Common "carro" making the most of every trip.
Common “carro” making the most of every trip.

I’m spending a year talking to coffee farmers in Latin America on a fixed budget generated by teaching summer school and selling my furniture, so renting a car is about as plausible as a trip to the moon. With busy schedule of people referring me to friends of friends of friends who have mountain farms, I spend a lot of time on the bus. The same was true in New York when I lived in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. We all know the environmental values of shared transit, but there are hidden values to the communal places public transit can take us.

I was sitting in a bus station in San Jose, Costa Rica last Sunday waiting for the last bus to leave at 7pm to head to a region less than 2 hours south. There were around 50 plastic chairs set up in front of a TV above the little kiosk selling snacks. I sat down on one of the last free seats and started texting and making phone calls to coordinate final details. I wasn’t really paying attention to the Saprissa-Heredia soccer game going on on the screen; I’d just look up when half the room gasped at a near miss.

I did start paying attention, however, when at 6:45 half the room got up to leave. The bus hadn’t pulled in yet and the guy who takes tickets hadn’t assumed his position on the stool by the door- where were they all going? I glanced up at the TV and saw the final score of “¡1-0 Heredia!” flashing. The game was over and people were going home. Roughly half the people seated in the bus station had come to watch the game.

It didn’t take much reasoning to realize that they had something going. Here was a relatively clean, well-lit place with bathrooms and cheap snacks. It wasn’t as dirty, noisy, or dark as a bar, and you didn’t have to buy something if you didn’t want to. For people who don’t have a TV and want to watch the game, this is pretty much the ideal solution.

And it’s also efficient. If all those people had been watching at home, that’s 25 more TVs sucking juice from the grid, 25 more houses with lights on in the kitchen.

The efficiency of common spaces doesn’t just apply to the bus station. Any time you elect to turn off the lights, turn down the heat (or turn off the A/C), and unplug all your electronics in favor of heading to a common space, you’re reducing your energy costs while making the best use of energy that’s already coming out of the grid. Cafes, libraries, gyms, community centers- and even bus stations- already have their lights and climate control on. Use it. When you elect to read, work, work out, or take a class in a common space, you’re making a better use of your community’s energy. In countries where appliances and the juice to power them are exponentially more expensive than the US, the choice is a no-brainer. When you use public transport, a bike, or your own two feet to get to a common space, it just keeps making more sense.

Sometimes we all want and need the tranquility of our own bubble, but being smart about powering down our homes while enjoying the cultural hubs of our communities turns out to be more than just fun; it’s energy efficient.

Looking more closely at the efficiency of common space in Latin America…

One of the biggest differentiators between North American and Latin American living is the development of personal space. In North America it’s considered desirable (what sibling doesn’t want his or her own room?) and generally attainable (taxis are usually available if you refuse to take the bus). But in the majority of Latin America it isn’t even on people’s radars.

Families sleep double digits to a room and strangers’ kids (and groceries) get plopped on your lap on the bus, no questions asked or eyes blinked. Part of the reason the average carbon footprint of North Americans is so much bigger than most other places in the world is that we insist on doing things with ample personal space. Here, it isn’t an accessible option for the majority of the population. Poverty translates to energy efficiency through the sharing of resources.

Every single bus not only transports people, it transports stuff. People send their groceries, gas tanks, bags of fertilizer for the farm, bushels of bananas for their sister, chickens, and blocks of cement for the wall by public bus. They don’t have a car to go get it themselves, so they make use of a vehicle that’s already going, of gas that’s already being consumed.

People’s houses are small and often lit by only a few bare bulbs. During the day, the open windows and natural light does the trick. In the evenings people drag chairs to the curb and converse under publicly powered street lights or congregate on the stoops of local stores and cantinas. Their lights are already on; why run up your bill?

Here, lack of personal resources and a culture of community merge to create efficient uses of common space. In North America, with our love of individual everything and the availability of money to pay for it, this efficiency of common space won’t happen accidentally; we have to be more conscious of electing make choices in favor making ample use of the energy already going into maintaining common spaces while simultaneously powering down our individual ones.

So the next time you’re trying to justify hanging out in the local bar on a Tuesday, say it’s in the name of energy efficiency.



  1. The culture of Costa Rica is so interesting, I’m glad you decided to share this! It amazes me how in America, the thought of saving energy has to be so complicated, like hybrid cars, or expensive power saving light bulbs. Although these things do help out the environment tremendously, and saves energy, it seems to have been over thought. Using the resources that are already given to you like the light post is a simple and easy way to do it. Love this article.

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