Bicycles in Cuba
by Christian Huot
"... the best way to deal with bicyclists is to get a
bigger bumper for your car..."
At a time where most third world countries are trying to hit the eight- lane highway of "automobilisation," Cuba is presently undergoing a real revolution in the field of sustainable and efficient transport. For an island which had virtually no cyclist culture until 1990, bicycling is rapidly becoming a central tool of transport.
The collapse of the Soviet Union seriously affected the Cuban economy, and particularly its capacity to buy oil. The Cuban government could not afford to sacrifice its rare foreign currency on oil when its own population needed to import food because it was not adequately fed.
Before 1990, the communist bloc was buying Cuban sugar at a rate exceeding the free market rate and was then selling back oil at a discount. This amounted to a subsidy of some $five billion US. This favorable exchange ended abruptly and in August 1990, Castro announced that the country was entering a five year "periodo especial" of austerity. Some alternative had to be put forward. In the sector of transport, the solution had two wheels.
Quickly, a team of 25 planners was formed, strictly to design the different bicycle facilities that would be necessary for safe and efficient circulation of bicycle traffic. More than one million bicycles were bought from China and sold to Cubans for a fraction of the cost . A local industry was then set up, and produces today some 150,000 bicycles per year. The country today numbers two million bicycles, half of which are in Havana.
The transport revolution was born out of an economic constraint, rather than out of the will of citizens, who did not have the pedaling habit. So the next challenge was to convince the people that bikes were a good thing. An enormous awareness campaign was therefore undertaken. Not a single speech from Fidel was without mention of the virtues of the new national priority. Radio, television and the press did the same. Bicycle festivals were organized and slowly, the country started to change.
The accident rate was initially high. But this changed rapidly. Turtle backs (yellow concrete bumps) delineating bike paths were installed along a number of the main roads. For instance on the Malecon, ( the famous boulevard bordering the ocean in Havana,) two full lanes are lined with turtle backs and reserved exclusively for cyclists. The same is true on the highway leading from Havana to the beach at the east. To get to the beach, Havaneros can also leave from downtown and take the ciclobus, a bus modified to accommodate some 30 passengers with bikes they board by going up a ramp. The ciclobus allows people to easily cross the tunnel passing under the mouth of the bay of Havana and arrive straight on the cyclist path of the highway.
Humberto Valdez, co-director of the Institute of Research on Transport of Cuba explains another original way to reduce the transportation needs of the Havaneros: "We realized that there were many not-too-specialized workers who had jobs far from their homes. A system was henceforth put in place to allow people to exchange their job for one closer to their home".
Already, over 10 000 people have exchanged their jobs in such a fashion, reducing the time and resources devoted to commuting. All these facilities had very concrete impacts. Every morning, more than 400 000 Havaneros are going to work on their bikes. Not bad for a city of two million people!
For a North American cyclist like me, the sensation of being respected as a full road user, or to have a full lane on the highway leading out of the city gave me an uncommon feeling of pride. For once, I had more space than I needed, no worries about being cut or having a door opened in my face, and nobody to honk at my back! What freedom!
The cyclotaxi, the Latin American version of the rickshaws and becaks of Asia and the pedal-deliverer, whom we can see moving on three wheels behind a big wooden box are appearing. And poncheros, mechanics managing quick-fix roadside workshops, have also sprung up all over the country.
But how to park all these bikes in a city with no parc-meters?! No problemo. Havana has seen a boom of bicycle parking, public as well as private. Indeed, the economic reforms have allowed a diversity of private trade, including bicycle parking and most bike related services, which are more expensive than the state's but also very popular. In exchange for some spare change a clerk takes charge of your bike, puts a tag on it, and gives you a number. Just like a bike cloakroom. The famous paper Granma, organ of the Cuban state spreading the message of the revolution in Cuba and to the whole world, operates one of the best parqueo de bicicletas of the country. In a space sufficient to park about eight sub-compact cars (or four old Plymouth 1951's, very popular in Cuba) some 140 bicycles can fit. The bikes are suspended in the air by the front wheels, allowing for an optimum use of space. The parking is open 24 hours a day and reserved for the paper's employees, who don't have to pay.
All of these changes have allowed a great improvement in
cyclists' life in Cuba. They have also allowed the country to keep going with a
fraction of the resources they were using before, without jeopardizing the
crucial sectors like nutrition and health. In 1995, Cuba was functioning with
half the energy they were using before 1991, which was already about 1/15th of
what a North American uses. The consumption of oil has passed from 13 million
tons per year to about 5 million today, going through a low of 2.5 million in
1993. Most of this oil is imported, and paid for in hard currency. The national
production doesn't exceed one million tons per year. Moreover, Cuban petroleum
is viscous and high in sulphur. This renders it unsuitable for motorized
vehicles, although it is
Is the bicycle there to stay ?
Moreover, a French company is now developing the technology that will allow Cuban industrial facilities to function efficiently with high sulphur oil, which for now damages the equipment and limits its use (This left me wondering whether they were also designing sulphur-resistant humans...)
Another ambiguous signal, the International Federation of Automobilism, based in France, will sponsor the first car race in the history since the Cuban revolution. For the race, and by a generous distribution of green bills and shiny asphalt, the federation will "upgrade" of all places,- the bicycle friendly Malecon!
Nevertheless, Cuban bicycle activists are confident. Fernando Hernandez, cyclotourism fan, still believes in the slogan launched in 1992 "the bicycle is here to stay". According to him, many Cubans fell in love with the bicycle. "This won't change, whether we have oil or not", he says. In last
December, Humberto Valdez was coordinating an international conference on the bicycle called: The Bicycle: Option for the 21st century. Valdez continues to supervise the 25 planners who still work full time to bicyclelise Cuba. Valdez states that the cyclist has won the respect of the Cuban society.
"Even though we have seen an increase in the amount of motorized vehicles this year, the number of accidents has remained stable and the demand for bikes stays very high. The cyclists have gained their place and they will keep it."
[Editor's note: This was written in 1997 and some things have changed.]
Note: see our Bicycling news/issues/culture page