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Pedal Power solutions to petroleum dependence and polluting vehicles: Arcata Library Bikes, Pedal Power Produce, and more!

CAOE - Committee Against Oil Exploration - stop offshore oil drilling to protect sensitive habitats and cut petroleum dependence.

Culture Change through music! The Depavers eco-rock!

Take our Pledge for Climate Protection and learn about the Global Warming Crisis Council.

SEI hometown action!
Arcata city council's proclamation against war on Iraq and Kyoto Protocol proclamation.

Overpopulation has become a reality.  Overpopulation Resources and News Tidbits

Sail Transport Network

Fact Sheets
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Long Distance


Bicycles in Cuba
A Fresh Wind From the South: Cuban Bike Revolution

by Christian Huot

"... the best way to deal with bicyclists is to get a bigger bumper for your car..."
     Karen Schmidt, Washington State House Transportation Committee Chair

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 Metamorphosis
To introduce the bicycle as a mean of transportation in a culture that considers it a toy can be somewhat of a problem (this seems to be a rather pan-American problem!) And indeed, the first cyclists to roam the streets of Havana were exposed to drivers not used to sharing the road with bicycles.

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
sometimes used with disastrous consequences for air quality. More often, it is used to produce electricity.

Is the bicycle there to stay ?
For those who have visited the country last year, alas, the cyclist revolution is showing some signs of falling off. The growing availability of strong currencies brought about by the legalization of the dollar in 1993, the increase in tourism and the arrival of foreign corporations have allowed a rise in oil imports. The streets of Havana have started to rumble a bit louder. And, irony of fate, numerous foreign corporations are now searching hard in the Cuban soil for high quality petroleum. Some even believe that Cuba could become a major oil exporter in the near future.

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


Articles of interest:
Measuring and controlling the actions of governments 

Anti-globalization protest grows, with tangible results. 
WTO protests page

Tax fossil-fuel energy easily
by Peter Salonius 

UK leader calls War on Terror "bogus"

Argentina bleeds toward healing by Raul Riutor

The oil industry has plans for you: blow-back by Jan Lundberg

It's not a war for oil? by Adam Khan

How to create a pedestrian mall by Michelle Wallar

The Cuban bike revolution

How GM destroyed the U.S. rail system excerpts from the film "Taken for a Ride".

"Iraqi oil not enough for US: Last days of America?"

Depaving the world by Richard Register

Roadkill: Driving animals to their graves by Mark Matthew Braunstein

The Hydrogen fuel cell technofix: Spencer Abraham's hydrogen dream.


Ancient Forest Protection in Northern California. Forest defenders climb trees to save them.

Daniel Quinn's thoughts on this website.

A case study in unsustainable development is the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel.

Renewable and alternative energy information.

Conserving energy at home (Calif. Title 24)

Culture Change mailing address: P.O. Box 3387 , Santa Cruz , California 95063 USA
  Telephone 1-215-243-3144 (and fax)

Culture Change was founded by Sustainable Energy Institute (formerly Fossil Fuels Policy Action), a nonprofit torganization.