14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 15 January 2018 — The first Sunday of each month they meet in a park in Centro Habana and ride through the capital on a route that varies to avoid boredom. They are the members of Bicicletear La Habana (Havana Cycling), a group of cyclists that promotes the use of bikes as a means of healthy transport and respectful of the environment, a task that in Cuba involves breaking down the stigma of unreliability attached to this means of transport.
The problems with the oil supply and the shortages during the Special Period, in the 90s, negatively affected the image of this transportation mode which, in Europe, is experiencing an era of splendor due to its positive impact on the economy and the sustainability of the cities.
A study published this Monday by the European Union’s PASTA Project (Physical Activity through Sustainable Transport Approaches) estimates that if at least in 24.7% of trips were made by bike, more than 10,000 premature deaths could be avoided per year. In addition, the results show that by increasing spending on the cycle path network by only 10%, the estimated economic benefits of avoiding premature mortality are enormous.
“Getting people out of cars produces great health benefits. A combination of measures that make the car unattractive and policies focused on converting public transport and cycling into more attractive modes would be the best way to improve health and welfare in European cities,” the study concludes.
The restoration of the bike lanes in Cuba is not discussed, even though it is the measure most in demand by those who cycle.
In Cuba, the public commitment to promote the use of the bicycle is conspicuous by its absence. Last December, transport minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodríguez told the National Assembly that repairs to “some capital arterials” are planned for this year, but Wilfredo Vázquez, a 55-year-old electrician, believes that “we should also invest in parallel roads and smaller streets that could be a less dangerous alternative for cyclists.”
However, the restoration of the bike lanes in Cuba is not discussed, even though it is the measure most in demand by those who cycle.
In 2013 the economist Marino Murillo, known as the “Tsar of Economic Reforms,” made an announcement that excited some and robbed others of their sleep. The new plan to revitalize the use of the bicycle was aimed at alleviating transport problems and offering a healthier option to the population, Murillo explained at the time.
“In Cuba, one could say there are no bike shops, although there is a store in Miramar and another in another municipality”
The announcement set off alarm bells for many Cubans who saw in it a possible return to the hardest years of the 90s economic crisis.
“The application of below-cost pricing for the sale of parts for [bicycle] maintenance will be evaluated,” Murillo added then, but almost five years later there has been mo increase in sales of bikes or bike parts, nor has there been an increase in the availability of bike parking or bike repair shops.
“In Cuba, one could say there are no bike shops, although there is a store in Miramar and another in another municipality,” reflects Yasser González, from Bicicletear La Habana.
And this is not the only problem. The exclusive bike lanes on the right-hand sides of streets, which were so common two decades ago, have been phased out. On some streets, cycling has been prohibited altogether and the government no longer engages in a massive importing of bicycles, as it did during the Special Period to address the lack of other means of transport.
The architect Miguel Coyula believes that “in Cuba, bicycles are seen as a necessity imposed by extreme economic circumstances.” The specialist wrote an article in which he said that “Havana lost a golden opportunity to become a truly friendly city” for cyclists.
Although the data are not as alarming as those of other Latin American capitals, Havana already suffers from pollution levels that should be reversed.
Havanans give very little thought to the sustainability of their city or their health. In 2014, an investigation determined that nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and dust particles are causing a worrying environmental deterioration in the capital’s air quality. Although the data are not as alarming as those of other Latin American capitals, Havana already suffers from pollution levels that should be reversed.
But the majority of Habaneros consulted by this newspaper reject cycling because it is very hot, the streets are in very bad condition, it is dangerous and they don’t believe their nutrition is adequate for the effort required. Some people also fear their bikes will be stolen or there is no parking near their homes or work.
The cyclists who have joined Bicicletear La Habana pass in a multicolored row in front of Havana’s doorways, leaving curiosity in their wake. Passers-by and drivers sometimes call them “the crazy bike people” for moving on two wheels when in the collective memory “pedaling” is still something closer to sacrifice than pleasure.
“Sometimes I have seen the group pass in front of my house and the truth is that I do not understand why they spend so much energy in that, if along this same route there are almendrones (collective taxis) running,” says María Elena, a retired teacher who lives on Infanta Road, near the departure point of the members of Bicicletear La Habana.
The woman traveled on two wheels when she was working, but no longer cycles because her knees are “in very bad condition.” The aging of the population is leading to a future where “in 2030 older adults will constitute 30% of Havana’s population,” which is another reason Miguel Coyula gives for the decline in cycling.
Among drivers, the opinion of cyclists is quite negative. The drivers refer to them with derogatory phrases, they shout insults and there are few displays of courtesy towards those on two wheels. Along with the tricycles known as pedicabs, bicycles are the lowest link in the Havana traffic food chain.
The Cuban Statistical Yearbook only mentions this type of accident when it is due to “violations by cyclists,” but not when they are the victims.
“I make the trip every day from my house in La Víbora to my work in Vedado and I have to be very attentive because the drivers cut me off or park unexpectedly in front of me without warning,” laments Wilfredo Vázquez.
The cyclist says he has been “in the saddle for almost 30 years” and has never had a serious accident, although several falls that he blames on “imprudent drivers.” However, the Cuban Statistical Yearbook only mentions this type of accident when it is due to “violations by cyclists,” but not when they are the victims.
According to data from the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), in 2016 cyclists were responsible for 57 accidents with 5 deaths and 53 injured, an incidence lower than that recorded in 2015, when there were 69 accidents, with 10 deceased and 62 injured.
“They always blame us for interfering with traffic and saw we are a headache for taxi drivers and guagueros (bus drivers) but most of the time it is the other way around,” Vázquez complains. “They do not take us into account and without exclusive bike paths, they see us as if we were intruders on the road.”
The experienced cyclist believes that “the state of the streets doesn’t support cycling very much either.” In Havana “there are very few roads that are not full of potholes, with the asphalt broken down by the heat and with bad signals,” he says.
To make matters worse, the bicycle market does not support cycling as a means of transport. Unlike the 90s, when the streets were full of Chinese bicycles – the Flying Pigeon models and the popular Forever Bicycle – today the few rolling along the streets show a greater diversity of styles because they come from the personal imports or the tourists who, after using them, give them away to some Cuban.
Bicicletear La Habana promotes the idea of small private businesses who rent bikes by the hour. The informal market also often makes up for the lack, although the bicycles offered on classified ad sites are poor quality, this paper has confirmed.
“The most popular bicycles are the electric ones, because people do not want to pedal,” says Wilfredo Vázquez, who considers himself “a passionate cyclist.” He says, “I do not understand that, because having a bicycle is choosing to a healthier lifestyle and for that you have to do the exercise,” he argues.
Vázquez believes that “sooner or later” cycling will be common in Cuba’s major city. “Because it is untenable to move more than two million people on public transport and the city is very congested with cars.” However, “first you have to overcome people’s prejudice.”
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