Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, West Palm Beach, 19 November 2018 — The eternal transportation problem in the Cuban capital and the intricacies of the ever-impossible solutions of the official agencies in charge of the matter have just led to a new proposal for Havana residents. According to Guadalupe Rodríguez, an official of the Cuban Ministry of Transportation, via the Havana TV channel, a new public bicycle rental transportation system will be inaugurated in Old Havana on November 24th.
The popular evening show Hola Habana, on the aforementioned channel, was the platform for launching an initiative that brings us back to the memory of the 90s, when pedaling on Chinese bicycles that were distributed at workplaces was practically the only means of transportation for ordinary Cubans.
As always, it happened under the then “undefeated” Chief’s baton, one ill-fated day when decided for us, almost by decree, was the option to ride bicycles. In fact, far from assuming it as an effect of the crisis, which it really was, the eternally hallucinated man declared, without ambiguity, that this would put us at the same high level of countries as developed as Holland and Belgium. Ergo, the imposition of the cycle was not a setback, but an extraordinary advance.
That is why those of us who lived through the terrible experience of those years and survived to tell the story, cannot help but feel a sort of scary deja vu and seeing it as a warning sign. Especially when the outlook around us promises (more) difficult times ahead for those of us who inhabit the battered island. It is almost impossible not to see in this “solution” an obvious sign of worse times ahead in the short term.
Returning to the referenced subjec, it is curious that the inauguration of this mode that is now returning with updated variations will be carried out at the Muelle de Luz, (Wharf of Light) point of embarkation/disembarkation of Havana’s very well-known icon, the little Regla motor launch, in proximity to the site where a private establishment known as “Cuba 8” existed until 1968, dedicated to the rental of bicycles and tricycles for recreational purposes that delighted kids, especially on Sunday mornings, when the flock of children happily crowded the nearby Amphitheater.
The details of the “new” system have not yet been disclosed and, as is usual in Cuba, it will be experimental in nature, with the intention of gradually extending it to other municipalities of the city according to its “acceptance” level. However, the aforementioned official reported that this service will be activated from a system of “associates”, which will allow access to it by prior contract arranged at a designated location in Old Havana proper. Also announced was the creation of several points located in the Historic Center, already selected, where associates can access a bicycle or return it once they have used it.
At first glance we must admit that the use of bicycles could be not only a partial solution to the acute crisis of traffic in the capital, but it could also provide recognized benefits to the health of those who take advantage of it. It is also true that it will benefit the environment of a city that is already sufficiently polluted by the emissions of an old, obsolete and inefficient vehicle fleet.
However, the stubborn reality is imposed on this initiative disguised as ecological intentions, preventing it from being feasible. In fact, the difficulties for the effective functioning of the cycling alternative in the capital are numerous and well known. Unlike many towns and cities in the interior of Cuba, Havana has never been characterized by an extensive use of bicycles as a means of transport, except in the bloody years of the “Special Period” when not only was it compulsory but also an inevitable imperative.
But Havana is essentially a city designed for cars and most of its residents have always dreamed of cars, not bicycles. The roads were never conceived for this type of vehicle, including the very poor state that they are in – emulating the craters and unevenness of the lunar surface — together with the scarcity of traffic signals and the proverbial disrespect for the rules of road by drivers of both cycles and motor vehicles. Havana cyclists are the most fragile element of urban geography. Not coincidentally, accident rates skyrocketed during the 90’s, when cyclists were the main victims of traffic-related fatalities.
To all of this, we could add the absence of a network of repair shops and bicycle parking to effectively sustain the development of cycling as a more general alternative than the current official proposal. Other objective material limitations are also present, such as the scarce supply of cycles and replacement parts in commercial networks, high retail prices in stores and low personal income of the population that hinder the proper maintenance of bicycles, just to mention the most obvious obstacles.
But the difficulties do not end at this point. The accelerated aging of the population and food deficiencies are both factors to consider when designing strategies of this nature. This means that bicycle use would not only be limited to a minority segment of the population, but it would increase the dangers for the elderly when they move about on public streets.
For its part, the “experimental” municipality chosen, Old Havana, is characterized by its narrow streets, the frequent crowding of its also thin or crumbling sidewalks and the terrible state of disrepair of its many balconies and eaves. Because of this, Old Havana’s residents have developed the habit of walking in the streets, rather than on the sidewalks, in order to avoid the dangers of a collapse and of broken sidewalks, but increasing the risks of traffic accidents.
It is assumed that those responsible for carrying out the new experimental plan have taken into account these risk factors, including an efficient control system that prevents the theft of bicycles or their parts at the different “stations”, an impossible mission in the Cuban social landscape. However, the “master plan” has already been born with an obvious flaw: the cyclists are hardly circumscribed to ride on the only two bike lanes enabled for this purpose. It is obvious to any person who knows the area in question that these will not be sufficient to allow the “associates” to access their multiple destinations without leaving the original layout.
There will be plenty of stubborn optimists willing to face these “small subjective details” who will believe in very good faith that they will be resolved in the course of the test. That is how forgetful Cubans can be after 60 years spent accumulating failed experiments without ever having worked out even one of them.
Or maybe it’s that, in the background, in the national spirit, the specter of the father of all the impossible nonsense continues to dwell, the one who was once photographed jumping from a war tank in simulated heroism, but never sweating and panting while pedaling on a Chinese bicycle, under the torrid sun and the dust of the merciless city. Perhaps that would explain why many of those who did not live through the hardships of the last century and other incurable enthusiasts — those who are so abundant among us in all occasions — today embrace this old novelty with the expectation and naïve illusion of children on the eve of the arrival of the three Wise Men.
As for me, I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but something tells me that the experiment is not going to work this time either.
Translated by Norma Whiting