by A.M. Mustelier
A Flashback of the ‘80s
Havana is designed so that more than one million inhabitants live in it comfortably. It’s a small city, without trams or a subway system, or suburban trains. There were once, at least the trams, along the avenues 23, 12 and Línea (hence the name of that thoroughfare), but the scheming of bus magnates managed to do away with them. That mistake has never been more costly.
The subway came close to being; it began to be built in Havana in the 1980s, paid for almost entirely, of course, by the Soviet Union. It promised to be a functional and lasting structure, like everything Soviet, except for the Union itself, which one day vanished and with it any hope that Havana residents could be able to go about town without undergoing epic experiences in each trip since the size of the city has barely changed in the last thirty years, but it has more than doubled its population in the same period of time.
In the current phase of the post-pandemic process, a large number of students, workers, and people, in general, are not out in the streets, while transportation is functioning at full capacity. This results in comfortable and easy journeys which at times remind us of the 1980s. This illusion is fading by the day; it’s apparent to the naked eye.
In a few weeks, traveling in Havana will again be a path of suffering, because more people will be out in the streets. There will be endless lines once again, lack of fuel, overcrowding in buses and classic-car taxis whose prices –instead of responding to the law of supply and demand– will respond, as usual, to the cartel law imposed by their own self-preservation behaviors, division of territory and collaboration to evade regulations. The public transportation system is just insufficient.
An Excess of Population
The State has become involved and it has created options beyond buses and private taxis. There are cooperatives in charge of keeping the inflated population of the city moving. To be honest, they have solved part of the problem and are an alternative to the long lines and the hours lost under the island’s caressing sun. But citizens on a budget or a pension, or students, which already includes a sizeable part of the denizens of Havana, cannot afford to take those taxis as a regular means of transportation, since, like the planet, these social groups have two characteristic movements: rotation around food and essential products, and revolution around the city in search for them. One cannot senselessly go around wasting kinetic energy.
But it’s been worse. In the 1990s, in the height of the Special Period, it was virtually impossible to move about town, since bus circulation was almost inexistent. A big problem required a big solution. The authorities had an epiphany. I like to imagine an apparatchik had it while standing in line for the old and capricious bus 264. The big solution: deporting tens of thousands of inhabitants of Havana and get them away from the public transportation system.
Cuba bought thousands of bicycles and sold them at a reasonable price (whatever that word means now). Few decisions have hit such a bull’s-eye in the history of Cuban crises. The problem didn’t go away, naturally, but the relief to transportation networks and the increased autonomy of movement got Havana to remain a functional city.
The images of Vietnam or China in the 1980s are unforgettable: their (gigantic) streets filled with bicycles like a blown up Tour de France, and then the same in the 1990s, but with small motorbikes, and then the same in the 2000s, but with modern cars. Only one lesson can be learned from this, you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe. And after that lesson, one wonders why the streets of Havana aren’t filled with this cheap and healthy means of transportation, now that even industrialized countries are applying this solution to reduce pollution and improve health and quality of life levels.
Bicycles in Cuba today can match a ton of uranium for price, even the old and basic ones of Forever and Phoenix brands. But yours truly firmly believes that the solution to the transportation problem in Havana lies in the spreading of human traction. There are no real economic objections for it. Importing a large number of these machines would greatly lower their price, and so they could be sold at a reasonable price (there goes that word again), or even in installments if necessary.
We can also look at it as an investment for health, a measure to save fuel and relief for transportation networks, which are all but collapsed. It would generate jobs: repair shops, specialized shops, small manufactures of parts and accessories, and bicycle parking spots, which are now a thing of the past. Sometimes the most efficient solution is the simplest one, and sometimes a bit of imagination in government saves a lot of resources. It’s not like they have to come up with the idea from scratch, because it’s already been done, and it worked. Havana is a small city, without trams or a subway system, or suburban trains, but it is small and you can pedal right through it. Freedom of movement is the root of all freedom.