Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bicycle Commuting Impressions From Cuba

Learning simple and self-evident ideas.

I was very fortunate to get to visit family and friends in Cuba.  I traveled there with keen anticipation of having the opportunity to investigate an entirely different world where bicycles and walking are the primary way that people get around in daily activities.  I found the bicycle realm fascinating and inspiring, but I won’t claim to have a huge list of grand ideas to apply in my home community.

Cuba seemed very hot and humid, even in October and November.  Experiencing the heat and watching people bicycle and walk in this very warm place led to my first real insight into the difference between my normal bicycle perspective and the bicycle perspective that may exist in Cuba. 

In the US we are intrinsically destined to see cars as the way people get around.  Even as a child I distinctly remember bicycle racing fantasies that were fully formed with car comparisons.  This car centric thought process means that we always want to get somewhere quickly.  We want our commute to be as fast as possible, whether by car or by bicycle.

Travel Slow
So, as simple as this may seem, it was a bit of a mental leap for me to realize that in Cuba most people are using a bike as an alternative to walking.  When the temperature is 85 degrees and the humidity is 95%, going 5 mph on a bike is twice as fast and noticeably less overheating than walking.  In a paved and mostly flat environment carrying 100 pounds at 3 or 4 mph on a bicycle is considerably less taxing than pushing a cart or hauling that load by hand.   Instead of expending 100 calories and needing 20 minutes to walk a mile, the person with the luxury of a bicycle can expend 15 calories and take only 6 minutes.

Live in a compact community
In a world where people live short distances from their urban activities, going comfortably slow is the very natural choice.  In a pedestrian sized world the quest for speed on a bicycle is not the first priority.  In that pedestrian world, a wheelbarrow or a bicycle becomes a magic tool because it saves energy, not because it is fast. 

Decentralized Innovation
The Bicitaxi is natural extension of this practical notion of saving energy, but with a recent history connected to world politics.  The word Bicitaxi is derivative from Bicicleta, the Spanish word for bicycle, and is pronounced bee-see-taxi.

Russia was Cuba’s major trade partner until 1990. When the Russian economy collapsed Cuba suffered heavily without enough food and fuel.  The shortages meant that even fuel for busses was lacking, so the bicitaxi became a very practical addition to the urban transport equation.  For trips of one or two miles around town it is much easier and faster than walking.  Bicitaxis with their characteristic canopy blossomed as a new business.  The always-present canopy on a bicitaxi has three very nice functions: shade, rain protection, and protection from the mystery effluents that splash down into the narrow streets from balconies and pipes above the streets (especially in the morning).

The bicitaxi is very much a handyman/entrepreneurial business.  The taxi person seems to be the owner/operator/builder.  There are several general patterns.  Most vehicles have the same chain driven rear axel, but the rest of the parts, wheels, and framing strategies show incredible variation.

Cuba has made great improvements overcoming the scarcity challenges of the 90’s, but the bicitaxi is still omnipresent in the cities.  I wonder if it’s functionality will continue if the economy continues to improve?

Old and New
Cuba has kept alive incredibly old cars and trucks while also having many new vehicles on the roads.  I expected to see the old US cars of the 50’s, but I was surprised at the variety of ages, eras, nationalities, and styles of vehicles, including plenty of very new vehicles.  Similarly, the range of bicycles surprised me.  While many of the bikes do look antiquated, I saw lots of very new bicycles.  I don’t know how they are purchased.  The Cuban purchasing power is one fifth of the US according to wikipedia. Bike repair is done at very small doorstep shops with no sign of new parts.  I saw one bike store and it had just a very few basic parts in the window, and no bikes on display.  Many bikes have bald tires and some have tires stitched together.  There also seems to be an incredible need for good seats.  Because the bicycles really get used, almost every bicycle seat seems to be worn out.  And yet, in the midst of this obvious modest economy, I saw dozens of brand new and, to me, fancy electric bikes, both in the style of scooters and in the style of pedal bicycles. 

Living Room Storage
The prevalence of so many expensive electric bicycles made me think that maybe an appeal of the bicycle in general is that it is a vehicle that can be stored in a living room.  All the homes I visited were small and basic and serve the needs of two or three generations of family.  Space is limited.  If a person is faced with a choice between a simple car and a nice electric bike, the advantage of the bike may be the ease of parking, both at home and at various destinations.  The stores and markets certainly do not have parking space for automobiles.  The home will never have a garage, and the typical narrow street or courtyard entrance has no place for a car.  A workplace location might have room for a dozen bikes and motorcycles in a small fenced alcove or entry room, but certainly no space for a car.  Even the smaller cities I visited had tightly spaced apartments and buildings and narrow streets such that car parking was very limited.  In a compact urban space with such limited parking, the walk to park a car would eliminate any advantage in driving around with a car.

Know the Flow
I was very impressed with how easy it is to be a pedestrian in Havana.  There are fewer cars than in a similar big US city, and there is a more cooperative sharing of traffic space.  After many days of many hours of walking, I never saw an accident.   There were several times I almost caused a minor accident.  Each incident was the same:  a bicitaxi would be approaching from behind as I walked on a narrow street; they would announce their overtaking intention with a loud whistle, but I could not train myself to select that sound out of the city noises, and I would step the wrong way and suddenly hear the screeching of the band brakes on the bicitaxi axel as the driver narrowly avoided me.  I would get a look that clearly said, “You idiot!  Can’t You Hear”!  They always managed to miss me.

Even on some of the busiest streets, a pedestrian can readily cross by simply waiting a few moments for a break in traffic.  No mater what the street or highway, there will be pedestrians, bicycles, carts, horse carts, tractors, and motorcycles mixed in with the cars, trucks, and buses.  Amazingly this sharing of space includes not only major streets, but also cross country highways and freeways.  I think people learn to be very attentive to this flow, but I did not feel ready either to try to drive a car or to actually relax on a bicycle.  My sense was that my awareness reactions are just not in tune with the flow.  This is not a factor of speed or density, but just my sense of knowing what to expect.  When I bicycled, I stopped and got off the road many times when I saw big vehicles approaching.  That was probably not necessary and certainly not the norm.

In summary, the bicycle experience in Cuba is interesting, and instructive, and inspiring to someone like me who has had a lifetime of the luxury of being a regular bicycle commuter and hobiest.  I do not envy the scarcity and economic limitations that the people of Cuba live with, but I do admire their innovation and conservative use of resources.  I often asked people, how is it that Cuba manages to have this incredible mix of old and new, art and style, preservation and innovation working in their culture?  My current thought is that it is a function of scarcity, but I wish it would become a practice that many cultures around the world could learn to implement without having to be forced in to that choice by privation.

1 comment:

  1. Since you went to all this trouble to set up a blog, the least I can do is put a comment on it.