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Envisioning a Havana Bike Culture

In a rare opportunity for an American, I spent 4 weeks this past summer in Havana documenting the infrastructure of the El Vedado neighborhood for my Master of Architecture thesis. While there, I became very interested in Havana's transit.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) 2006 Living Planet Report, Cuba was named the most sustainable nation in the world. The metric assesses sustainability using the UN's Development Program, the Human Development Index and ecological footprint. While Cuba's energy improvements through the Revolución Energética (Energy Revolution) have been treated as a role model for many nations, Cuba's largest city, Havana, lacks a comprehensive sustainable transportation plan. Realistically, the city will not have the means for massive infrastructure for a number of years but cost effective alternatives exist, particularly in biking.

Why does Havana matter? Cuba is on the brink of massive economic, political and social change over the next decade. Economically, the past decade has slowly opened the door to privatization, foreign investment and development on the island. Raul Castro has been actively changing policy since taking presidential office in 2008. Within the past year, Raul Castro has allowed for the sale of houses for profit, something that has been illegal for the past 50 years. Politically, the United States is receiving more and more international pressure to remove the trade embargo, which will have a large impact on Cuba's future. As recently as this past October, the UN denounced the embargo with a vote of 186-2. The Obama administration has eased rules for travel to Cuba and increased allowable remittances to Cubans. And, perhaps most importantly, with the aging Castro brothers, a question of uncertainty about Cuba's political future. An obvious successor has not been identified to lead the country once the Castro brothers remove their power. Socially, as the country begins to slowly privatize, the majority of Cubans have the opportunity to work for themselves for the first time. Collectively, these steps are altering the Cuba today and molding the Cuba of tomorrow. 

What can be done? As Cubans lack disposable income and previous laws have prohibited cars sales, the majority of Habaneros do not own cars. Sustainable transportation plans should capitalize on this strength and provide better methods of alternative transportation. Biking, both affordable and sustainable, has the ability to transform transportation in Havana.

Bike in the City of Columns

Bike in the City of Columns

 Living in a city with one of the highest bicycle commuter rates in the USA, I was immediately awestruck by Havana's lack of bikers, yet overwhelming potential for an emerging biking community. Biking could work very effectively in this sunny and dense city. The city's grand, tree-lined boulevards could provide sharrows for bikers.

Havana had an extensive streetcar system until its removal in 1952. The system connected the growing suburbs, Buena Vista and El Cerro to name a few, to its historic downtown, La Habana Vieja. While a shame about the streetcar's removal, the wide boulevards still exist and could provide an excellent source for bike lanes. El Malecón, an esplanade along the water, could provide a fantastic greenway with designated bike lanes. A beautiful view of Havana Bay may entice residents and tourist alike to bike up a bike and enjoy the scenic greenway. Calle 23 could connect Habaneros to one of the few commercially dense areas of the city, La Rampa. Linea, another main arterial, can provide Habaneros with direct access from two of the largest suburbs, Miramar and Marianao, that are located about 10km outside of the historic city. Calzada del Cerro can provide direct access from the dense Cerro suburb to La Habana Vieja. Other wide streets, such as Avenida Carlos III, can provide close access to University of Habana to encourage the 60,000 student population to bike to class. The city can provide a comprehensive review of effective commuter routes and begin to implement strategic phasing of bike lanes. 

Bike Lane Options

Bike Lane Options

As economic hardship has dictated much of Cuban life, a bike share program could be instated to 1) accustom Cubans to bike ownership and 2) subsidize cost. According to the US Department of State, Cuba tends to have very low crime rates. The Cuban government provides harsh prison terms for minor infractions so a society of little crime has evolved over the past 50 years. This unique social character removes much of the theft and vandalism concerns that come with bike share programs. Economically, Havana is in a difficult place. Fortunately, the government is opening itself up more and more to form alliances and partnerships with other nations. These partnerships allows for money to fund city initiative and programs.

Havana is an incredibly unique city with incredibly low car-ownership rates. By providing sustainable transportation options for a changing city, the city would set a standard for its future growth and development in the 21st century.  Its importance should not be overlooked as its impact can mold future city initiatives.

Photo credit: George Schon