Today, the four lane Malecon carries more cyclists than automobiles. Bicycle commuters fret more about strong Northeasterly Trade Winds and the occasional wave that breaks over the sea wall than about bumper to bumper car traffic and air pollution which afflicts most Latin American cities. The Special Period has cleared Havana's streets of most of those gas guzzling 8 cylinder 'road hogs'; not by choice, mind you, but by the demands of the socialist system for fuel rationing, combined with Cuba's reinsertion into the global economy.
Just over 2 million residents call Havana home in a country of 11 million. Like many capital cities, Havana generates a disproportionate amount of the island's industrial output and holds the lion's share of the island's service economy. Once it was crisscrossed with a streetcar network that greatly expended during the U.S. occupation (1898-1902) following the Spanish-American War. Preference for the automobile led to the demise of the streetcar in the 1950s, and since then automobile and diesel engine buses came to dominate. Since the 1960s Eastern European-designed buses have run through Havana's streets. By 1990, however, the number of bus trips and routes began declining.
In 1986, Havana's buses accounted for 86% of total trips by motorized transport, and automobiles--never a significant mode of transportation, accounted for just 6%. Roughly half of the 200 buses in Havana are now out of circulation, and many bus routes have been eliminated, consolidated or cut back, making lengthy waits at crowded bus stops a multi-hour endeavor.
In the wake of this transportation crisis has come a huge increase in bicycles. In 1990, Habaneros used their roughly 70,000 bicycles mostly for recreation and sport. By 1993, Havana had 700,000 bicycles and 1000 cargo tricycles, mostly purchased from China. Today, bicycles are used mainly for commuting. Unlike in China, though, Cuba has not had a bicycle culture. No road space had been dedicated to non-motorized vehicles before the 'Special Period,' nor were there traffic signs or data.
With the Special Period, however, all this began to change. The Chinese models Phoenix, Forever, and Flying Pigeon can now be bought on installment plans for from between $60 pesos for students to $120 pesos for workers. In deflated 1995 real dollars, this ranges from $1 to $2 USD.
Some of the side-effects of the shift to the bicycle include less air pollution in Havana, greater commuting time for workers, and a proliferation of private sector bicycle repair and parking services. When Fidel Castro legalized more than 100 private sector occupations in July of 1993, employment in bicycle cottage industries grew rapidly. Tire repair services, bicycling parking lots, and mechanical repair shops continue to proliferate throughout Havana, and employ many workers idled by public down-sizing and factory closings. Last year the kind of bicycle taxis common in South Asia surfaced in the Vedado tourist district for foreigners seeking a ride along the Malecon or the tree-covered side streets of Vedado and Miramar. Tourists can also rent bicycles and jump into the fray themselves.
The big increase in demand for bicycles has had considerable spill-over effects on the Cuban economy. Although China has been the main supplier of bicycles to Cuba, Cuba is increasingly building more of its own bicycles and components. In 1990 the Giron bus factory in Havana was refit and retooled for the manufacture of bicycles. After its first year of operation it produced approximately 20,000 bicycles. Projected production for 1995 is 100,000 bicycles. Cubans can now manufacture all components except spokes, bearings, the rear hub and chains, and heavy-gauge seamless pipe, which comes from Mexico. The Cuban 26" wheeled bicycle is about 15 pounds lighter than the 57 lb. Chinese models and better suited for multiple purposes than the 28" Asian wheel. Cuban bikes also come in a variety of colors (now in 12 tropical varieties), and most use the all-terrain type straight handlebar.
Habaneros are only slowly adjusting to bicycle transportation. Until recently, most had not used the bicycle for other than recreational purposes. Riding in traffic--usually with hundreds of other cyclists rather than in automobile-clogged streets--has meant learning a whole new set of skills. Ignored stop signs, pot hole-ridden streets, tropical downpours, and other obstacles have produced numerous bicycle accidents and even a few casualties. In 1990, for instance, about 1/3 of the 306 road fatalities in Havana were non-motorized vehicle-related.
City officials, however, are working towards making Havana a safer city for cyclists. Today there are at least 26 kms. of non-motorized vehicle-dedicated lanes and cycle paths throughout Havana.
Havana's beauty is even more striking when seen gliding along on a two-wheeler. Although the City's roads were never heavily bogged down with automobile traffic, traveling around the city by bicycle for the foreigner is a beautiful experience. In the eyes of most Cubans, however, it is a mixed blessing. Most Cubans begrudgingly accept it as the only way to get around.
On the one hand, the rise in cycling is a rational coping mechanism during the Special Period, is environmentally friendly, and provides excellent exercise. On the other hand, commuting time has increased as many household heads drop off spouse and children, all packed onto one bike, at their various destinations. Bicycle theft has also increased, partly because of the new 'liberties' that Cuba's free market economy has brought, and partly because locks are scarce.
Finally, Habaneros are exerting more physical energy on their commute at a time of food rationing when belt sizes are being ratcheted down. There is growing concern about productivity among laborers who on average confront a decreasing caloric intake. A taxing commute in a torrid climate can weaken some cyclists, especially the elderly. Some Habaneros who arrive at work hot, tired, and at a job site with few co-workers are unwilling to sacrifice so much for jobs that pay in pesos. Transportation difficulties and falling worker productivity only irritate the city's broader economic problems.
The rise of this new, green, and ecologically sound means of transportation, however, brings other rewards. Havana officials offer a 'ciclo-bus', or bicycle bus that carries commuters from the huge post revolutionary suburb of Habana del Este (Eastern Havana) and their bikes to and from the central city. This is a safety measure to carry cyclists who would otherwise have to travel next to cars in a narrow and dimly lit tunnel running under the Bay of Havana. Flat bed trailers assist the ciclo-bus by shuttling thousands of cyclists through in 'rush' hours.
Havana's turn to the two-wheel machine is not a policy of choice, but neither were the 1973 OPEC oil price increases that forced American car manufacturers to produce more economically and environmentally friendly cars. Will Havana maintain its us of non-motorized transport once economic recovery sets in? The 34-year old U.S. boycott continues to make any imminent economic bonanza highly unlikely, especially considering the increasingly hostile U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba. Will the bicycle permanently replace the automobile? This seems unlikely. Regardless of how Cuba navigates its present economic storm, it is improbable that either the nation or its capital will revert back to the pre- Special Period levels of subsidized fossil-fuel driven transportation.
Politics and shifts in global political alliances often produce unintended outcomes. Cycling through the rolling hills of Havana reveals the tenacity of Cubans in the face of extreme adversity. It also highlights the practical aspects of simple, sustainable transportation. Bicycle lanes continue to be added, and after six years of bicycle commuting, Habaneros are as likely to welcome lightweight alloy bicycles as cheap gasoline vouchers--even if they could get spare parts for those old '57 Chevys.
This article came originally from the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy
Around 630 pm on Friday, August 27, bicyclists were gathering in Manhattan at Union Square for the monthly Critical Mass ride. This ride was of course special because of the Republican National Convention going on during the week of August 30 through September 2. The Critical Mass (CM)ride was a kickoff for a week of street protests, political gatherings, art and public theater events inspired by a common disgust for the Republican Party National Convention.
The police were present at Union Square passing out flyers with bike-related laws, trying to intimidate CMers from participating in what has traditionally been a ride that follows its own rules instead of the government's.
The ride was amazing, to have 6,000 cyclists riding as a group through the streets with people cheering on th sidewalks like a parade. As a cyclist, it feels good to actually feel safe and get respect on the road instead of always being forced to submit to automobile traffic.
We did not see any trouble with the police until the ride went near Times Square, a site temporarily occupied by CM on every ride. We saw an increased number of cops and police vehicles, and barricades along the sidewalks in the area in and around Times Square. The police blocked off Seventh Avenue at 34th street, forcing many cyclists to go back or be arrested.
At least three of the arrestees on Seventh Avenue were National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers, whose job it was to gather the names of arrestees and monitor the police. When the police ordered cyclists to move back, I moved to the side. Unable to move onto the sidewalk because of the barricades, I was grabbed by a police officer and handcuffed (much too tightly) with plastic cuffs. Several of the Legal Observers who were merely attempting to gather the names of arrestees were also arrested in this hasty mass arrest.
Most of the ride continued west on 35th street, if they had not already broken off into smaller groups earlier on in the ride. The police again attempted to blockade the ride,this time with orange netting. Although more riders were arrested, including a couple who walked out of a restaurant with hot take-out food in hand, a couple who had gone grocery shopping and held bags of groceries, and a wall street businessman in suit who had just stepped onto the street to ride to work, most of the Critical Massers escaped.
On 2nd Avenue in the Lower Eat Side, police continued with mass arrests. Some were arrested at 17th and the bulk of the remaining arrestees at 10th street. The ride was over and bicyclists were socializing and looking for places to park their bikes. Some cyclists reported being ordered to disperse in one direction only to be confronted by fierce riot cops ready for a brawl when they did. Officers in riot gear corralled cyclists, refused to let them disperse, threw them on the ground, on vehicles, and generally roughed them up.
The Criminalization of Bicyclists
At least 260 cyclists were arrested that night in Manhattan. Clearly, the cops were looking for a reason to arrest any and all that had a bicycle that happened to be near the Critical Mass ride. Although, the cops have never given NYC Critical Mass trouble in the past, and have even at times provided escorts, on Friday, August 27, NYPD was inconsistent, misleading, cruel, and unfair. At times on the ride the cops told cyclists to stop at lights, at other times they stopped side traffic with a green light so that the Critical Mass could pass. The incidents at 2nd Ave. and 10th street, where cyclists were mass arrested even though the ride was over, clearly shows that NYPD was looking for a reason to mass arrest cyclists.
On Saturday outside Madison Square Garden, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said "They chose to drive 5,000 bicycles through midtown Manhattan. Obviously the government had to respond in some fashion." When people drive many more than 5,000 cars down Manhattan streets everyday causing wrecks, injuries, and air pollution, thats not a problem? Why didn't the "government respond in this manner to any of the previous rides that drew more than a thousand cyclists?
NYPD had prepared a warehouse/ processing station at Pier 57 on the West Side of Manhattan to detain and process up to 1,000 protesters each day of the planned week of NoRNC protests. the Critical Mass ride was their opportunity to put this warehouse to use and practice for the upcoming days of action. A big displayed cardboard sign replica behind the processing tables showed arresting officers how to fill out a property clerk's invoice for a confiscated bicycle, further proving that NYPD planned to mass arrest Critical Massers long before the ride began.
In the days that followed Friday, August 27, bicyclists were among the most harassed and arrested of all the protesters. On Sunday, August 29, the bike bloc in solidarity with the big United For Peace and Justice march was harassed, blockaded, detained and arrested from the moment they left Union Sqare. That afternoon, cyclists on Broadway were targeted with harassment or arrest for merely passing through the area during the peaceful Mouse Bloc actions intended to send messages to the RNC delegates going to Broadway shows.
It is not just a matter of bicyclists being targeted as protesters. In a country at war over oil, with a government administration of oil executives, in a city hosting that ruling government's political convention, cyclists are targeted for political reasons. Because bicycles as a transportation option present a threat to the oil and car industry in this country, they have already historically not been given fair treatment and infrastructure in city planning. In NYC during the NoRNC convergence, the targeting of bicyclists for arrest shows that they are seen as a real threat to the powers that be.
For many of the arrestees that night, being arrested was a first. It was my first time being arrested, and although I did not enjoy the experience, it was a learning experience, something that adds another dimension to my understanding of just how messed up this system is. For the wall street businessman and all the other privileged people arrested that night, they now have a taste of what it is like to be among those people all too frequently harassed by police and law enforcement for the color of their skin, the neighborhood they live in, or the way they look.
Story of a Critical Mass Arrest
The other cyclists and I grabbed by the police on Seventh Avenue were never told we were under arrest and never read our rights. When I asked the officer that grabbed me if I was under arrest, he kind of shrugged. While kept in a little pen on Seventh Avenue, reporters swarmed around us asking questions and shoving cameras in our faces. "What's your message?" "What were you doing?"
Gradually, buses showed up. The Arresting officers forced the cyclists and their bikes on the buses. As I was boarding the bus, several bystanders raised their fists in solidarity. It gave me some hope. As the bus I was on headed toward the notorious Pier 57, it attempted to turn right onto a narrow street lined with cars. The warning from the police officers on the bus was too late, the bus hit the Cadillac Escalade parked on the corner causing the vehicle to shake and the alarm to go off. How ironic that the bus full of Critical Mass arrestees hits an SUV on the way to the jail! Once we arrived at the Pier 57 warehouse, an old bus depot, we were taken off the bus with our bikes by the arresting officers. We waited in line as each cyclist was photographed 3 times and then a photo was taken of the bike. We were searched and our belongings were put in a bag. It felt good to finally get the tight plastic cuffs cut off. We were placed in chain-link cages with razor-wire, each containing two or three wooden benches and a water dispenser. The floor of the warehouse was covered in an oily residue that caused skin rashes on some prisoners and filthy stains on everyones clothes that sat or laid down.
Orders form the top, frustration at the bottom The police officers were visible frustrated and unhappy with the warehouse process. As I watched the police officers fumble around with the paperwork, bikes, and prisoners, unsure of what to do next, I thought about comments I've heard people make about activist or anarchist groups being unorganized and laughed to myself at the confusion of the police. When my name was called to leave the first cage and go through the tables of paperwork and property confiscation, I heard my arresting officer comment to another that "there's no way this is going to continue like this tomorrow." The younger cops and oftentimes the officers of color were frustrated and disgruntled by bureaucratic process and the orders of the commanding officers, who walked around, barked orders, and chuckled to each other.
It feels good to be free...or sort-of free. On Saturday, August 28th, I was released from jail on a Desk Appearance ticket, with the promise that I would be back to see a judge in a couple weeks. It was great to have jail support people waiting outside with legal aid info, food, and support.
Return to home page and links to other protests and essays
The WORLD NAKED BIKE DEMONSTRATION was held June 12, 2004 (and on June 19 in some places). Watch for its return next year on one single day hopefully!
"¡NAKED BEFORE THE TRAFFIC! ¡JUSTICE ON THE STREETS!"