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Cuba's two-wheel revolution.

Five years ago there were only an estimated thirty thousand bicycles in Havana, a city of two million people. With the exception of a few small cities, such as Cardenas and Camaguey, Cuba never evolved a bicycle culture. It didn't have to. Hungarian buses may have spewed out palls of black smoke, but they provided an efficient transport network. Gasoline was plentiful. And cars were everywhere, including high-finned, voluptuous dowagers from the heyday of Detroit weaving among the sober Russian-made Ladas, their large engines guzzling gas at an astonishing rate.

However, the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989 cut Cuba adrift, severing the gasoline pipeline. The resulting shortage forced a reevaluation ... and a new revolution that marks a two-wheel triumph over adversity.

In January 1990 the Cuban government announced it would "enter the bicycle era" and contracted with China to purchase 1.2 million bicycles. Within two years, the number of buses on the streets of Havana fell by half and cars by two-thirds, as the number of bicycles increased twenty-five-fold to over 800,000. Bicycle lanes appeared, including along the Malecon, the sensuous seafront boulevard that seems to embrace all Havana. Many colonial streets in Old Havana were closed to motorized traffic. Bicycle parking lots sprouted throughout the city. Special buses were detailed to carry cyclists through the tunnel beneath Havana harbor. New traffic regulations were adopted. And bicycle repair shops appeared on every comer.

The World Bank has applauded the "comprehensiveness and speed of implementation of this program" as "unprecedented in the history of transportation." Today, every second citizen in Havana, and one-fifth of the populace nationwide, owns a bicycle. Old and young Cubans alike have taken to two wheels with characteristic zeal.

"Even an old guy like me rides a bicycle to work," says a fifty-nine-year-old waiter, "and I lost my fat gut doing it!" he laughs, patting his stomach.

No wonder! The Chinese imports are rugged, single-gear, all-steel pachyderms designed with footrests attached to the back wheel for passengers. Some even have wooden seats atop the crossbar for a second passenger. Cuba has radically redesigned the chunky black Chinese models with a smaller frame (the Cuban versions weigh up to fifteen pounds less) and now manufactures different models at five factories, where bicycles in bright tropical colors are assembled at an astonishing rate. Cuban designers have even come up with a twelve-seat "Bicibus," a Dr. Seuss-like contraption equipped with pedals for each passenger.

Most bicycles are doled out through schools and workplaces and are paid for in monthly installments over periods of up to two years. Workers pay 130 pesos and students 80 pesos, equivalent to about half the average monthly wage. Which workers receive bicycles depends on their job and location.

The Caribbean island has overnight been transformed into the bicycle capital of the Americas. Its accomplishment is exemplary in an increasingly eco-conscious world. Thus, the Cuban weekly Bohemia asserted that "we join the latest trend in the world . . . With bicycles we will improve the quality of life in our society." And the World Bank reports that "while the benefits to the environment have not yet been quantified, they may outweigh the direct economic benefits."

Throughout Cuba, shiny new bicycles have pushed the lumbering Hungarian buses aside in a low-tech revolution that may determine the island's future.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Organization of American States
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:bicycles
Author:Baker, Christopher
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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