I want to ride my bicycle… to beat the pandemic

Lisa del Prado, a young, Cuban entrepreneur, learned to cycle when she was a little girl. But it was not until last January she could buy her bike, a fuchsia-colored one, that she fondly calls “Yamilka”. 

A couple of months ago, Lisa was struggling to get her clients to receive the craftwork pieces created by Mi Rinconcito, the small business she founded. Then she decided to take the products by herself, riding her bike. That was the foundation of a newborn initiative in Havana, Zaas Bicimensajería, a bicycle-based delivery service.  

Now they have more than 20 delivery people in every municipality in the city. Moreover, they intend to increase the bicycle’s visibility as a sustainable and healthy means of transport.   

This experience outlines bikes as an advantageous solution to the mobility crisis caused by COVID-19; for both businesses and individuals. While public transportation has been paralyzed or restricted (to prevent contagion), more and more Cubans are turning to cycling. 

To mention a couple of signs: prices in informal markets are rocketing, and TRD Caribe, a major chain of stores has started to sell Rali bicycles, imported from Panama. 

cuba

The Cuban government has expressed its commitment to reduce carbon-intensive ground transportation during the 2020-2030 period. As a result, it is estimated to avoid the emission of one million ktCO2eq per year. Presumably, the increased use of bicycles will contribute to this plan; however, it’s difficult to calculate its actual value since there’s no Measurement, Report and Verification system in place. 

On the other hand, some Latin American countries show remarkable progress to learn from. For instance, according to the Copenhagenize Index, Bogota (Colombia) ranked 12th in The Most Bicycle-Friendly Cities list of 2019, above metropolises like Barcelona and Berlin. 

The coronavirus emergency is not the first time Cubans have resorted to bikes to solve transportation issues. During the 90’s economic crisis, when the country’s GDP decreased by 35%, cycling became not one but almost the only choice. Thus, for many people pedaling is a symbol of poverty. But that meaning has changed along with a younger generation that barely remembers the worst moments of hardship. 

By that time, Francys Fuentes’ mother used to take her on her bike, till one day they nearly had an accident. So Francys never learned to ride, nor had a bicycle. Last August she finally bought her long-awaited cycle. “I owed it to myself”, confesses this 31-year-old tour guide. 

“Young people are especially enthusiastic about cycling, particularly in larger cities like Havana, but that’s no different from what’s going on in many countries, including my own”, says Cassandra Brooklyn, an American writer and travel planner, author of “Cuba by bike, 36 rides across the Caribbean largest island”. 

Having taken into account the absolute lack of tourism, since the country closed its borders in March, Francys’ financial situation was complicated. Hence, she thought her bicycle would rather be an investment, and started to take occasional delivery jobs. At the same time, she has engaged with the cycling community, where she has met new people and founded a friendly atmosphere. 

On the first Sunday of each month, a varied group of cyclists gathers at Parque de los Mártires, in one of the most popular corners of the Cuban capital. Bicicletear La Habana (Bicycling Havana), the native version of the Critical Mass movement, began in 2015 with a Facebook post and a few participants. Now, dozens of enthusiasts depart from that point to pedal around the city and hang out. 

This is the second of the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, developed in 2017 and subscribed by several organizations. The statement coincides with requests formulated by some Cuban cyclists and bike fans. 

Yasser González, founder of Bicicletear La Habana and Citykleta bike tours, posted a list of needs on social media. Bicycle lanes, spotting highly dangerous places for cyclists, educational campaigns targeting car drivers, as well as access to gear and components were included. “Every niche around bikes is unexploited, starting on commercialization”, he adds. 

Likewise, he asked authorities to approach cyclists to discuss their opinions and experiences on the street. While there wasn’t an official response, the post echoed in people. 

“I wasn’t hoping for an answer, but the result was better than I expected. People’s reactions surprised me. The most important thing is to keep talking about things that concern us, that could bring a lot of benefit for folks”. 

Today, around 1000 public buses circulate in Havana, fulfilling only 50% of demand. No wonder locals were used to seeing them going packed most of the time, whereas private taxis charge high prices. Limitations due to COVID-19 made everything more complicated. In this context, having diverse and healthier mobility options turns out to be crucial. 

In partnership with the Provincial Transport Direction, there are two international projects proposing plans to boost low-carbon mobility in the city: one, funded by the European Union, and the other one, named Neomovilidad, received 2.2 million dollars from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). 

The latter is intended to prepare an integral strategy for cyclist mobility and a scheme for bike lanes along Havana’s sea wall which should work as a showcase to extend lanes to other core avenues. 

Reynier Campos, Development chief of the Provincial Transport Direction and head of Neomovilidad, states this project has taken experiences from prior initiatives, especially from Ha’Bici, a public-private alliance that manages the first public bicycle system in the city. 

“One of the project’s key aspects is reviewing and updating technical norms required for sustainable urban mobility –he explains–. We have revised the 109th Law (Road Security Code) to make recommendations and incorporate elements we consider are lacking in the legislation”. 

In the meantime, Lisa del Prado dreams about having a venue for her business, also a flotilla of load-bearing bikes, and finally, as the third wish one asks of the genie, she’d like to broaden Zaaz Bicimensajería all over the country. 

Paradoxically, it could be a good moment to make things happen.

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Eileen Sosin

Eileen Sosin

Eileen Sosin Martínez (La Habana, 1989). Freelance reporter covering economy, gender issues, the environment and culture. Member of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network of the Reuters Institute, and a co-curator of Share Magazine, by the German Institute of Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa).

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