Bicycling in Havana and Los Angeles: Will there be a revolution?

Years ago I was quite fortunate to travel to Cuba where I could learn more about the widely lauded public health system. It was an amazing experience to go to their public health school, maternity wards and community health centers.  After while, admittedly, I did zone out occasionally on all the public health presentations.  Let me be real I zone out on such presentations here, especially at academic conference where the vast majority of so-called findings are not applicable to the real world.  Yes, I am being an academic curmudgeon. While in Cuba, the most informative presentations were those from the locals at the bar.  In a way that is true for academic conferences as well. Anyway, I digress. While in Cuba, I was told some interesting anecdotes that have stayed with me six years later.

One such anecdote was about the relationship between Cuba and China and bicycles. When Cuba’s currency underwent a horrible downward trend in the ’90s, the Chinese government  provided the Cuban government with over one million bikes.  Yet, I had noticed it was very rare indeed to see someone riding a bike through Havana.  Cuba is an island of old cars. Vintage. It has a glamorous  beauty to it that permeates the Cuban air. Bicycles are not so glamorous and people sweat in that 90 degree Cuban heat.  The bicycles were not part of Cuban culture or identity. We asked what happened to the million bicycles. They may be at a warehouse somewhere yet many talk about a possible bicycle revolution.

The same has been somewhat said of Los Angeles. While in northern California, there are bike lanes and bicycle advocacy similar to many northern European cities, southern California is more like Cuba.   It is hot here. It is a car culture here. Everything is far away. Now, here is the interesting bit, Los Angeles now has a bike share program that it is piloting. The pilot program will make up to 1,000 bicycles available for short-term rentals at 65 stations across downtown Los Angeles. While it so rare to see people biking in Los Angeles, the bike stations are not completely full with bikes, meaning, people are taking the bikes for a ride.  Will it change the heavy car culture that exists here? Probably not. But it is most definitely a start towards change. I am a true New Yorker in that I have never had a drivers license. This bike program may save me from having to become an old-school Angelino and keep my NY identity in tact.  I wonder, though, how such a cultural shift can occur.  Just this day, I tried to convince colleagues to use the public metro system and that in itself seems like an uphill battle. Laughingly, and annoyingly, three are hundreds of Soul Cycle businesses everywhere. People are willing to bike (spin) in place but when it comes to actually going somewhere, the car still runs supreme.  I suppose it will be one step (or spin) at a time.



4 replies »

  1. Here, we have a compact city with some bike paths, but many parts of town are super steep. gives you an idea and the first two streets are the ones we need to get up (partway) to get to our place, which is why I catch the bus rather than ride a bike. Electric bikes are becoming a big thing here, though, because they get you up the steep bits with your shopping, while still getting exercise and having the option to not arrive a sweaty mess. Not that Tasmania is hot like Los Angeles, but it doesn’t need to be with those hills! I wonder if e-bikes will catch on where you are?


  2. Just returned from a visit to L.A. To me, not much has changed there, with possibly the one exception of the metro system. I spent an hour to go twenty five miles on the 405 one day during rush hour. Ironically, this was the return trip to my Mom’s house from the newer Getty location. It was ironic since admission to the Getty is free if you don’t arrive in a car i.e. the cost to park your own personal vehicle is $15/day, though I could also have parked there for an hour for free. Sitting, or really just moving very slowly while not often coming to a complete stop, reinforced my long held belief that I could never do that on a daily basis. Mind you, this was only an hour of wasted time, and there are many, many people whose commutes are as much as 2+ hours each way.

    My daughter lives in L.A. and has a car. I understand and appreciate her desire to use her personal vehicle in her travels at her age. Even with that, I have tried to encourage her to take advantage of public transportation more. She is currently applying to medical schools and one of the bases for her choices was the availability of a good public transportation system. I doubt that I would ever get her to acknowledge that L.A. might meet this need for, though she has applied to two schools there. She did ride her bike from her off campus apartment when she went to USC (one of her med school choices) but I fear that the hills on which her other choice, UCLA, is built, would discourage her from using her bike to get around there.

    On the flip side, my mom and her 87 year old boyfriend have been known to take adventure trips, and even a necessary trip or two, on L.A. public transit. Having a lot of time to do what you want to do and/or get to wherever you want to be, truly are among the benefits of aging that they have enjoyed.


    • I have tried the metro system here but haven’t really giving it a go. It’s harder, way harder, than other places. Good luck to your daughter in finding the right school for her. Must be exciting times


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