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.