I’m late for a meeting in Centro Habana on a day where I need to be six places at once. My appointment is in 13 minutes and I promised her I wouldn’t be late. Then it’s to the University of Havana for paperwork, meeting my study-abroad students in El Vedado, a bank out in Playa, and lunch if I can find it. Then there’s more: drums in El Cerro and a birthday at a new bar known as Ellegua, in La Habana Vieja. At 8:51 AM it’s already too hot, y voy contra el reloj.
Biking through Havana has become increasingly visible in recent years among tourists, entrepreneurs, and organizers. Today it will keep me on time.
More than a bar, the name Ellegua refers to the ruler of paths in the Afro-Cuban Regla de Ocha religion, the first to be greeted, the child who distracts you, the Viejo who opens your way. In the city’s dense but sprawling geography there are many paths to choose, and they are not equal. With 9 minutes to cover about two miles, public buses and rútero vans are out. The collective máquina cars have been unreliable ever since an informal botero (taxi driver) strike in December 2018 and even worse since the country ran out of oil thanks to John Bolton’s war ships. Taxis off the street are surly. The new Uber-like app Bajanda costs more money than I want to give. All of it takes mental energy.
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But there’s a path that opens: my bici. Biking through Havana has become increasingly visible in recent years among tourists, entrepreneurs, and organizers. Today it will keep me on time.
The neighborhood kids yell after me as I ride—they’re bikers too, and my bike is the tallest on the block. From Vedado it’s a quick couple of blocks down an empty side street before Havana’s malecón blinds me with the infinite ocean and a glaring sun. My spokes are rusty from the seawater. Cars can be reckless here, spewing plumes of diesel smoke in my face, swerving. I pedal fast and look back constantly. Usually, though, they leave the right lane for slow three-wheeled coco taxis — and for me.
“¿Llegaste en bici?,” asks my appointment skeptically. “Dios mio.”
At Parque Maceo I turn past peanut sellers and rum drinkers at the Di Tú mini-bodega. Around fifty people are lined up haphazardly for the P5 bus. A few carry large sacks, I’m not sure of what. Yomil y Dany reggaetón blares from a backpack. I catch a familiar face, but I’m already past. The buildings are denser now, and the streets are filled with pedestrians and barking dogs. I whistle so they move aside as I come from behind. The Habana Libre hotel looms distant as I weave through people and potholes and dogs. I stop in a rush of sweat. I put on a new shirt from my backpack and wipe my face. The time is 10:02.
“¿Llegaste en bici?,” asks my appointment skeptically. “Dios mio.”
Biking and Nostalgia
Havana has virtually no bike paths, no rules for bikes, no bike racks, no infrastructure, potholes everywhere, pedestrian mayhem, tire-popping glass. Even so, steady bike use reveals the inescapable fact: mostly by accident, Havana is the Caribbean’s ideal biking city. Stunning cultural and architectural worlds collide in the span of a few flat miles. Failed pre-’59 efforts to demolish popular neighborhoods, and slow neglect since, have left a metropolis that two wheels can unite with surprising ease.
Mostly by accident, Havana is the Caribbean’s ideal biking city. Stunning cultural and architectural worlds collide in the span of a few flat miles.
Car culture is baked into the very core of Havana’s national identity, a symbol of development, freedom from US restrictions, upward mobility, and nostalgia — nostalgia for idealized fantasies of the pre-’59 American Dream. Nostalgia, too, for a now-decayed faith in pre-’89 Soviet development. People want cars like they want a clear future.
If cars symbolize a hopeful future for many, biking forms a sort of anti-national identity, a shadow identity, synonymous with poverty, a directionless present, failures of the past.
Yet, ironically, the popularity of cars owes much to the fact that there are not many of them — and, ornate though they are, most are hulking relics with all the acceleration of grazing cattle. Traffic jams barely register. Parking is easy. Coming to Havana from the urban leviathans of Bogotá or New York, where an hour behind the wheel is enough to put you into therapy, it is possible to look at Havana and remember the peace and freedom and aesthetic possibilities of the car that Robert Moses saw a century ago. And then you remember all that came after.
If cars symbolize a hopeful future for many, biking forms a sort of anti-national identity, a shadow identity, synonymous with poverty, a directionless present, failures of the past. It’s often repeated that in the early 1990s, with the economy devastated, the government imported thousands of steel bikes from China to keep people moving. They painted a bike lane on the Malecón and opened the walkway down 5th Avenue. Far from a paradise, these years are remembered for their blackouts, food lines, uncertainty, emigrant rafters lost at sea, families torn apart. The bike lanes were abandoned, the bikes left for junk.
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These are not empty memories; they entangle themselves in ongoing policy debates in a world made so much darker by the steady trickle of meanspirited policies from el Imperio. The rising visibility of bikes generates pessimism and suspicion. During the botero strike, rumors circulated that the government’s promotion of bikes was a ploy to cover its apathy towards the Special Period conditions its taxi policies were creating. When the recent oil shortage left cars lining up for blocks for fuel, officials described the time as a “coyuntura,” or temporary circumstance, emphasis on temporary. Cars, they implied with some defensiveness, were not going away.
Ecotourists since the 1990s paved the way with luxury bike tours that today can cost upwards of $1000 a day. Rather than highlight the tragedy of Cuba’s lack of cars, they celebrate it as a blessing, however unintended.
“Y allá…” an acquaintance asks me about the US, “you have a car?” When I tell him I bike everywhere I live, he looks at me in disbelief. “But…you’re living in poverty!” “We’re a poor country, and biking is a good solution for poor people,” a biker friend tells me. “But people don’t want to see that.”
Entrepreneurs, Organizers, and Leisure
National identities can evolve. New ideas have gradually challenged the anti-biking paradigm. Bikers in Havana are breaking with the nostalgic futures of the past and imagining new futures, built from coyunturas of today.
Pedaling on the heels of grassroots economic growth are visible groups of local bikers — Cubans who bike for pleasure, not utility.
Ecotourists since the 1990s paved the way with luxury bike tours that today can cost upwards of $1000 a day. Rather than highlight the tragedy of Cuba’s lack of cars, they celebrate it as a blessing, however unintended. Over the past decades, though, there has emerged an opposite end of the spectrum, a crop of private bike rental shops offering cheap city tours. Eschewing luxury and promising a look at Havana’s “underground,” these shops bring recreation for Cubans and foreigners alike. Velo Cuba boasts female ownership and a staff of female mechanics; Ruta Bikes began leading tours in 2012; Ferlan’s Bikes is a fixture in Centro Habana. And there are many more. Not to be outdone, the Cuban state has opened an economical city bike rental outfit, HaBici, that has partnered with private bike shops in Old Havana, and opened with several short bike paths.
Pedaling on the heels of grassroots economic growth are visible groups of local bikers — Cubans who bike for pleasure, not utility. Some of these influencers carry all the manicured swag of the well-equipped retiree bike clubs of U.S. suburbs. They dress in lycra racing suits and pedal clip shoes and examine each other’s bikes with grave earnestness. They ask me technical questions about my bike for which I have no answer. Many have travelled abroad, importing parts or trading for them through newly buzzing WhatsApp groups.
Supplies can still be scarce, but inventions abound. Ariel of Ruta Bikes (for my money the best mechanic in Havana) says he will ask around for a part I need. “And if not,” he says with an ironic grin, “you’ll be the first person I’ve seen who has money but doesn’t have a bike!”
Others are less well equipped and unquestionably hipper. The kids on my block race around the neighborhood with joyful abandon. A friend bikes his son to school every day. Ferlan Pérez, a triathlon racing bike renter covers the city with the ease of an athlete. And Yasser González, founder of Citykleta bike tours, serves as the bike universe’s charismatic center—though he’d label himself more modestly. He does not rent bikes himself, but he advocates for biking as a way of life: “Only through biking will you find salvation,” he said in a recent Facebook post that I take as only half-joking.
The Critical Mass
These are separate groups, separate individuals’ separate ideas, but if there is a case to be made for biking as a movement, it is in Havana’s monthly Critical Mass bike ride. One of the most publicized and successful efforts for bike visibility, the event draws anywhere from 40-150 bikers on the first Sunday of each month to ride throughout the city. Its social media presence is wide. The event serves as a kind of who’s who for Havana’s expats. Intrepid tourists join as well. But it also brings Cubans of all kinds: the biking elite in full gear, people whose rusty bikes seem to move by prayer alone, a young friend who fixes classic cars and now has designed a classic bike.
Biking culture anywhere cannot escape vaguely anarchist undertones, but the event is fully, pointedly, insistently apolitical, except in its aim to promote bike infrastructure. “The Revolution didn’t educate me to be ignorant,” prefaces Yasser as he comments in a biking forum. A recent unaffiliated offshoot of the Critical Mass hastily organized a ride coinciding with Greta Thun’s climate march. It was shut down by police and faced criticism from many regular attendees for going beyond the group’s recreational agenda.
Biking culture anywhere cannot escape vaguely anarchist undertones, but the [Critical Mass] event is fully, pointedly, insistently apolitical, except in its aim to promote bike infrastructure.
Recreational, yes, but the movement is not aimless. Visibility, safety, and bike infrastructure are key goals. A Critical Mass ride last year ended at a reception funded by the Dutch embassy and organized by local artist collectives Taller Chullima and Infraestudio with an exposition of artists commissioned to design bike racks. Another collaborated with a European Union-sponsored climate change event. Meanwhile, the EU has sponsored a cultural development zone along Linea, a main Vedado thoroughfare, which includes a key bike lane. Biking, the movement insists, is not merely tourism or poverty. Biking is part of the city’s future.
What does the future mean in a place where the past weighs so heavily? People often say Havana is frozen in time, an unhelpful cliché, but one which hangs in the air with every old car that passes. A better way to express the strange temporality of the city is to say that Havana is a place where you are constantly made aware of a range of possible futures, a cascade of things that could be done, that are not done, some for better, some for worse. Its beauty lies in that it insistently refuses to do them. The cascade remains.
Biking serves as a metaphor for this range: A remnant of Special Period scarcity; a beacon of socialism or the free market or tourist capital; a symbol of European modernity; a platform, perhaps, for civil society. Above all, it is a transport solution for a present no one thinks will endure. Yet more than any of these, biking is a path, a way forward for the city of new bars and old saints, where the end is unseen. Because in a world of pandemics and rising seas, the road will twist and turn.