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TRANSPORT-CUBA: The Daily Challenge of Getting to Work

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Sep 11 1999 (IPS) - Getting from one place to another is a real headache in Cuba, where the shortage of public transport figures among the most pressing concerns of the more than 11 million inhabitants of this Caribbean island nation.

The streets of Havana are thick with bicycles, especially ridden by the young, and many people have no option but to make the trek to and from their jobs on foot.

“I can count on my legs, but not on public transport,” said Zoila Fons, a translator who long ago stopped waiting for a bus “that took ages to come, and was full when it finally arrived.”

More than 40 percent of commutes of up to five kms are covered by foot in Havana, a city of 2.2 million.

Only 550 buses were operating in the capital by late 1998, and the total number of daily trips they took had dropped to eight times less than in 1991, when the city buses averaged 31,000 a day, according to the state-monopolised press.

Mass transit in Havana falls far short of demand, and is considered to be of questionable quality, according to a survey of some 11,000 local residents carried out by the Centre for Research and Development of Transport.

The poll found that Havana residents take an average of 1.78 trips a day, and 2.25 a day in the case of those who have jobs.

Half of all movements in the city are related to work or study. The average distance covered is 4.6 kms, and the average time spent in the process – whether walking or riding, and including the wait at bus-stops – is 38 minutes.

Speed ranges from 4.2 kms per hour on foot to 12.8 kms per hour in car, according to the survey by the Centre of Research and Development of Transport. Just over 70 percent of trips in the capital involve distances of 500 metres to five kms, 42 percent of which are covered by foot and 10 percent by bicycle.

Trips of more than five kms – 29.5 percent of the total – are mainly covered in vehicles run by state-owned transport companies.

The more than 40,000 state-run vehicles operating in Havana include trucks pulling trailers full of benches – known locally as “camels” – which have a capacity for 300, and carry around 40 percent of all passengers.

Besides the buses and “camels”, there are state-owned taxis that charge in Cuban pesos or dollars, vehicles run by state-owned companies and firms of mixed capital, and privately-owned cars that operate as unofficial taxis.

The public transport system began its decline in 1989, mainly due to a lack of parts and limited fuel, which previously came from the now-defunct east European socialist bloc.

The survey found that 36.2 percent of people walked to work, 57.3 percent to their places of study, and 44.7 percent to social and cultural activities. The bicycle was the second-most frequently chosen option.

“The bicycle provides independence: you don’t have to wait for anyone, you leave whenever you want, and you lose less time than you do waiting for any other kind of transportation,” said José de Dios Martínez, a mechanic.

“However, conspiring against their use are a lack of courtesy in traffic, the heat, insufficient diets and the poor state of the roads,” he added.

As part of its effort to alleviate the transportation crisis, the Cuban government acquired a large number of bicycles in China early this decade, which were sold at reasonable prices and helped decongest crowded bus stops.

Privately-owned authorised or unauthorised taxis are the means of transport that has grown the most in recent times, despite the high cost.

The minimum rate, 10 pesos (on par with the dollar at the official exchange rate and 0.5 dollars in government exchange bureaus), is expensive when the average monthly salary is just over 200 pesos.

“It’s not every day that I can afford to flag down a rental car, but the Alamar (a neighbourhood 16 kms from downtown Havana) ‘camel’ is really bad, so I often have no alternative,” said Silvia Cabrera, a professional who earns 340 pesos a month.

In the rest of Cuba, the situation is even more complex. In fact, authorities admit that it is practically impossible to talk about the existence of a public mass transit system.

Transport Minister Alvaro Pérez Morales said 300 buses were currently being assembled, which should at least somewhat alleviate the critical situation. The project, in which the German company Mercedes Benz is participating, will cost around 27 million dollars this year.

The government’s aim is to expand the nationwide fleet of buses – which totals around 3,000, five times less than when the economic crisis first broke out at the start of the decade – by at least 200 buses a year.

But local authorities admit that a recovery of the public transport problem does not lie just around the corner, given the continued economic crisis.

 
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TRANSPORT-CUBA: The Daily Challenge of Getting to Work

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Sep 8 1999 (IPS) - Getting from one place to another is a real headache in Cuba, where the shortage of public transport figures among the most pressing concerns of the more than 11 million inhabitants of this Caribbean island nation.
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