Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Commuters Wait Endlessly for Crammed Bus – or Hitchhike

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Mar 19 2004 (IPS) - Tired of waiting for a packed bus that takes forever to arrive, María Luisa Bustamante now hitchhikes to work from her home in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Havana.

”I decided not to wait for the ‘guagua’ (the Cuban word for bus), so I became an expert in hitchhiking,” Bustamante, who lives in the district of Alamar, between 12 and 15 kms east of downtown Havana, told IPS.

Mass transportation became a major problem in this socialist island nation in the 1990s, when the collective transport system was hit particularly hard by the loss of Cuba’s privileged trade relations with the former Soviet Union and East European socialist bloc.

Besides a shortage of vehicles, there is the problem of the rising cost of fuel, most of which is imported.

Bustamante said she has been hitchhiking to her workplace in the Havana neighbourhood of El Vedado, and back home again, for years. But she admitted that sometimes it takes her a while to get to work.

”Sometimes my arm gets tired from holding it up, but in the end, someone always gives me a ride,” she said, without taking her eyes off the steady stream of traffic down the ‘malecón’, Havana’s seaside avenue.

Most Havana residents get around in 20-metre humped-backed ‘camellos’ (camels) – 18-wheel trucks converted into buses to which covered trailer sections were added. The enormous vehicles, created in 1995, can carry up to 300 people.

Other routes are served by 45-seat Mercedes Benz buses assembled on the island.

But bus schedules are often unpredictable, and people frequently wait 45 minutes or longer at the bus stop.

”People say the ‘guaguas’ are religious, because they come by whenever God (is) willing,” said Marta Ramírez, a communications technician who lives in a comfortable residential area on the outskirts of Havana. She said she spends ”a fortune” on a collective taxi to get to work on time.

The total number of buses making up Havana’s mass transit fleet shrank from 543 in 2002 – when there were already too few to meet demand – to 524 last year.

The fleet serves a total population of 2.2 million, and local authorities are trying to cover the shortage by reorganising routes and schedules to make better use of the available vehicles.

In this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million, a total of 900 mass transportation vehicles serve the cities, 183 serve suburban areas, and 1,036 cover the inter-urban routes, according to official figures.

Although the statistics show that buses continue to form the backbone of the mass transit system, the number of passengers they carry fell 13.3 percent from 2002 to 2003, mainly due to fuel shortages.

In 2002, buses picked up an average of 78.33 passengers along their routes, which dropped to 75.92 in 2003.

Local authorities also appeal to a sense of ”solidarity” to cover the shortages, which would be even greater without the use of some 6,000 vans and other vehicles mainly donated from abroad, which are used to transport students and the employees of specific companies.

”We all need one another,” says a TV spot that shows the driver of a car reluctant to give a ride to a doctor who has to reach the hospital – where he later attends the driver’s son.

A Transport Ministry resolution obligates the drivers of any state-owned vehicle travelling empty in Havana or other cities to transport passengers who are heading in the same direction.

Enforcing that directive is the job of a team of ‘people’s inspectors’ in the transportation sector, who took a course that included classes on ethics, psychology and traffic laws and regulations.

In 2003, the emphasis on making use of the idle capacity of state vehicles helped more than 65 million people around the country get to their destinations, Transport Minister Carlos Manuel Pazos said in January. He admitted, however, that demand for that kind of transport still outstrips offer.

In the capital, some 300 inspectors posted at the bus stops and other spots where the largest crowds of commuters tend to gather helped more than 8.26 million passengers find transportation on a state-owned vehicle, although 490,000 cases of vehicles that refused to pick up passengers were reported.

”There are still many that just drive by or give you some excuse to not pick up passengers,” complained one of the ‘people’s inspectors’ tasked with flagging down state-owned vehicles to make sure their idle capacity is put at the service of collective transport in Havana.

In 1993, the mass transit system was made up of less than half of the buses that circulated in 1989, and in those four years, the number of passengers carried shrunk to just over one-quarter of the 1989 total, because the deficit in collective transport vehicles was initially addressed by a government campaign to foment the use of bicycles.

Meanwhile, fuel consumption by the mass transit system plunged from 394,000 tons in 1990 to 239,000 tons in 2001, according to the National Statistics Office’s annual compilation of data.

According to press reports from Chile, which have not been confirmed in Havana, Cuba is involved in talks with the Metropolitan Transport Association of Santiago regarding the possible purchase of 1,000 used buses.

The Chilean buses, which are eight to ten years old on average, could be bought for 25,000 dollars each – 30 to 40 percent of their original value – which would bring the total cost to 25 million dollars.

An economist consulted by IPS was sceptical about the wisdom of such a purchase. ”The buses might already be too heavily used, especially for the kind of use they will be given here, in our conditions,” said the source, who preferred not to be identified.

In the meantime, Cubans will continue doing what they can to get around, whether by bicycle, collective taxi or, like Bustamante, thanks to a driver willing to share the privilege of owning or driving a car.

”I don’t like riding a bike, the collective taxi is too expensive for me (10 pesos per trip, equivalent to less than 40 cents of a dollar at the government exchange bureaus), and the ‘guagua’ takes forever to come by and is always crammed with passengers. The best option for me is still hitchhiking,’ said Bustamante.

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