The Transit Advantage

The Unsung Entrepreneurs of Cuba

Despite a nominally socialist economy, private enterprise is alive and well in Cuba, but what does “Cuban entrepreneurialism” mean for the future of the country?  On a second visit to the island recently as part of a delegation with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, here is what I see as Cuba’s path ahead for transportation and infrastructure development.

The Cuban government provides free or subsidized health care, employment, housing, and public transportation to all citizens.  However, the lack of private enterprise and the United States’ economic embargo mean that ordinary Cubans are often unable to make ends meet.  Official numbers are hard to come by, but a bus driver I talked to in Havana broke it down for me: If we assume the exchange rate is $1 USD = 1 Cuban peso, Cuban citizens receive about $20-$25 monthly as a stipend from the state.  However, it is estimated that the average person needs $300 per month for basic survival.

With most private enterprise off limits, the underground economy is a major source of income for Cubans trying to make up the $275 monthly shortfall.  They transport neighbors and goods from place to place, and barter with friends; they “borrow” cleaning supplies from the state and offer crafts and homemade items for sale.  Tourism-related jobs are highly valued for tips, and gifts from family and friends can be repurposed, sold or traded for hard currency.  There is also a legitimate private sector in Cuba employing roughly 500,000 people out of a population of 12 million.  For example, many restaurants in Cuba are paladares: privately owned and operated eateries inside family homes.

I often find that my most enlightening and memorable travel experiences are conversations with locals — like the yoga instructor I met on my last trip, whose eyes lit up when I told her about my focus on transportation in Cuba. “You have your work cut out for you,” she said.  Indeed, transportation and infrastructure will be pivotal in the development of Cuba over the next few decades.

As my slideshow demonstrates, the state of Cuban transit and urban design is charmingly eclectic, and truly multimodal: rickshaws, jerry-rigged classic taxis, sleek air-conditioned buses for tourists and an antiquated rail system all share space on crowded city streets.  And Cuba’s architectural heritage speaks for itself, with the island boasting some of the best examples of colonial, neoclassical, and modernist architecture in the Western Hemisphere.  In fact, Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with eight other locales in Cuba.

My life’s work has been an attempt to answer the following question: How do we modernize and integrate transportation networks while preserving the legacy of historical infrastructure and maintaining the cohesion of communities?  While el deshielo cubano (“Cuban Thaw”) will open Cuba to the world market, it is important to remember that the island has a long tradition of private enterprise, hard work, and ingenuity — not unlike its neighbor to the north.

As a committed believer in the role of transportation and infrastructure in the development of communities, I hope to be part of the historic effort to transform Cuba’s transit options and urban landscape and improve quality of life in the years to come.

Trams, Trains and Automobiles: Transportation in Today’s Cuba


In November of last year I traveled to Cuba with a delegation led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee to explore business and transportation development opportunities on the island. It was my second trip to Cuba, but my first since President Barack Obama’s historic reopening of diplomatic relations, so it was an inspiring time to be visiting.

With an increase in Cuban private enterprise and the opening up of the “Pearl of the Antilles” to international markets, the next few years will no doubt see massive development in transportation and infrastructure. But for now, the rickshaw operators still ply their trade in the streets of Havana and thousands of people drive American cars from the 1940s and 1950s that, through sheer Caribbean ingenuity, have somehow been kept on the road since the Batista administration.

Enjoy my slideshow showing a wide sampling of the multi-modal approach to transportation available in today’s Cuba, and if you’re a “transpo buff” like me, check out the link below to a fascinating website about the historical tramways of Cuba.

Recent Adventures in Mobile App Development

When the Department of General Service’s Green Gov Challenge code-a-thon ended about a month ago, Acumen’s busy season of civic hacking and innovations contests came to a close, for now. In case you missed out: Back in June, Acumen cultivated our civic hacking chops at Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s (VTA) Hack My Ride 2.0 event, which was convened to address transportation challenges in the South Bay.

Over the summer, Team Acumen developed AcuTransit, a unique smartphone app that provides users with in-depth route information, maps, and points of interest based on VTA’s wireless, low-energy beacons and GPS. In September, three state agencies sponsored the 25K Find a New Way Contests with the goal of discovering the best ideas for improving state government, with a total of $75,000 in cash prizes. Acumen is proud to have taken part in all three contests. So what were they all about? Caltrans asked participants to come up with an innovative concept to improve operations, safety and/or efficiency within the transportation sphere.  Transportation being our passion, Acumen’s brainstorming led to two solid concepts:

  • QuickAlert, a social media environment for highway traffic alerts and mapping.  Users can view and submit text, photos, or video by way of a unique, social media-type feed.
  • OneCard, an interoperable smart card allowing users to pay fares for all regional public transit, Amtrak train travel, and toll roads throughout California. After Clipper and FasTrak, we think OneCard is the next logical step.

ABC challenged Californians to address the problem of underage drinking through education, prevention, or law enforcement. Acumen’s idea:

  • WeRFID, a high-tech approach to state ID card verification.  Using radio frequency identification (RFID), IDs are more secure and can be linked to a fingerprint, curbing minors’ access to alcohol.

DGS’s contest was innovative in and of itself — the state agency held an all-weekend code-a-thon and turned the assembled techies loose on the new Statewide Open Data Portal to push for sustainability in government.  We sent a few of our resident tech experts to Sacramento to join in the fun, and here’s what they came up with:

  • An app that uses GPS to allow users to locate nearby electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.  We strongly believe in EV development, and increasing access to charging stations is a major step forward in the adoption of cleaner tech in vehicle transportation.

For Team Acumen, bringing our trademark innovation to the ranks of mobile app developers has been a big challenge and a fair amount of fun, and we can’t wait for the next opportunity.

Art and Transit: An Odd Couple That Works

Public transit reflects the soul of any city.  A public transit system provides major visual continuity for its city; much like branches flowing from a tree – it symbolizes an intimate, tangible connection to its base.

Can you imagine San Francisco without its cable cars or BART; Portland, OR without its streetcars; or London without its double-decker red buses?  Riding public transit and being on the streets are major ways that people see and experience their cities – more so than when they’re in their private steel and glass bubbles, aka automobiles, or in buildings.  Both of these contribute to a sense of place and “attachment to one’s community,” as the American Society of Landscape Architects puts it in this interesting blog post:

The Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community initiative surveyed some 43,000 people in 43 cities and found that “social offerings, openness and welcome-ness,” and, importantly, the “aesthetics of a place – its art, parks, and green spaces,” ranked higher than education, safety, and the local economy as a “driver of attachment.”  And that’s really the reason our communities invest in public transportation anyway – the public good.

Why public art?

Art and culture are important, they make you feel alive!  Studies show that art contributes significantly to our well-being, while making us feel that we are part of a community.  Seeing art on your Monday morning commute reminds you that you’re not a soulless robot (robots don’t appreciate art).  Public art reminds people of this as they travel through a city.  It also forms landmarks that give a city character and can be a point of pride; so it’s not just good for the soul, it’s good for the soul of a city.

Based on the unending number of official transit agency web pages about public art programs that come up when I Google the terms “public art transit” (without quotation marks), I am encouraged to believe that other people think this, too. Even the Federal Transit Administration thinks it’s worthwhile to invest in public art in transit, and provides the funding many local agencies need to do so.  (See the FTA’s position on art and transit here.)

I recently participated in a LinkedIn discussion entitled “Will the art in the metro attract more people to take public transportation?”  I didn’t see a concrete answer to that specific question from the participants, but among the hesitations some people expressed due to the financial cost of art, I saw a strong consensus emerge in the community about the spirit and joy that art brings.  Art can sometimes bring financial rewards, as in the two anecdotes reported by The Atlantic’s Dan Rosenfeld in “The Financial Case for Public Art.” And it can help gain public acceptance of a new community feature that can be visually imposing, as can be seen in this FTA-authored case study.

As the CEO of Acumen Building Enterprise, Inc., I am proud of our role in making cities function more efficiently, helping people do what they need to do with less frustration, and helping build strong, vibrant, participatory communities.

As someone who loves and collects art for my own home, and Acumen’s Oakland office (we have embraced the beauty of art in our headquarters and throughout the building’s internal space), I am also happy to see public art achieving the same things.  I am very much looking forward to seeing the new artwork planned for some of the projects in which Acumen is involved, such as BART’s Oakland Airport Connector and Warm Springs Station.  From my perspective, good public transportation and good public art go hand in hand.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announces end of term

For the past four years, he has been advocating for high speed rail service, and expanding the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program that helped fund state road and bridge projects.

Based on his unwavering support and deep understanding of where this nation should be on HSR, infrastructure investment, job creation, and sustainable development, I say that Secretary LaHood is right on point and will be sorely missed. And, I strongly suggest that the Republican leadership read up on his perspective, take his comments to heart and ramp up to take the next step. The next step is to implement the vision there is no reason Congress cannot come together on this issue as it appears they are coming together for immigration reform.

In his exit interview with Huffington Post, he addressed a key concern: his concern over some members of Congress and lawmakers’ lack of comprehensive vision for infrastructure improvements and understanding about the risks of underfunding the country’s infrastructure future. Here’s an excerpt:

“I hope that since the election, people come to realize that if you really want to get America back to work and put people to work, you have to make investments in infrastructure… We are behind other countries because other countries are making the investments that we used to make. We got a two-year (highway) bill because they could only find $109 billion. We need to do better and we need to make sure that America does not fall further behind when it comes to infrastructure.”

Infrastructure transformation is not the only thing that is falling behind; LaHood expressed the same concerns regarding high speed rail nationwide, but he is hopeful for the future with President Obama in office. LaHood also actively supports initiatives on environmentally friendly urban transportation agendas, from allocating funds to trolley lines to advocating for bike lanes and cyclist rights on the road. He acknowledges that members of Congress understand people are ahead of the curve (and ahead of them) when it comes to wanting high speed rail solutions, livable, sustainable communities, and green energy. Eventually, LaHood says, Congress better catch up with its constituents or find itself falling by the wayside at the polls.