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.