Walkable Cuba

Four years ago, I had the immense privilege of traveling to Cuba. Talk about a country that is adapting to failing infrastructure. Cuba has been running on outdated technology and crumbling roads for decades, as a result of being cut off from trade with much of the outside world, as well as its own constricted economy.

Setting aside how you might personally feel about the politics of Cuba and US-Cuban relations, these photos provide some excellent illustrations of how a country makes do when it can no longer pay for its infrastructure--something we are now facing in our own country.  I also wanted to share these because the photos that we often point to as examples of gorgeous, walkable places too often come from expensive, First World cities like New York, London or Tokyo. But Cuba is beautiful too, and proves that walkability is achievable no matter how much money your city has.

A (mostly Communist) book sale in the city center of Havana

I spent my time in two different places: Havana (the capital) and a small town just west of there called Itabo. You can see in the first photos of Havana, that the city has preserved its traditional downtown city center. Although it is not as pristine and clean as a city center you might come across in Madrid or Paris, this historic square is a tourist destination as well as a place where people continue to live and work. These old buildings were constructed to last, so even though their facades may be fading and dusty, they still stand and support life within them. This city square is completely walkable, which adds to the attraction.

The classic image of Cuba is a shiny 1950s car, because the '50s were the last time that Cuba was allowed to trade with the US. Cuban mechanics have gotten very good at restoring and maintaining these decades’ old vehicles because they have few other options. In addition to old American cars, other popular modes of transportation include various Russian and Chinese vehicles, buses, farm vehicles, horses or donkeys and carts, and bicycles. But a great deal of people get around to their daily activities on foot.

A side street in Havana

A side street in Havana

In spite of its small size, Cuba is actually an extremely localized nation, partly due to the majority of the population’s inability to afford intercity transportation, but mostly due to laws that place restrictions on travel within Cuba for Cuban citizens. As a result, a Cuban could go years without seeing another town just 30 or 40 miles away and thus, not ever need a car or bus. This further adds to the walkable nature of towns in Cuba. 

Cuba came by its walkable nature under mostly negative circumstances--oppression, isolation, poverty--and yet it has made the best of this situation in spite of that, and created beautiful walkable places that it can actually afford to maintain.

The walkable and bikeable town of Itabo

The walkable and bikeable town of Itabo

Of course, It is not unique for a Third World city to be walkable; most have to be, because the average person in those cities does not have access to a car.

So we're faced with this paradox: walk infrastructure is only the norm in expensive, dense metropolises and poor cities. It doesn't have to be that way.

Unfortunately, we, in America--a nation with far more wealth than Cuba--have decided to focus that wealth solely on constructing automobile infrastructure over any other transportation option, and it is bankrupting us. Clearly, Cuba's political situation is vastly different from the United States', but it would not be preposterous to think that at some point, our massive overspending on automobile infrastructure combined with the rapid depletion of natural resources on our planet could lead us to a point where most Americans would no longer be able to afford to drive and we would need to figure out how to get around in a different way.

The peaceful coexistence of multiple transit modes in Itabo

The peaceful coexistence of multiple transit modes in Itabo

However, luckily, most American towns are not yet at the level of poverty seen in Cuban towns. We can make a choice to decrease our reliance on cars. We can make the choice about how and where to construct walkable, affordable places. In many towns that may simply mean repurposing our existing infrastructure--turning streets for cars into streets for people, as you can see in these pictures from Cuba. In other towns it will mean increasing sidewalk capacity so that more people can choose to safely walk instead of drive. We don't need the wealth of Paris or the poverty of Havana in order to accomplish these things. We can and should do them now.

This summer, the Iowa DOT director bravely acknowledged that his state has lost the ability to pay for basic maintenance on its infrastructure and that, rather than simply let the system self-destruct, the state should make a conscious decision about which places to preserve and which to let go of.

We have this same choice when it comes to our streets. We can continue to put our faith in cars and endless roads, or we can be realistic and construct walkable places that we can actually afford and that we might actually find beautiful.