Could Havana avoid the traffic congestion that plagues most middle income cities?

The streets of Havana. Image: Getty.

The classic 1950s cars on the streets of Havana are much admired by foreigners, yet the reality for most Cubans is a lot more mundane. For them, owning a car – any car – remains a dream, albeit one which has been reawakened by economic reforms and moves towards normalising relations with the US.

But around the world, the car ownership dream has turned into a nightmare of congestion, pollution and disrupted communities. Cities in middle-income countries seem to be worst affected, despite having relatively fewer cars. There are real concerns that Havana might soon have the traffic – and air quality – of Mexico City or Bangkok.

So, as Cuba opens up and moves into the post-Castro era, is it doomed to follow this car-dependent road to development?

To answer this, we need to look at how cities around the world have dealt with the emergence of cars and, much later, the problems associated with them. UCL professor Peter Jones has identified three stages in global urban mobility policies.

At first, cities sought to accommodate an inevitable increase in vehicles. Massive spending on roads and related infrastructure facilitated the use of private cars, the symbol of individual freedom and aspiration.

By the 1970s it became clear that no amount of public investment could solve the problem of congestion. Those new roads would simply be filled by more cars. The objective therefore shifted towards maximising the movement of people (by whatever means), which meant expanding public transport. Pedestrian areas, parking controls, speed restrictions and fines were all deployed to restrict the use of private cars and encourage people onto buses or trains.

Around the turn of the millennium, we entered the third stage. In some countries the link between rising incomes and increased car travel broke down, fewer young people bought cars, and people with higher incomes preferred to live in city centres. Cars lost some of their status.

Evidence was mounting, meanwhile, of the damage more traffic was doing to human health and the climate. Simply providing mobility was no longer good enough. Transport in a truly “liveable city” had to factor in social inclusion, public health and environmental sustainability.

But achieving the “liveable city” is made difficult by earlier policies. Dependency on cars had led to the development of low-density cities, where many people can’t access jobs or facilities without a vehicle. The communities that were disrupted by new roads or motorways are difficult and expensive to restore, while sedentary, car-dependent lifestyles are hard to change.

The country that rejects the car?

Today Havana has an opportunity to lead. In some important ways, Cuba has been decades ahead of the rest of the world. The 1959 revolution resulted in Cuba making an early and abrupt shift from stage 1 (more roads, more cars) to stage 2, with its emphasis on collective public transport. A US trade embargo cut off the main supply of new vehicles, and Cuban citizens weren’t permitted to import cars themselves – they had to be given them by the government.

These restrictions explain why so many classic cars have been kept in service, and its effects are still visible in Havana today. Compared to comparably wealthy cities elsewhere in the world, the Cuban capital’s relative lack of cars means most people still walk everywhere and street life is exceptionally vibrant.

Havana in the 1920s. Image: General Photographic Agency/Getty.

In 2013, the government lifted the ban on sales of private vehicles, yet even used cars remain too expensive for most people. With cars still a luxury, big improvements in access could be made for relatively little cost if investment remains focused on pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. Havana has a unique opportunity to “leapfrog” beyond other cities that are now moving into stage 3, to create a world-leading liveable city.

However, in one important respect Havana is still stuck in the past: those few private cars that are found in the city enjoy unrestricted primacy over the roads. Drivers aren’t troubled by parking controls, congestion charges or limited traffic areas. This has exacerbated inequality of access and contributed to the public yearning for car ownership.

When public transport dramatically deteriorated during Cuba’s post-soviet “special period” in the 1990s, car ownership became an even greater privilege. Authorities have tried to restore bus services ever since, though they have lacked sufficient funds. In the post-Castro period, improved relations with the US and other trading partners may eventually bring investment that could be used for bus lanes, cycle-ways and mass transit – as long as pressure to focus primarily on privately owned cars is avoided.

Havana is therefore at a turning point. Unless current trends are checked, mobility and access will become more unequal, and the Habaneros’ liveability will be irrevocably damaged by unrestrained traffic growth. A clear vision and strong political leadership will be needed to seize the opportunity. For now, both the national and city-wide transport authorities are making all the right noises.

Havana is well-placed to learn from other cities that have gone through similar periods of change. Many made big investments in subways, light rail or bus lanes, with meagre results due to poor patronage, incorrect pricing or lack of regulation and investment over time. “Soft” investment into key capabilities such as modelling transport systems, urban planning and user-centric design aligns well with the open data push that many liveable cities are grappling with today.

However, three cities identified by the UN and the Economist Intelligence UnitBarcelona, Copenhagen and Curitiba in Brazil – went a different route. There, smaller interventions such as pedestrianised streets or cycle lanes triggered positive chain reactions. In each case, attitudes shifted before car dependency had even peaked.


Havana's sea front today. Image: Getty.

In Havana, small interventions like public bike hire schemes or more frequent buses with information displays could play a vital cultural role. Such moves would help facilitate a shift away from traditional perceptions of the car representing the future of urban mobility, and from the dream of car ownership as a symbol of both wealth and “freedom”.The Conversation

James P. Warren is a senior lecturer in engineering and innovation at The Open University. Adriana Ortegón-Sánchez is a research associate in the Department of Civil, Environment & Geomagnetic Engineering at UCL. Emily Morris is a rsearch associate in the Institute of the Americas, at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.