Sun, Nov 10, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Electric motorcycles riding to the rescue in Cuba amid fuel shortage

By Carlos Batista  /  AFP, HAVANA

Members of Electric Motorbikes of Cuba give residents rides on their motorinas in Havana on Oct. 11.

Photo: AFP

It was rush hour in Havana and the line at the bus stop was longer than ever. Then a fleet of electric motorcycles appeared, beeping their horns.

Surprised and relieved, passengers jumped on the backs of the about 50 electric mopeds.

It is a new solution for Cubans struggling with fuel shortages driven by US sanctions that have curbed oil imports.

Cuba has long been known for the classic cars that locals have lovingly maintained for decades after they stopped being built.

However, urban transport on the communist island is evolving.

The bikes’ horns beeped and some of the riders played reggaeton — but, being electric, their motors made hardly any noise.

A Chinese-made electric motorcycle costs between US$1,800 and US$2,300 in Cuba. A basic gas-powered bike on the island can cost up to six times that.

The electric bikes — with a maximum speed of about 50kph — were first licensed for import in 2013.

They have multiplied in the streets since then — and have come into their own due to fuel shortages.

“I really like this initiative, it helps a lot with the economy,” 42-year-old passenger Yanet Figueroa said, sitting on the back of one of the bikes. “It really helps people who have great need of it.”

Cuba in September plunged into a fuel crisis after Washington imposed restrictions on fuel shipments from Cuba’s top ally, Venezuela.

That month, Cuba had to make do with just 30 percent of its usual fuel supply and the level has still not recovered — it is forecast to reach no more than 80 percent this month.

With the public transport network badly hit, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel has called on drivers to pick up passengers voluntarily.

The owners of electric bikes known as motorinas answered the call.

“We have volunteered to do this as a service to society,” said 33-year-old Javier Capote, one of the drivers. “It is going very well. We are very happy about it.”

The president in a televised address mentioned “those famous ... what do you call them, the bikes? The motorinas, that have come out to help.”

Authorities have estimated that there are 210,000 electric motorcycles in use on the island.

That figure is expected to rise, as the government late last month began to sell them with the price capped at US$1,700.

Those who make a living servicing the bikes are pleased by that move, as it would bring down costs.

“It seems like a very good idea to us mechanics,” 47-year-old Enrique Alfonso said in his workshop.

He recalled the economic crisis of the 1990s that followed the end of cheap imports from the Soviet Union.

“That was the era of [affordable] Chinese bicycles. Now we are in the era of electric motorcycles,” he said. “With everything that is going on in the country, they have become obtainable for a lot of people.”

The electric bikes had a mixed reception at first. Silent and often inexpertly ridden, they are often involved in accidents in a country that already suffers from thousands of crashes each year.

Officials have said that of the 7,000 road accidents recorded so far this year, one-third have involved electric motorcycles.

Authorities have responded by insisting that riders have a license and register their vehicles.

The flourishing of electric bikes follows several years of a gradual opening up of Cuba’s state-run economy. It has also coincided with a digital mini-revolution.

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