[Originally printed in Governing Magazine]
Thanks to recently normalized U.S.-Cuba relations, I got to visit Havana this summer. What I discovered there was an unenviable economic system. Residents are strikingly poor, and because much entrepreneurship is illegal, they’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future. But when Raul Castro became president in 2008, he pursued mild liberalizations. One was letting citizens use their cars as taxis. This has created a complex ride-sharing system within Havana that may be worth imitating in the U.S.
To be clear, Havana has two systems. One is the traditional government-run cabs that serve tourists. These are unaffordable to Cubans, most of whom live on less than $240 annually. But early on I learned about the other system, a private option calledcarro particular that locals take for 10 pesos, or about 40 cents. The cars don’t serve lone patrons, but those willing to share rides. To hail one, you go to a curb along a busy avenue and signal with your arms your desired direction. Once a car pulls over, the driver quickly negotiates how close to your destination he can get. You either hop in or you don’t. If you don’t, another driver is usually close behind.
This system may sound chaotic, but several times I used these cars — the majority of which were built before the 1959 Revolution — and found that they were remarkably efficient. I was picked up and delivered near my destination faster than if using a U.S. taxi or even an Uber, largely because cars are readily available. Havana is dense and the profession is considered lucrative. Ultimately this means residents, who once had to hitchhike or take unreliable buses, can now quickly navigate their city.
So why doesn’t such spontaneous mass ride-sharing exist in the U.S.? Well, to some extent it does. Services like Uber provide on-demand rides for individual patrons. There’s “slugging,” when unacquainted commuters ride together in order to access HOV lanes. And several new carpooling apps have sprung up that connect people bound for the same destination. But these services are more formal, generally requiring pre-arrangements on where to meet — and none is as pervasive as the carros particulares. There is no U.S. city where you can just wave your arms on any street and suddenly join a random car of strangers.
This is due partly to government decisions. For political and safety reasons, America’s public officials have been reticent toward ride-sharing. Last September, for example, the California Public Utilities Commission informed Uber, Lyft and Sidecar that starting carpooling offshoots was illegal. Other crackdowns have abounded elsewhere concerning taxis, jitneys and other ride-sharing models.
Officials should re-examine this mentality because, as Cuba shows, ride-sharing enhances mobility. They probably wouldn’t want to allow something as informal as the carros particulares, which don’t list prices, print receipts or require identification. But in the U.S., sophisticated technology and regulations have already improved ride-sharing’s accountability. For example, Uber’s rating system helps it self-police drivers and passengers, while localities make the company provide background checks and proof of insurance. Assuming that other companies embrace such accountability, they should be allowed to further experiment — even, or especially, if it begets an impromptu system like Havana’s.