As they rolled through Caracas’ crime-ridden streets one evening, popping wheelies and shouting anti-car slogans at puzzled motorists, about 50 cycling activists were in a celebratory mood.
Long accustomed to being on the losing end of their battle to make Venezuela’s car-crazed capital a little less terrifying for two-wheelers, the buzz on their monthly rush-hour ride to raise awareness about the city’s most-vulnerable commuters was about a new bike path snaking through downtown.
“You don’t know how hard we fought for this,” said Mariano Montilla, who was cruising on a 1970s Japanese-made road bike, the only working stiff dressed in a coat and tie amid an otherwise motley crew of wild-haired cycling advocates.
While Latin American metropolises from Buenos Aires to Mexico City began promoting the bicycle as an alternative to traffic gridlock years ago, Caracas has been a regional holdout. The world’s cheapest gasoline — less than US$0.2 a liter — has made the city one of the world’s most car-centric, with a glut of Nixon-era gas guzzlers clogging the roadways. Then there is the plague of rampaging motorcyclists famous for blazing through traffic, putting the lives of pedestrians and cyclists at risk, when they are not organizing in gangs to carry out assaults.
That is why Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez’s seemingly quixotic bet on the bike has elicited widespread praise. Part of an ongoing effort to reclaim blighted public spaces, the mayor last month inaugurated the final stretch of a dedicated bike path, complete with Venezuela’s first suspension bridge exclusively for cyclists and a giant monument in the shape of a wheel. The city also launched a free bike-share program with more than 100 green Atomic bicycles, a local brand built in partnership with Iran.
For militant activists like Montilla, organized in colorful urban tribes like Bici Punk and Urban Bike Guerrilla, the incipient “Free Wheels” campaign brings a sense of vindication. In the four years since they launched a local version of the Critical Mass cycling movement founded in San Francisco in 1992, they have been seeking the sort of visibility that could only come with the support of the mayor, a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
That is not to say that they are satisfied. Far from it.
For one, they complain about the fixed-gear Iranian loaners, which they say were chosen for political reasons despite being of dubious quality. So far, the program pales next to Mexico City’s Ecobici, which boasts more than 100,000 active users and more than 6,000 bikes docked at 444 stations.
There is also the short length of Caracas’ bike path: just over 5km, compared with more than 300km of dedicated lanes in Bogota, Colombia, which pioneered promotion of bike commuting two decades ago.
Although unspecified expansion plans are in the works, activists say that at least for now the bike path’s circuitous route passes far from where most of greater Caracas’ 3 million residents live and traverses a gated park that closes at 5pm, leaving a busy roadway as the sole alternative for those pedaling home from work.
Venezuela is the world’s third-worst country for motor vehicle-related deaths with 37.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to a WHO global road safety study in 2013. Only the Dominican Republic and Thailand scored worse.
Despite the bike program’s shortcomings, it has stirred a sense of civic pride — something in short supply among Venezuelans beset by long lines for scarce foodstuffs, triple-digit inflation and one of the world’s highest murder rates.
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