Last Updated Tuesday, September 8, 2015 1:58AM EDT
CARACAS, Venezuela – As they rolled through Caracas’ crime-ridden streets on a recent evening, popping wheelies and shouting anti-car slogans at puzzled motorists, some 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 5 cents a gallon – 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’s the plague of rampaging motorcyclists famous for blazing through traffic, putting the lives of pedestrians and cyclists at risk, when they’re not organizing in gangs to carry out assaults.
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’ve been seeking the sort of visibility that could only come with the support of the mayor, a close ally of President Nicolas Maduro.
(…)Venezuela is the world’s third-worst country for motor vehicle-related deaths with 37.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to a World Health Organization global road safety study from 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.
Ricardo Montezuma, a Bogota-based urban planner, said embracing the bike can go a long way toward rebuilding Venezuelans’ faith in responsive local government. Caracas regularly ranks alongside war zones among the world’s least livable cities, and quality of life has only fallen further as the nation’s economic woes worsen.
“To have done this now – when Venezuela isn’t at its most glorious moment, when there is so much hardship and money is short – is very admirable,” said Montezuma, whose Human City Foundation consults for bike-share programs around Latin America, including Caracas.
“If Caracas goes for it, any city can,” he said.