CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- 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.
That's why 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 socialist mayor inaugurated last month 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've been seeking the sort of visibility that could only come with the support of the mayor, a close ally of President Nicolas Maduro.
That's not to say they're 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 over 6,000 bikes docked at 444 stations.
There's also the short length of Caracas' bike path: just over 3 miles (5 kilometers), compared with more than 186 miles (300 kilometers) of dedicated lanes in Bogota, Colombia, which pioneered promotion of bike commuting two decades ago.
Although unspecified expansion plans are in the works, activists note 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 5 p.m., 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 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.
And enthusiasm appears to cut across the nation's deep political divide, at least judging by a group of 20-somethings waiting in long lines at one of four existing stations to register their fingerprint and hop on loaner bikes adorned with the red-stenciled signature of the late President Hugo Chavez. Some said they support Maduro, Chavez's hand-picked successor, while others were hostile to his government.
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.
But weaning residents from their cars is still an uphill grind. Montezuma estimated that less than 0.5 percent of commutes in Caracas are done by bike, compared with 5 percent, or 650,000 a day, in Bogota.
Carlos Diaz, who oversees the bike-share program as head of Caracas' sports and recreation department, said it's not just cheap gas that's behind the car cult. With street crime rampant, many residents feel safer riding in tinted-window SUVs with the doors locked than they do pedaling through lonely parks. So police have deployed 17 bike cops to patrol the red-asphalt paths.
Then there's Venezuela's tropical weather, which makes no-sweat cycling something of a pipe dream for image-conscious Caraquenos.
"The people of Caracas are very ostentatious," Diaz said. "I know people who live two or three blocks from their job who prefer to drive because they like to arrive to work smelling good, well-dressed and dapper."
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