Uneasy Riders

Best way to get around town

Bikers in Venezuela – locally known as “motorizados” – are a fascinating subculture. Going from motopirueteros to mototaxis to messengers, they are a definitive part of the Venezuelan urban ecosystem, albeit one not held in very high esteem.  To many, motorizados are a big, emotionally charged problem.

My experiences with motorizados have been bittersweet. My side mirrors have been smashed twice by these two wheeled fellas. I have had my windows tapped two times. On each, I got a sudden rush of adrenaline. On one occasion, it was a friend saying hello. On the other, it was a guy letting me now that the rear door wasn’t properly closed.

The most memorable experience happened on a weekday, as I was crossing Libertador Ave, from Plaza Venezuela to La Florida. There, a very familiar scene: a blind man stands on the side of the street, at a traffic light, expecting charity from those drivers that have to stop there. Nothing exceptional about this particular blind man. A tanned guy wearing dark glasses on his face, white hair on his head, not much else on his bones. In one hand a cane, and in the other a cup.  The location he chose couldn’t be worse. It is not busy, the light is way too short, and on rainy days he has to avoid a huge puddle.

One day, as I was standing a couple of meters away from this gentleman waiting for the traffic light to go red to cross, a motorizado pulled over next to the blind man, took his breakfast out of his messenger bag (a tin foil covered arepa) and gave it to the blind man. Such a random act of kindness from the least respected echelon of the urbanite class system … moved me.

When you ask people what’s the first thing that comes to their mind when they think of bikers, their top choice would probably be anarchy. Motorizados are not bound by transit laws or common sense of any sort. They will skip lights, drive on sidewalks, drive on the wrong side of the street, drive on streets that go in the opposite direction. They will shut down main avenues to accompany one of their peers to his final resting place, drive on the wrong side of the highway while doing a wheelie with wife and four children in tow, all the while carrying the groceries, steering with no hands, and blindfolded.

The second thing that comes to mind is … thugs. A thug’s favorite mode of transportation is motorcycle. They will snake around cars stuck in traffic, tap your window with a gun, and demand your cell phone, wedding ring, or anything else that may be visible.

But why are motorcycles so popular? Simple. Traffic costs time. Economists make meager attempts to value that time, but truth is the majority of people don’t care about those economic losses. In fact, people are willing to pay to avoid traffic. And compared to anything else, motorcycles are cheap, cheaper that bicycles for sure. But using them is scary. Driving a motorcycle is dangerous. In 2012, there were 1220 biker-related deaths. Those most vulnerable are between 20 and 30 years of age, a group that I belong to (can’t wait to be 31, it will be so much safer then!). 2013 saw a 52% increase in bike-related deaths.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Motorcycles can be a key ingredient (but not a silver bullet) for solving the current and future mobility issues.

Let’s do some mind-bending exercises. Traffic is gnarly in main Venezuela cities. Motorcycle usage is a way to reduce traffic congestion. Not only that, they have fewer emissions, and they occupy less street space both in transit and while parking. Motorcycles, if made part of a thought-out city transit program, can have incredibly positive outcomes. Studies have shown that if a fraction those commuting in a car would do so in a motorcycle, commuting time would be dramatically reduced, for all of those commuting both in cars and motorcycles.

But how do we make sure that we get lots of motorcycles on the streets with all the positive outcomes and none of the negative ones?

We can lump the negative issues into two fronts: infrastructure, and regulation.

The first means having our infrastructure to be thought out for motorcycle transit in combination with cars. There are many ways of dealing with this, from dedicated lanes to guaranteeing road visibility at all times – making the road visible, but also making the riders visible to those in passenger cars or trucks. These two can have major consequences on both safety and traffic flows.

The regulation part of the equation is more challenging and it starts with education. One of the fundamental requirements for obtaining a motorcycle license should be understanding the risks. Motorizado education must start there,  and followed with transit laws, proper driving and even manners, but understanding the risks is crucial. In many places to be granted a license one must do a training course. Significant resources should be invested in responsible driving campaigns for both cars and riders.

Regulation then has to be well thought out. Right now there are about 30 things that motorizados are explicitly banned from doing. Some regulations are very reasonable: wearing a helmet, speed limits, etc. But others are unfounded. As an example, one of the things motorizados cannot do is lane splitting – which is when a motorcycle drives between cars when traffic is congested.

There are two things wrong with that regulation. The first is that at the moment of issuing the regulation the consensus was that pretty much all motorizados practiced lane splitting, making it nearly impossible to enforce. The second problem is that lane splitting is actually beneficial for traffic, and studies have shown that it improves overall safety. It is an example of regulation based on prejudice and not facts.

Recently, the government has banned motorcycle circulation after 7 pm. As Moreno points out, most of the motorizados are not criminals, but the few that are have a huge impact. As we see both chavistas and the opposition creating regulations around prejudice and not facts, one has to wonder about the wisdom behind it.

All these bring me to the last item on a cohesive and effective motorcycle transit policy: enforcement. Education and sensible regulations must be kept in place. They are not pulled out of thin air, and there is a consensus around them. Examples of sensible rules include that motor vehicles can only drive on roads (not sidewalks), and that certain speed limits have to be in place.

Next time you find yourself stuck in traffic and see a motorizado go by, be thankful. He is taking a huge risk to get you (and him) to work more quickly.