In Bogotá, Cyclists Fear Becoming Crime Victims

In Bogotá, Cyclists Fear Becoming Crime Victims

By Oghale Apr20,2024

Bicycles are an essential part of the Colombian identity — ubiquitous, cheaper and, in some urban communities, often a faster way to get around.

No Colombian city embodies riding on two wheels more than the capital, Bogotá, where the metropolitan area of nearly 11 million inhabitants has no subway system and some of the world’s worst traffic jams.

The city has over 1.1 million bicycles, according to officials, and records nearly 900,000 bicycle trips per day. On Sundays and holidays, more than 80 miles of major streets are shut down, a tradition that regularly draws two million people at a time.

“It’s the D.N.A. of this city,” said Bogotá’s mayor, Carlos Fernando Galán.

But a number of robberies and assaults of cyclists this year have left many riders in Bogotá on edge. A recent news report estimated that a bicycle was stolen in the capital every 42 minutes and small gangs of thieves have targeted cyclists.

“The insecurity for cyclists is at a maximum high,” said Yim Ángel, a founder of the Bicycle Collective, an advocacy group. “Cyclists contribute to the environment, to transportation, to health, to sports, to recreation. But in this moment, we don’t have a guarantee of security to move around freely in Bogotá. We’re scared.”

Bicyclists, from everyday commuters to die-hard riders, and advocacy groups have demanded that the city do more to make the city safer for them, and Mr. Galán, who took office in January, said officials were already exploring a variety of steps.

While police data shows that bike thefts have dropped in recent years, a rise in some types of violent crimes in Bogotá last year, like robberies, sexual assaults and carjackings, has fueled growing concerns that the sprawling city is becoming less safe, including for cyclists.

Adding to the uneasiness has been a string of violent crimes, including the killing of a businessman and multiple armed robberies, in more affluent and usually quieter parts of the city.

Mr. Galan, in an interview, said he worried that increased fear was causing people to abandon more environmentally friendly ways to move around Bogotá.

“There are many people who can do trips of four, five, six blocks from home to work or to go buy something, but today they’re doing it by car, yet could be doing it by bicycle or on foot,” he said. “That’s why, for us, security is a fundamental priority.”

David Santiago Cortés Peña, 23, who runs a bicycle shop in Bogotá and rode on a professional cycling team last year, set out recently on a roughly 30-mile training ride to a town outside the city.

Around 5:30 a.m., en route to meeting friends at the base of the mountain near where he lives, Mr. Cortés said a man jumped out from behind a tree in the dark. He tried to maneuver around the man, but he said the man fired at him, a bullet grazing his eyebrow and forcing him off his bike.

As he lay bleeding on the ground, Mr. Cortés said, he saw the man racing off with his bicycle, which cost him $3,500. To pay for it, he had taken out a loan, sold some belongings and got help from his older brother.

“It was an effort by the whole family during an entire year to pay it off,” he said.

He had insurance for his bicycle, but it had lapsed in December and he had not renewed the policy. He had also decided it was getting too expensive to pay for something that many advanced riders in the city use — a motorcycle escort.

These days, Mr. Cortés is using a borrowed bike, and said he would ride only in daytime and would hire an escort.

“I’ll end up without savings,’’ he said, “but it’s better for safety.”

Luis Fernando Guarin, 37, was not on a training ride when he fell victim. He was doing what many in Bogotá use their bicycles for: commuting to and from work. He said a nine-mile trip each way that would take two hours by public bus takes half that time pedaling on two wheels.

“It also de-stresses me,” said Mr. Guarin, who works for a telecommunications company.

He was riding home on a recent Friday night on a bicycle path along a major road when, he said, he was accosted by four men who jumped out from behind some bushes trying to rob him. When he resisted, Mr. Guarin said, he was stabbed twice in the abdomen before his attackers made off with his bike.

He tried to file a police report online from his cellphone while at the hospital and at home, but he said the website to enter such reports was not working. He also never made it to a police station to do it in person. Even if he had logged a report, Mr. Guarin said, he had little faith that his bike would be recovered.

The city operates a bicycle register designed to make it easier to identify stolen bikes and return them to their owners. So far, 400,000 bikes have been registered, according to Mr. Galán, the mayor, who would like to see that number rise significantly.

Of the 1,100 bikes stolen in the city in the first two months of this year, only about 15 percent have been recovered, he said. Experts said many thefts could be thwarted if cyclists locked their bikes or used stronger locks when they were not riding.

Mr. Ángel, who helped form the bicycle advocacy group several years ago after the fatal shooting of a cyclist in Bogotá, said his organization had postponed two recent protest rallies after holding discussions with officials about improving bicycle safety.

The group has pushed 10 recommendations, some of which mirror what the city is considering putting in place in the coming months.

Mr. Galán rattled off a list of possible steps: focusing on the five neighborhoods where the majority of bike robberies occur; increasing police presence on main roads; installing more street cameras and lights; making it easier to file police reports; and increasing the punishment for robberies as a stronger deterrence.

Andrea María Navarrete, who was the city’s biking manager from 2021 to 2023, said making cycling safer would also to help address a large gender disparity among cyclists and encourage more women to bike.

“If women don’t perceive risk in the infrastructure, that means everyone will enjoy it,” she said.

Mr. Galán promised to build on the city’s mobility achievements to become “the bicycle capital of the world.”

“I know many people will criticize that saying, ‘With so much insecurity, how can you say that?’” he added. “It’s true: We have security problems that we’re trying to resolve. And we have to keep expanding the bike paths and bike lanes so people can move around. This city has a very special connection to the bicycle.”

Simón Posada contributed reporting.

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