“Cycle lanes are springing up like mushrooms after the rain,” says Edoardo Luppari, organizer and founder of MolemBike, an organization that aims to create more opportunities for people to meet and use the public realm. Molembike organises events and activities to dynamise and stimulate the daily practice of cycling in Molenbeek, a municipality of the Brussels-Capital Region. Their cycling lessons for women, “A vélo en liberté” (Freedom on the bike), caught our attention.
The lessons take place at the ‘Centre Communautaire Maritime’, a cultural centre that focuses on social cohesion and participatory community action. Molenbeek is a municipality with a rather high number of immigrants, but not among the parts of Brussels with a high cycling modal share.
In 2016, Edoardo, who often cycled through Molenbeek, pitched his idea to the organisation with the determination to give the cycling modal share a boost. “To see people getting about their daily duties on a bicycle was rather rare back then,” says Edoardo; nowadays this has significantly changed. He believes that “there is this powerful moment of realisation, triggered by seeing how others do it and realising that it is possible.” Whereas ten years ago, riding a bike as a hijab-wearing women would cause some confusion and surprise on the streets of the neighbourhood, it has now become much more common. Some women were inspired by their neighbours, while others are just curious and eager to learn. This local programme acts as a trigger for women to learn how to cycle, overcome their hesitations and finally start using the bicycle in the city streets.
For two years now the CCM, with the support of the local authorities, has held weekly classes exclusively for women. The participants first become familiar with the bicycle in the safe and calm courtyard of the association. Once the women feel more confident they move up to the advanced level and go for accompanied rides –– so-called “sorties”–– where they cycle to a special event or destination somewhere in the city.
“The motivation for women to join this class can be of all sorts,” says Edoardo, but it also demonstrates their personal freedom and autonomy. Some of the women say it is a wish that dates back to their childhood, while others feel that it is important to be able to accompany their children (who are increasingly taught and encouraged to cycle in school). Edoardo calls it “an act of liberation and emancipation”. Using the bicycle is a choice to be independent e: you are visible (unlike in the isolated inside of a car), you are elevated, you feel the wind blow and you affirm your access to –– and place in –– the city.
About 30% of the bicycle users in Brussels are women. Even though there are no official numbers on Molenbeek, Edoardo assures that the gender gap is much more pronounced here. The more ‘BrusselsMobility’ includes the bicycle in its calculations, the more people will be encouraged and ready to opt for this mode of transport. However, giving classes to those that socially have limited access to the bicycle is equally as important.
Not few of the soon-to-be female bicycle users are single-mums who have taken things into their own hands. We support their ambitions and are delighted to see this initiative and dedication. Cycling is just another step to independent, self-reliant, healthy and mobile life in the city.