Velorution: "Occupying" the streets of Tunis on their bicycles

Velorution: "Occupying" the streets of Tunis on their bicycles


Text by: Yahya Marzouk


Category: Social Innovation


Velorution is global movement all over the world promoting the bicycle as a way of transportation within cities, an alternative and environmentally friendly way of moving around the city by bike. In Tunisia, Vélorution is a national association created in 2017 in the capital Tunis. It struggles to reduce the use of cars and to develop active mobility within the city, which is a huge challenge in Tunisia where owning a car is the highest symbol of success. We spoke with the co-founder of Vélorution, Stéphanie Poussel wanting to figure out the idea behind the initiative as well as their plans for future.
i-responsible: From where I got the idea to launching this initiative? What is the story behind velorution and when it was established?
Stephanie: I've been living in Tunisia for 10 years now and I have always been frustrated by the fact that it's so difficult to move around the city. People depend on on poor public transportation, bad walking and cycling infrastructure and endless traffic jams. There are few buses and they are uncomfortable just like the 'metro', a kind of tramway. So people revert to private taxis which are expensive, which is the case for personal cars too.Air pollution is also very intense in the city. This bad mobility situation makes for an unattractive urban environment.
So my friends and I decided to launch the bicycle movement in October 2017. We organized a Facebook event simply inviting people for a ride through the city with us. The success was tremendous and unexpected: so many people joined us! That's why we decided to launch the movement in the form of a regular "critical mass" event: massive bike parades around the city that take place all over the world.
The objective was to "occupy" the streets. We wanted to show that bike users exist and push cars to share the road with us. It's a first step to being recognized as legitimate users of our shared public space. Our first slogans were : "We own the roads" and "Roads are for everyone". It was enjoyable, surrealistic and an amazing feeling to become, during a few hours, the major user of the street, with the cars behind us as a secondary category of users. Now, after 20 or more critical masses, we forgot this feeling! We got used to it and we can say that is a good sign.
My friends and I were taken aback by the enormous success of these manifestations and by the energy it generated. We felt a kind of responsibility : how not to waste and lose this energy? How to keep the momentum and plan the next steps? How to federate people around one clear message ? That's when we decided to found an association as a framework for our actions to follow.
i-responsible: So the need for this initiative in Tunisia is very real.
Stephanie: Oh yes, very much so. From the reactions we got, we understood how huge the gaps that we are filling are. As soon as we launched the movement literally hundreds and hundreds of Tunisians joined us - truly amazing! People from other regions were begging us to come to develop bike projects in their regions. More than 500 people are learning how to ride a bike in the "bike school" that we founded with the financial help of the French Institute in Tunisia. Politicians, business people, journalists and even the international media came to talk to us. We soon realized we had started something incredible.
We fill a gap in the sense that we are changing the way Tunisians live their daily life. Moving around the city should not be a daily challenge and even a "torture", as is the case now. Moving from A to B should be simple, cheap, clean and a pleasure for everyone. Tunisian authorities have a heavy responsibility to make this happen. They know it, but for the moment most of them do not have tools and the political will to launch a real change. So we decided not to wait any longer for changes from the top and to take our destiny in our own hands and to become agents of change. Vélorution Tunisie is a movement of active citizens that have decided to express which change they want and what this change should look like concretely according to them.
Promoting active, sustainable and eco-friendly mobility
i-responsible: What is the bigger picture behind Velorution? How you describe its vision and mission?
Stephanie: We want to revolutionize mobility. A big challenge! The resistance we meet comes from all sides: the powerful lobbies of the car and oil industries, conservative Tunisian administration that is not ready for a change, unsafe road infrastructure and, maybe the worst of all, the image of the car for Tunisians as the "normal" and default way of going from A to B and even as a status symbol. How can you make Tunisian car drivers use the bike if the car is seen as something extremely positive and the bike as an old fashioned mode of transportation used by poor people who can't afford a car?
We want to promote "active mobility" as the pillar of transportation, meaning those means of transportation in which we use our body (walking and bicycling). Other terms are "sustainable mobility" and "eco-friendly mobility". To do this, we believe that Tunisian cities urgently need a deep change in the way people experience their city and in the way they move and respect the environment. The bicycle is a powerful leverage of this change: they make moving more easy, cheaper and cleaner (no carbon emissions). Very importantly, the bicycle makes the city more attractive for people and therefore also for business: less noise, less stress, more safety. Who wants to go shopping in a noisy and stinky street where you can't even hear the other person talking?
"Active mobility" is the choice made by people who want a more active life and society, in which they are not always sitting in a car, an office, a home, etc. Studies show that this small effort, even for riding the bike 2 km per day (8 minutes), helps to prevent a lot of illnesses like diabetes, obesity, heart and vascular diseases. The bike saves society millions of dinars in terms of medical costs. And let's not forget the time Tunisians lose in traffic jams: this is time NOT spent to produce but time WASTED. If you multiply the number of hours lost in traffic jams by the salaries of the people wasting their time (and their city), you would find astronomic amounts of money.
So we need to convince people, to be persuasive, to prove our convictions. For that, Vélorution Tunisie spends a lot of time and energy on communication via social media, awareness campaigns, clear messages, videos etc.But we also believe in the importance of concrete actionsto promote bicycle. That is why we organize each month a huge "critical mass" (bicycle parade) in the streets of Tunis and beyond. Last January we opened a Centre for the development of the bike culture called "Dar el Bisklette" ("Bike House"). This house, which is located in the center of Tunis, is a place that is open for everybody to meet, talk and create new projects to promote the use of the bicycle as a means of transportation. This centre offers opportunity to repair bikes, to rent bikes, to park bikes, to make "bike art", to organize debates about mobility etc.
With all these initiatives we wanted Tunisians to have a greater freedom of movement. We have also launched a guided bicycle tour service in the touristic parts of Tunis, as a pleasant and easy way of discovering the bike as a means of transportation. We are also particularly proud of our "bike school" where everyone can come to learn how to ride a bike. Because one of the things we have learned is that riding a bike is still an unfulfilled child dream for so many people in Tunisia!
i-responsible: What is the difference that Vélorution Tunisie is bringing to local communities?
Stephanie: Vélorution Tunisie allows many women to take control over their mobility and, sometimes, their own life. Women, young and old, are very present and active in this movement. In only on and a half years time more than 400 women have learned how riding a bike in our "bike school"! For them, riding a bike is not only a way to be autonomous, but also away to protect themselves from street harassment. Most of all, it is the cheapest and most comfortable mode of transportation that exists in a city like Tunis which is rather flat and where it rarely rains.
Changing ways of mobility has also effects on marginalized areas and population. In Tunisia, as I said, circulating within the city is a real challenge: it is expensive, uncomfortable and you are never sure at what time you arrive. This challenge is even bigger for people living in popular areas with even less public transportation. In that context, riding a bike is afantastic way to give people the freedom to move autonomously and for free. For youth, the bike can even lead to the establishment of a new community, I'm thinking of a group of young people living in the popular area of Douar Hicher. They have developed a "bicycle way of life" (outings, bike lessons, road safety lessons, etc.) and are very well organized. They feel dignity and respectability for people who are often stigmatized as delinquents or terrorists in Tunisian society.
i-responsible: How do you see the future of this movement? Are you scaling things up?
Stephanie: Step by step, day after day, we manage to convince people to change mobility habits. We are a network of one thousand bicycle ambassadors which can potentially convince many other future ambassadors to join the bike transition. Our next goal is to motivate Tunisian authorities to play their role as facilitators of this cause by creating safe bike infrastructure and reduce the presence of cars in our streets. Without that, it will be difficult to make Tunis more livable and attractive for Tunisians.