Never underestimate the power of building community

TandEm is a cycling program that aims to bridge the gender gap in cycling. EIT Urban Mobility and BYCS lead the program that trains women to become cycling trainers. The name of the program, TandEm, stands for “Training and Empowerment”. Laura Puttkamer talks to Daniela Abril Gutierrez and Alex Baum from BYCS

Women with bicycles standing in a group, listening to an instructor. The phot is taken over the instructor's shoulder.
© BYCS, EIT Urban Mobility

How does TandEm work?

Alex:  We are looking for women to promote cycling.

We select a group of 10 women to participate in a train-the-trainer program and are about to start our third cohort.

They receive about 25 hours of training, both online and in person, over a few months, starting in spring so that women then have the whole year to use their skills. We wrap up before the summer holidays. The in-person training is held over a weekend in Brussels. It focuses on the trainers, to train and empower other women to cycle. We also workshop how these women are going to develop their own programs in their own spaces to provide training and empowerment to other women.

After this, the women return to their cities and make a plan to complete a minimum of four sessions with women in their city.

It begins with identifying the target group they want to focus on, finding out what the barriers of that group are, defining activities that they could do to help them either start cycling or cycle more, and then implement those activities. We also work together on communication to recruit participants and promote their local activities. And then we wrap up the whole program by all coming back together to share what went well, what could be improved, and what will continue.

Who is your ideal candidate?

Alex: We are looking for women from mixed geographies from all over Europe who have some experience with encouraging others to cycle. We like to have a mix of large cities, more rural areas, and different age groups as well as backgrounds. It’s also important for participants to be connected within their community to some extent, that connection is key.

Why is a program like Tandem important in Europe? And what does it mean for women in Europe?

Daniela: I think Europe has taken tremendous strikes towards gender equality, but the reality is that disparities and inequity are, of course, still prevalent in many areas of our daily life. Together with our partner EIT Urban Mobility, we had the opportunity to speak with several cycling training programs in Belgium and the Netherlands to gain insights of the current landscape of cycling trainings for women, and they reported overwhelming demand. A lot of women in Europe want to learn how to cycle. There are common challenges like not enough cycling training programs or language barriers, so there is an accessibility barrier even in big cities.

Cities all over the world, not just in Europe, have been really inspired by mature cycling countries like the Netherlands or Denmark. They try to sort of import cycling and planning measures focused on urban planning and design, like cycling infrastructure.

But we have come to realize that this “build it and they will come” fails to take into account the contextual politics in urban mobility as well as social norms and cultural factors that really end up determining a cycling prone urban environment.

TandEm aims to equip more women with the skills and the knowledge that are needed to cycle, and to teach and empower other women to do the same. Firstly, with TandEM, we are not only providing them with a specific mode of transportation, but also with a tool for personal growth and liberation. Secondly, there is a transnational component. Europe has this amazing advantage of having many countries with diverse cultural landscapes in very close proximity. This makes the exchange of best practices, resources, and innovative strategies easier, and we can try to maximize the effectiveness of an empowerment program.

 

Two women repairing a bike together.
© BYCS, EIT Urban Mobility

What are the challenges for women in European cities when it comes to cycling?

Daniela:

Actually, the barriers for women to have access and alternatives to different modes of transport are pretty similar in Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia and African countries.

The first barrier is access to bicycles and to proper equipment. Women are more likely to be in a situation of poverty than men, which can also restrict access to bike sharing schemes. The second barrier is the lack of skills and practical knowledge for cycling. Women in many places, even in Europe, are not taught how to cycle, which in turn leads to a lack of confidence and to fear.

Third,there is a lack of service infrastructure. Our streets do not necessarily favor short trips, which is what the majority of women do. Women are still more likely to take on care and household responsibilities, which has an impact on mobility behavior and patterns. They often trip-chain to reach several destinations in one trip, and cycling on all of these trips is perceived as a big physical challenge.

Personal safety is another concern. It is a sad reality that there is harassment on the streets, as well as sexual violence. This is a huge challenge and means that women think twice before going out on the street during certain hours of the day. Being on a bicycle could be something that brings them fear and concerns. All these factors together contribute to a perception of cycling not only as challenges, but almost as an impossible activity for women.

Let me give an example of the Netherlands: There is this very well-known statistic here that apparently, more women cycle than men. You might think “Wow, there is such great gender balance in mobility”, but here at BYCS, we like to question this number and the percentage in a more intersectional way.

We ask ourselves, who are these women that are actually cycling more? And the reality is that this percentage doesn’t necessarily reflect many layers of women in this country, for example migrant women, young women, or international students.

It’s great to see this statistic, we also have to consider that this other group of women is not represented in the percentage because they face tremendous barriers that are similar to other contexts.

Group of women in bright vests on bicylces leading to one side with one leg in the air.
© BYCS, EIT Urban Mobility

Once the trainers are back in their home countries, what do they do to overcome these challenges with and for these women?

Alex: We try not to be too prescriptive of what they need to do. Mostly, they work with women who never learned to cycle or who only have some basic skills they learned long ago. The goal is to re-activate or activate those women both from a skill perspective, but also from a confidence and empowerment perspective. Trainers often start with basic skills sessions to make participants more comfortable and give them quick wins. The bonds that are created amongst the women that they work with are really important, too. That is something that carries across all of the different activities that the new trainers do in their cities.

Some women have worked with specific target groups like mothers cycling together with a child or women carrying groceries on a bike, trying out cargo bicycles, and using different kinds of equipment to facilitate cycling on a regular basis to do all different aspects of trips. They provide almost a library of cycling tricks and tips on a temporary basis, from equipment and dressing to carrying work things on the bicycle. And then they actually go out and do group rides in the streets and discuss what to be watching out for, how to signal, and what to be aware of when cycling on the street.

What has the response of trainers been so far?

Alex: It has been overwhelmingly positive and actually quite emotional. Women talk about a whole new chapter in their life beginning. The trainers themselves are really happy about their leadership skills.

Many already were a figure in their community, but they now have the skills and that ability to step forward and provide something for other people. There are often way too many male voices out there. I think women feeling that ability to step forward is really key.

We have also seen the importance of feeling connected, be it in cities where few people ride a bicycle, and almost none of them are women, or in little towns and villages. Especially women who are not in major cities but in smaller towns where they might be the only women cycling, it’s amazing for them to meet other women because they probably thought they were the only ones out there.

Daniela: For me, it has been a huge lesson to never underestimate the power of building community. The effect we can have with our daily choices and the way we face certain challenges are really influenced through community.

Do you have any favorite projects that came about from what the trainers did back in their home countries?

Alex: One particular example would be from the 2022 cohort, where a woman from Cyprus, a historically divided country, wanted to use cycling as a way to bridge that barrier, working with women from both sides of the border. It was a big challenge to even get women together, but she is continuing her efforts and I think that’s a pretty powerful story.

There is another woman who lives in a rural area of Ireland where there are just a few very disparate communities in hilly areas. She had been cycling even before TandEm. We don’t often talk about rural poverty and the disconnect from opportunities, which can be very isolating. But by getting women together, cycling programs can fill in a gap.

Women standing in a line with bright blue bicycles and yellow tires. A trainer faces them, wearing a yellow jacket.
© BYCS, EIT Urban Mobility

Where would you like to go next with TandEm?

Alex: With our partner EIT Urban Mobility, which is a European-focused organization, we want to do more trainings within Europe. Ideally, we would offer the course everywhere.

In an ideal world, we could offer TandEm at almost any scale.

We have started to look into different tools to be able to share the knowledge and the skills with more women through an online platform. But it has to be paired with the community, the knowledge, and the common experience. I don’t think we would ever want to lose that. With the online platform, we want to ensure that women can still connect with each other, find ways to ask questions, share difficulties, and share wins as well.

It’s also worth thinking about different sectors of society and organizations, like bike share systems, to really expand TandEm and bring it to more places.

BYCS is a global organization. Focusing on Europe is really only part of our work, and we absolutely want to expand it. We get a lot of interest outside of Europe when we post on social media, for example.

Daniela: We have had messages from people from Pakistan, from India, from Chile, from Colombia, all asking when and how to access the training.We have a strong presence in India with our bicycle mayors, for example, and bringing an adjusted and contextualized version of TandEm there would work well. Latin America is another geography that shows a lot of interest. Working with our regional networks and establishing partnerships will hopefully enable us to set up similar programs there at some point. And we can draw on what we learn from our cohorts and experiences here in Europe.

What are your most important lessons in terms of empowering women to cycle that you would like to share?

Daniela: I love this concept of the right to the city. Empowering women to cycle and giving them an alternative and a tool creates a supportive, learning environment, and also a new lens to look at your surroundings and your reality. This collectively could help to overcome social norms that are restricting women from cycling, and also generally from accessing the city. The second thing is that there is a huge lesson on how by empowering women, they can become local leaders and role models. This helps to challenge traditional norms and stereotypes about cycling and to create positive ripple effects.

I feel that when women are empowered through cycling, they are also more likely to be advocates for their other rights. Community and solidarity are key for this overall advancement of social justice.

Alex: For me, the lesson has been the importance of small or incremental positive experiences. Cycling consists of hundreds of little things. It’s more difficult to learn something new as an adult and many people assume you are supposed to learn how to cycle as a child. There are some layers of shame or even embarrassment for many women. Plus, they are more risk-averse. But we build up confidence and skills little by little with positive experiences.

Really, I think that’s what we are trying to create with TandEm, a sort of series of small positive experiences – from stepping on the bike for the first time to gliding along. It’s a journey and we are just trying to get them started, give them some basic tools and the fire to continue on that journey and achieve their goal.

Learn more about the TandEm program and its impact here: TandEM Women in Cycling – EIT Urban Mobility

Cyclists cheering for a group picture as part of the TandEm training program.
© BYCS, EIT Urban Mobility

 

Women with bicycles standing in a group, listening to an instructor. The phot is taken over the instructor's shoulder.

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