A cyclist in Marrakech, where Pikala Bikes is based.

From the autumn 2020 edition of New Humanist.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, bicycle use in Britain has boomed. Brompton bikes have seen a five-fold increase in sales, Halfords shares have gone up 25 per cent and the UK government has created a £250 million active travel fund for cycling and walking initiatives, the first stage of a £2 billion investment. This is mirrored on the continent, with Paris, Brussels and Rome all planning new cycle paths. In France, the authorities have gone further, subsidising bike repairs and electric bike purchases. It’s a challenging time on many fronts, but it’s a good time for cycling.

There’s a long and established link between the bicycle and moments of social change. Look back into the history of profound societal shifts and you’ll often find a bicycle in the background. Women campaigning for the right to vote in the early 1900s used the bike as both a practical method of transportation and a symbol of change. Popular monthly publication Godey’s Lady’s Book said it all: “In possession of her bicycle, the daughter of the 19th century feels that the declaration of her independence has been proclaimed.”

City-based bike rental schemes can be traced back to Dutch counterculture collective Provo, who left 50 white bicycles unlocked on the streets of 1960s Amsterdam. They were making a point about car ownership and capitalism, but their action informed environmentalists who have used bikes to reshape cities worldwide with bike lanes and rental schemes. Bikes are cheap and accessible – bar current coronavirus-related shortages – making them an obvious choice for those interested in equality of opportunity and basic services for all. They’re also being used to address environmental issues worldwide, by encouraging people to move away from polluting private cars.

On an individual level, cycling can be a radical choice – certainly if you are, for example, a young Moroccan woman. Fadoua Lahna works part-time as a bike tour guide in Marrakech, alongside studying for her degree. “When I was first out on my bike, I was hearing a lot of bad comments from people about girls cycling or about girls being a tour guide,” she says. “Sometimes it made me cry. But each day the team supported me. I got more confident. I became stronger.”

Lahna works for Pikala Bikes, a social enterprise based inside the centuries-old Medina. Pikala began life in 2016 after founder Cantal Bakker decided to ship out excess Dutch bikes to the city. Over 400 tourists ride with them each month, and recently the United Nations World Tourism Organisation named them one of their most innovative sustainable start-ups. Pikala not only employ 25 student guides, including Lahna; they also fund hands-on mechanic training, as well as English and financial literacy classes for local kids. During the last three years, over 90 students have gone through their programmes and they’ve trained a similar number of girls to ride bikes.

Pikala shows how cycling initiatives can be used to counter the worst excesses of poverty and pollution in urban environments. Cycle tours can bring visitors closer to the grassroots of cities by taking them to local businesses and co-ops, away from stations and popular hot-spots. Initiatives like Pikala can also help shift an entrenched idea – common in Morocco as well as in many developing countries – that bikes are only for poor people.

Bicycles are being used as a vehicle for social change around the world. In Britain, for example, the Bike Project collects discarded bikes and gives them to newly arrived refugees, who are forced to survive on the paltry £37 a week given by the UK government to those with refugee status. Operating in London, Oxford and Birmingham, the Bike Project has given away more than 6,500 free bikes to refugees since 2013, helping them access healthcare, legal advice and education. Their tagline says it all: “No one should have to choose between eating a square meal and catching the bus. That’s why we give bikes.” While their HQ has been temporarily closed due to Covid-19, they’ve been running pop-up donation sessions, selling bikes online and running charity challenges.

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In downtown Tampa, Florida, Jon Dengler is moving his bike shop out of a coronavirus-evacuated mall into a tent and a pick-up truck in the parking lot. WellBuilt Bikes is a non-profit selling refurbished bikes at affordable prices. But it’s not only a store. It also has an Earn-A-Bike program, where anybody can drop in and build their own bike out of donated parts. Most people who take part come from Tampa’s sizeable homeless community. “If someone earns a bike with us they can pedal it where they want to go,” says Dengler. “You can go to the bank or you can start a business. You can get a job or you can go and visit family. You’re free.”

The word “radical” he points out, means “at the root of”. “Freedom and poverty are at opposite ends of the spectrum. We found a deeper issue, which is that a bicycle gives you freedom,” he says. “[Ours] is a radical approach in the sense that it addresses the deeper issue. We are going beneath material needs, into freedom and autonomy and the ability to meet your own needs.”

WellBuilt are exceptionally busy right now. For bike shops worldwide, the global quarantine has precipitated a boom. In the days before some US states issued a Stay At Home order, WellBuilt almost sold out of stock, as a new demographic scooped up their reclaimed cycles – people who might otherwise have gone to the gym or used public transport. WellBuilt tries to encourage a diverse community around the store. There’s a group ride every Tuesday evening, where people in their orbit – homeless folk, college students, families who’ve bought bikes – are invited to ride through the city together. “[Covid-19] demonstrated how bikes are a basic necessity,” says Dengler.

In Britain, local councils are encouraging bike use, looking to wean us off the bus, given the challenges of social distancing on public transport and the 30-plus London bus workers who died in the early phase of the pandemic. Brighton and Hove Council are leading the way, having been allocated over half a million pounds in the government’s first round of funding to create temporary road space for cyclists and pedestrians. This was the highest per capita, and was later bumped up to £663,000, partly thanks to large numbers of Brightonians who were already using public transport.

In London, some local authorities are using new Covid-19 statutory guidance to fast-forward existing plans for partial road closures, creating new walking and cycling corridors and helping to tackle climate change. The Streetspace programme promises to construct a “strategic cycling network” that will reduce traffic and transform local town centres. Attractive wooden planters and other modal filters – such as bollards and traffic signs – have already appeared at the end of streets, blocking off cut-throughs for cars and creating new space for cyclists.

In our virus-evolving world, what future role might the bicycle play? Social need is certain to increase as unemployment rises. The pandemic follows a global economic crisis and more than a decade of austerity, which has already damaged welfare capacity in the UK and elsewhere.

Organisations like the Bike Project, WellBuilt or Pikala know how to maximise minimal resources, making them important repositories of grassroots knowledge. It’s clear that the near-future is local, with a significant decrease in long journeys and international travel – at least until the arrival of a vaccine. Bicycles allow us to make the most of the space we have, so that we can still access medical care, employment opportunities or job centres. More than that, they have the capacity to offer a new approach to life.

The final word goes to Dengler, over in Florida. “The bicycle has been an enduring tool for freedom,” he says. “I believe it’ll be one moving forward as well.”