Will the bicycle help us solve pressing social problems?

World Bicycle Day is celebrated on June 3 to support the idea that bicycles “contribute to cleaner air and less congestion and make education, health care and other social services more accessible to people. the most vulnerable”.

Cycling plays a major role in physical activity. This was especially evident during the pandemic, as bike purchases soared. Amid lockdown measures, cycling has remained a crucial alternative to public transport, while still providing the benefits of outdoor physical activity and social distancing. But even before the pandemic started, people’s interest in bikes was growing.

Cycling could be the answer to more than our physical activity and pandemic woes. This could offer public officials a way to deal with converging crises in public health, transport and climate. At the same time, increased bicycle use can generate new economic opportunities, such as providing low-cost bicycles for sustainable transportation and mechanical training to local communities to create jobs.

And as gas prices continue to rise due to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, governments are urging citizens to consider cycling. What’s clear is that the bike’s ability to address pressing social issues has inspired both intrigue and optimism, especially in the context of COVID-19.

Bikes for Development

We are a group of researchers interested in the social and environmental dimensions of sport, physical activity and health with a focus – for the work described here – on the perceived role of development in the emerging cycling boom.

Our research so far has attempted to map the bicycles for development movement, which views the bicycle as a powerful technology that has notable implications for social change and development goals.

A street is pictured in Soroti, Uganda.
(Shutterstock)

Our research shows that this movement is largely driven by the work of non-governmental organizations that deliver bikes to communities around the world.

These initiatives can be entirely local, although they often cross international borders – organizations that collect used bikes in one location sometimes ship them elsewhere. Bikes delivered to communities often come from donations, micro-finance initiatives or social enterprises, such as those run by women in rural Uganda.

Over the past six years, our research in Canada, Nicaragua and Uganda has highlighted key ways in which bicycles for development initiatives appear to be having positive effects. For example, access by bicycle can promote mobility, which can lead to various opportunities (such as access to educational opportunities and local markets to sell goods), and can help promote a sense of inclusion. social or economic development.

Create a temporary solution

In Canada, we conducted research with communities in Toronto and Vancouver. Our studies in Toronto have shown how bicycles are being taken up by self-help organizations to respond to growing food insecurity during the pandemic. Focusing on the experiences of 2SLGBTQ+ and racialized cyclists, we highlighted the ways in which diverse cyclists challenge systems of racialized and gendered oppression by using cycling to dismantle stereotypes about who can participate in cycling.

However, while cycling has positive potential, our research has also shown that providing bikes to women and girls is, in some ways, fraught with tension and challenge. For example, in our most recent research in Uganda, some women explained that prior to receiving the bike, they were primarily responsible for care and other domestic tasks such as cooking.

When they receive the bicycle, they must now also engage in economic activities, which means more work-oriented expectations for women in rural communities. This often leads to an extension of existing inequalities between men and women.

There was also concern about the quality of the donated bikes. For example, some of the donated bikes required specific spare parts that were unavailable, which meant they were of little use once they broke down. But programs like World Bicycle Relief’s “Buffalo Bicycle” aim to solve this problem.

People on bikes fill a street
Crowds at the Mercado la Terminal market in Leon, Nicaragua.
(Shutterstock)

That the aid provided by bicycles can have unintended and sometimes negative consequences aligns with a wealth of research in the field of sport for development and development studies more broadly.

We call these unintended negative outcomes of interventions aimed at developing forms of “ironic activism”.

While our research revealed the positive potential of bicycle access, our findings also point us in other directions: bicycles can empower people and communities, but they can also reflect or exacerbate problems and inequalities. existing. Cycling-based development programs can have both intended and unintended consequences.

While the optimism sparked by World Bike Day is welcome, it is important to remember that with all their potential, bicycles alone cannot solve our contemporary, overlapping crises.

Janet Otte, Patrick Eyul and Lidieth del Soccorro Cruz Centeno co-authored this article. Janet has experience managing refugee, women’s rights and clinical research development projects in Uganda. Patrick is a social scientist who works with development and research organizations in Uganda. Lidieth is the director of the Asociación Movimiento de Jóvenes de Ometepe in Nicaragua.


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