Tunisia. A revolution on two wheels

In Tunis, the capital, an association is proposing the use of the bicycle instead of public means of transport, a proposal that promotes a change in the customs and culture of the population.

A wind of change is blowing in the streets of Tunis: a Velorution (combining velo, meaning bicycle and revolution), an international movement started in France a year and a half ago. It has now appeared among the associations of the North-African country. It allows people to reclaim the city spaces, and reduce pollution and provides a less polluting alternative to public transport which is often inefficient due to the chaotic city traffic as well as being stressful.

“For the first time, in April 2017, we launched an event just between friends”, Hamza Abderrahim said. He is 27 and president of the Tunisian association Velorution. “A month later we went on the social media using Facebook and 300 people replied. The police thought we were an unauthorised demonstration and would not let us move but the participants protested shouting: ‘get out of the way and let us cycle!’ That day we understood its great potential and we created our association”.

Officially begun on 17 November, Tunis Velorution does not only organise bicycle trips every month  but also works culturally to change the Tunisian mentality: “The bicycle is seen as a means of transport for the poor but it is really a global solution in the fight against pollution, health problems and the economic crisis. We are working to remove these prejudices: we want everyone to be able to travel by bicycle as a normal practice”, Abderrahim continues.

With the partnership of the French Institute in Tunis, which has financed the purchase of the first bicycles, the association has launched a school of cycling, a school giving lessons twice a week in how to travel by bicycle. The initiative immediately met with great success: more than 60 people in three months and over 200 on the waiting list, most of them women. “I remember Salwa, 59″ – Abderrahim recounts – “At first she was hesitant and did not think she would succeed. She almost gave up after four lessons but she succeeded at the fifth. She was very happy: she had achieved her childhood dream. And there are many others like her”.

The bicycles chosen are all made in Tunisia: the idea is also to promote the local economy since Tunis has several bicycle factories that also export bicycles. “I was one of the first people to benefit from these lessons”, Dhekra Mensi, a journalist, tells us. “Now I am completely independent and I often use my bicycle to go shopping and move about the city”.

Ali Bahnini, 49, and English teacher at Carthage University, has involved also his wife and children: “Cycling means avoiding the stress of driving and behaving ecologically. People wonder when they see the whole family cycling”. “Riding a bicycle brings a sense of freedom and positivity”, adds Nesrine Smida Abassi, 40, an employee at an audio-visuals factory.

Besides the school of driving, the association has also launched: the tandem bicycle, a project to help also the visually challenged to ride a bicycle while accompanied; culture by bike, with people cycling to the cinema and the more touristic Visit Tunis by bike, with visits to the Medina (Old City) of Tunis.

Then there is the programme to create a Velorution office in Kasserine, a disadvantaged region of the country, thanks to the support of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Tunisie Foundation. “Before the end of 2019, we aim to reach all the regions”, Abderrahim concludes. “We want Tunis to be a pilot model to be exported to the rest of the country. We are in discussions with the authorities, asking for more cycle paths (at present found only in tourist zones), to make daily movement easier and safer. We would also like to have a centre where all the cyclists could gather with a cycling cafe, a repair workshop, a conference hall and the promotion of cycle-tourism throughout the country”. (Giada Frana)