The bike, a potential lever for social integration
Cycling is becoming an increasingly popular mode of transport. But in France, the bike renaissance has so far only reached city centres, where the most well‑off members of society tend to live.
The preferred mode of transport among the working classes in the inter-war period, bicycles were gradually overtaken by cars from the 1960s onwards. Except in Strasbourg, bikes today represent less than 4% of the modal transport mix.
More and more urban centres in France are providing bike-friendly infrastructure, in the form of a small network of cycle lanes and a 30 km/h speed limit. The renewed interest in bikes has many advantages, such as lower CO2 emissions and fewer traffic jams. It also boosts cyclists’ health.
But outside bike-friendly cities in France, cycling remains a privilege of the few. Cycling infrastructure is not adapted to people living on the outskirts of towns or in rural areas. Investments in active modes of transport (cycling, walking, etc.) tend to focus on the heart of city centres. “Across all parts of France, the biggest obstacle to people travelling by bike is urban interruptions such as ring-roads, rivers and railways, where all road users often end up having to use the same lane,” explains Joseph d’Halluin, member of the French Federation of Bicycle Users (FUB). But land planning is only one of the many factors hindering greater bike use.
Cheap to buy and maintain, the bicycle could be a new tool for social integration. People from disadvantaged backgrounds can use bikes to get around, for example to find a job or training programme or to get to work, without blowing their budgets on transport costs.
But for people living in low per-capita-income areas, travelling by bike means overcoming numerous obstacles. In disadvantaged neighbourhoods where a high proportion of residents have an immigration background, it’s not uncommon to have never learned to ride a bike. What’s more, very few residents have one. And when they do, there’s a high risk of it being stolen, as suitable storage options are lacking.
This issue is the tenet of the France-wide Alvéole programme, which aims to promote greater bike use and tackle poverty by offering funding to social housing landlords to cover up to 50% of the cost of secure bike storage. The programme aims to create 30,000 bike parking spaces and support 18,000 bike users through eco-mobility awareness-raising initiatives.
In Lyon, civil society organisation Pignon sur Rue provides training to nearly 150 people every year, mostly women from immigrant families. The purpose is to teach people to cycle so that they can gain more independence.
It’s an opportunity for many of the women to realise a childhood dream. “I’ve seen women cry because they’ve learned to ride a bike,” says Clément, a volunteer at the organisation. “It often starts out with them wanting to be able to go on bike rides with their children or do some shopping in another neighbourhood. But it becomes much more than that. They gain confidence in all areas, including professional.” There are 121 bike schools in France.
For Joseph d’Halluin, there’s still a long way to go: “In France, we still have a big challenge on our hands to make cycling accessible to all.”
The idea of using the bike as a tool for social integration is fairly recent. We can only hope that the public authorities seize the opportunity with both hands.