From “Hitists” to Cyclists. Towards a “Bicycle Revolution” in Tunisia.
If you walk through Tunis you may make this astonishing observation for a capital city: at a first glance, bicycles are almost absent from the streets even though the Tunisian capital is faced with a crippled urban model consisting of a city saturated by congestion, the increase of diseases related to sedentary lifestyle (obesity, cholesterol, etc.), urban stress, pollution and a steady increase of fuel prices. These are daily realities for the residents of Tunis.
Being among the transport means that are soft, ecological and respectful of public space, bicycling is starting to gain new grounds. What local context must this alternative way of transport adapt to? What are the proposals of the mobilised civil society to claim cycling as a means of transport?
Traditionally, in the Tunisian society, cycling is a mode of transport used by men for short trips within the neighbourhood (going to the café or to the store) or by both men and women for daily trips in some small coastal towns such as Nabeul, it could also be used for facilitating trips in rural areas (such as high school students going to class in the island of Djerba). Bicycles are perceived as the mode of transport a blue caller worker who cannot access other means of transport, would use.
They also are very connected to childhood, children love to ride bicycles in their spare time but once they reach adolescence, few females continue to practice cycling. Such a limited and traditional use of cycling must be revaluated, especially considering the rise of the consumer society which has, in the 1980s, set cars as the ultimate sign of success. Which then meant that If you do not own a car, you have not succeeded in life, even if that entails being indebted for life.
However, today in Tunisia, cycling is being adopted by an ever-broader spectrum of society, despite remaining a minority practice; from a worker using a bicycle to get to work, a young executive practicing cycling for leisure, a student riding a bicycle to university to the retired sportsman relying on a bicycle for excursions. Thus, to each their own use of bicycles whether as mode of transport for going to work or school, late afternoon ride with friends, weekend excursion, daily trip and getaways from the urban stress or as a way to leave the city for a few hours.
Bicycles are becoming a genuine self-assertion tool among urban youth. You can customise your bicycle, wear related fashion and some even jokingly call their bicycles “my wife”. Bicycles are becoming a new self-border.
Furthermore, cycling opens new circles of social interaction (groups form around rides meetings). The current youth reclaim of cycling overlaps with the adventure movement that has been developing over the past few years around camping, hiking and cycling tourism. For this new urban generation, nature has become an alternative to the city and cycling is the means to reach it. Bicycles have become synonymous with challenge, surpassing oneself and a movement going against the image of youth sitting at the café, a very common leisure activity among young Tunisians.
 Literally “those standing against the wall”, an expression made popular by comedian Fellag to name young Algerians killing time at café terraces. This expression symbolises the tragedy of the inactivity and inaction of Maghreb youth.
 There are no figures to measure the share of cycling in Tunisia, except for the coastal city of Sfax where the modal share of cycling is of 0.8% in 2015. Source: H. Abid, ETIC, 2015
During the months that followed the revolution, bicycle fans launched several cycling movements that were essentially manifested through bicycle parades based on the international model of “critical mass”. These parades involved serval dozens of cyclists gathering for rides mainly in the city’s well-off neighbourhoods (La Marsa, Le Lac). In spring 2017, a group of friends living in Tunis and who were convinced of the need for a massive adoption of bicycle as an alternative means of transport to cars, created the “Vélorution Tunisie” association. As a primary mode of operation, the association calls for monthly “critical masses”.
The Starting point is usually set in one of the city’s historic sites such as the Porte de France at the entrance of the Tunis medina, the historic gate at the entrance of La Goulette, Marsa’s Saf-Saf square or Bir Belhassen rose garden in Ariana. Revisiting Tunisian heritage through cycling is also one of the objectives of the movement. Thanks to the dissemination and mobilisation potential of social networks, several hundred cyclists take part in each festive protest parade on pre-defined circuits of about 10 kilometres (parades take place in downtown Tunis, Bardo, Olympic City, La Marsa, La Goulette-Kram-Carthage and Ariana). Between April and May 2017, around a thousand bicycle fans and enthusiasts have taken part in such events.
Vélorution members include women and men from all generations -with growing female presence-, all professional categories and all neighbourhoods and regions. Youth often join parades from the cities of Nabeul, Hammamet and Bizerte which are more than 60 kilometres away from Tunis. Serval groups have formed out of these cycling gatherings and they organise urban bicycle rides on a regular basis.
The strength of such movement is rooted in its will to reclaim public space. Indeed, activists demand the State shares the infrastructure with them through the creation of bicycle paths. Few of the movement’s slogans are: “the streets are for all of us” (lkayes mta'na lkol) and “we own the streets”. Bicycles are becoming a medium for citizenship. They support the project of living differently in the city: breaking away from the dependency on insufficient public transports, from stress and away from wasting time and money on traffic congestion.
In the urban environment, bicycles thus represent a symbol of autonomy, independence and retrieved freedom. As for Vélorution, the association works to raise the awareness of citizens and authorities to consider cycling as the future of mobility. It aims at convincing the public that resorting to bicycle rides could be one of the solution to several issues facing the Tunisian society in terms of public health, economic crisis and ecology.
Civil society is bubbling with ideas, yet will the State be able to embrace this path and propose an actual urban reform capable of fully welcoming the new movement of Tunisian cyclists, the movement of a bicycle-led revolution?