© Anaëlle Antoine

Brussels: women bike the city

Bright and proud, her blue hair flowing in the wind, she rides across the wall of Leopold I primary school in Brussels. The new graffiti by Anthea Missy wants to inspire the young women of the school, and show them that riding a bike is fun, freeing and they should feel entitled to it too.

As numbers from a 2019 survey by ProVelo – the Belgian national cycling observatory – show that only 36% of women cycle in Brussels compared to 64% of men, the NGO Zij-kant supported by the city of Brussels and other local cycling organisations decided to act. They organised ‘Women bike the city’, a symbolic bike ride on 13 September 2020 where women will take over the streets and end the ride at the brand new graffiti piece by Anthea Missy.

Gender difference in the use of bikes

Overcoming myths and other hurdles

Throughout history, cycling was seen as inappropriate for women, deemed dangerous for their reproductive organs, or sexually arousing, in practice these myths have been used to limit women’s freedom.

Still today the bike is a symbol of freedom and empowerment
— Julie Van Garsse, staff member at the association Zij-kant

“Still today the bike is a symbol of freedom and empowerment” says Julie Van Garsse, staff member at the association Zij-kant, “a way of moving that is free and independent.” And even though some myths might sound outdated today, there are concrete obstacles that restrict women from feeling comfortable on two wheels.

For example, women make shorter, but more complex trips trying to run multiple errands at once. They are often accompanied by children and have to carry heavy loads. Women are also victims of street harassment; a study from the University of Ghent recorded that eight out of ten women have already been victims of street harassment in Brussels. These obstacles have an impact on what women would consider a practical and safe option to cycle.

“With our policies we aim at convincing more and more people to use the bike in Brussels for their journeys,” explains Bart Dhondt, Alderman for Mobility and Public Works at the city of Brussels “for this to work we need to make it better for women too.”

What does this mean? The cycling infrastructure should include more cycling paths and parking spaces that are spacious and near schools and shops, for example, and these should also be well lit to increase the sense of security for all its users.

We want women to feel free and safe in the public space
— Bart Dhondt, Alderman for Mobility and Public Works at the city of Brussels

“We still have work to do,” admits Bart Dhondt, “we want women to feel free and safe in the public space.” And the bike ride ‘Women bike the city’ is an important symbolic action to encourage women to occupy streets and cycling paths, so that more women will feel comfortable in public spaces and will discover the pleasure of cycling.

“We must show women that the city is a space for everyone.” Says Julie, “they have the right to be in the public space. We really want to show that cycling is fun, that it can be done together. It’s positive and playful as an initiative.”

Centring women

‘Women bike the city’ also wants to raise awareness more broadly around the visibility of women in the public space. “It is essential that women reclaim the city, its walls, its street names and its cycling paths.” declares Delphine Houba, Alderwoman for Culture at the city of Brussels.

The bike ride will therefore cross several streets that hold the names of remarkable women and will stop at graffiti done by women artists or representing women. Participants will ride, for example, through Rue Yvonne Nèvejean, named for a member of the Belgian resistance who saved the life of 4,000 Jewish children during the Second World War, through Drève Anna Boch in honour of the Belgian painter, and Rue Willy De Bruyn, who was world cycling champion in 1934 and 1936, and a who went by the name Elvira at the time.

The city has recently been active in giving more visibility to women’s achievements, for example the new bridge that will cross the canal will be named after Suzan Daniel, who founded the first homosexual movement in Brussels in 1953. The streets in the new Tour and Taxi quarter will honour the feminist Isala Van Diest, first woman doctor in Belgium, and Chantal Akerman, Belgian feminist film director. The Leopold II tunnel is waiting for residents’ proposals to be changed to a woman’s name.

Surrounded by women, discovering women’s accomplishments featured in the public space, the idea of ‘Women bike the city’ is to let participants know that the public space and the streets are for all.

Riding the bike wave

Making sure that mobility is for everyone is also a big aspect of this years’ European Mobility Week, its theme being ‘Zero emissions mobility for all’. “We’ll be the warm up to the European Mobility Week.” Jokes Julie, as active mobility such as walking and cycling will be central to the week’s activities.

Since 2018, Brussels has been especially committed to making the city more bike friendly. As the use of bicycles has steadily increased since 2010 – a 13% average annual increase since then has been recorded by ProVelo – both Brussels Capital Region and the city of Brussels in consultation with users, local biking associations, the police and urban developers, reacted by creating and adopting the biking action plan 2018-2024.

Annual increase of cyclists since 2010 in Brussels

The plan includes promotion and facilitation of cycling in Brussels. It addresses infrastructure needs, such as cycling paths and parking, but also education, like workshops on learning how to cycle, and playful ways, such as a pump track, to convince its residents to give bikes a chance.

The corona crisis hit the forward button on some of these measures. For example, the new 40 km of bike lanes that were added between April and August within the Brussels Capital Region were already part of the ‘Good Move’ plan. “The lockdown sped the process.” Explains Anoushka Dufeil, Administrator of the cycling non-profit organisation GRACQ, “they were going to be built eventually, it’s just that corona made it happen faster.”

They were going to be built eventually, it’s just that corona made it happen faster.
— Anoushka Dufeil, Administrator of the cycling non-profit organisation GRACQ

Like many cities in Europe, Brussels has seen promising peaks in the use of bicycles during the lockdown phase, and the administration is hoping to keep riding this positive wave.

A future on two wheels

“If we convince more people to ride a bike, the city will be nicer and safer to live in,” says Alderman Dhondt. The city’s cycling policy wants to push its citizens to see the bike as a daily functional means of transport, and Brussels is committed to double the use of bikes by 2024 and triple it by 2030.

To set a good example, “the mayor and all deputies also ride bikes” proudly announces Alderman Dhondt, “it’s important to involve the administration, and test the infrastructure first hand.”

As users are busy testing the new cycling paths, the hope is that more people coming from all backgrounds will be tempted to bring the bike into their daily routine. Based on the experience with the temporary cycling paths, the city will consolidate some lanes and change others to accommodate users’ needs.

“We see a future where we can all just use different means of transport, of course public transport too, and mix and match” says Anoushka, “where cycling has become an obvious option for a majority of citizens, and we all share the road in a fair way, making sure that everybody can use the road and be safe.”

In such a future there will be surely space for more women with their hair in the wind, pedalling bright and proud.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer