Preface to new Brussels bike workshop study

Inès has finished her thesis on Brussels workshops. Here is my preface. If you want to read the rest (in French), contact her on our About page.

Batterbury, SPJ. 2015. Preface. In  Vandermeersch, Inès. 2015. Évaluation de l’impact social d’une initiative citoyenne: le cas des ateliers collectifs de vélos à Bruxelles. (Evaluation of the social impact of a community initiative: the case of collective bike workshops in Brussels). Master en Ingénierie et Action sociales. Haute École de Namur-Liège-Luxembourg/Haute École Louvain en Hainaut, l’Institut Cardijn, Belgium.

Brussels is a remarkable city in many ways, but its roads and parking spaces have been congested for decades, with pro-car planning, and extensive vehicle leasing schemes. This compact city has suffered major mobility problems, and recently bicycles have had a second wind in planning circles as offering a significant alternative. The city has supported an extensive Citybike scheme (the Villo), infrastructure improvements, and many education campaigns. But some initiatives have emerged from Bruxellois themselves. The organisations discussed in this pioneering study by Inès Vandermeersch are the city’s community bicycle workshops/ateliers collectifs de vélo.  She examines their social impact, in terms of creating social cohesion, supporting local development, and whether they act as change agents in the context of the city mobility ‘crisis’.  Ateliers vélos  have no financial interest in cycling promotion, have limited opening hours, and are usually staffed by volunteers.  They are teaching and promoting vélonomie; the ability to ride and maintain a bicycle as a personal mode of transport. Of course, this has benefits for a healthier lifestyle and a less congested city, but for Inès these are subsidiary issues to their social impacts. Working in 13 workshops, she finds they are staffed by cycling enthusiasts and community development practitioners. They, and the clients and their bikes, are all ‘participants’ in the unique social field of the workshop.  Local youth, in particular, attend workshops as much for socialising as for bike repairs. As one organiser says, “c’est un tout petit village au milieu d’une ville”.

Inès builds on her own expertise in workshop organising, and as a mechanic. Her thesis details a resilient urban response to the city’s transport crisis, that creates positive cohesion across social groups, without much support or advertising, and with a precarity of premises and staffing. But Brussels ateliers are certainly not isolated;  the movement is global with 200 in France alone, and thousands worldwide from Argentina to Finland and from Australia to Alaska. The city has joined a ‘do it yourself’ response to community cohesion and to mobility problems. This deserves our support as bike riders and as researchers, and Inès has written an excellent first account of it. Vive l’atelier!

Simon Batterbury

Associate Professor, Environmental Studies, School of Geography, University of Melbourne, Australia.

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Batterbury’s rule

Batterbury’s rule  source

• Non-cycling urban studies academics tend not to work on cycling issues

• The reverse is not true (cycling academics work on anything, including automobility)


• Dans les études urbaines, les chercheurs qui ne utilisent des vélos, ont tendance à ne travailler pas sur les questions de cyclisme

• L’inverse est pas vrai (les chercheurs qui sont cyclistes travailler sur quoi que ce soit, y compris l’automobilité)


Tell us what you think.

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Tour of US bike workshops

In April my family and I embarked on a trip down the west coast of the US, ending in Tucson where my son was born. I also went to a conference in Chicago and visited friends in Worcester, MA. At the same time I was able to visit five bike workshops, which enabled a comparison with those already visited in Europe. I was struck by several things:

  • Space. City real estate markets are a real constraint on community initiatives seeking to rent space. But they are able to do so, even buying, though “how much” space is a question controlled by financial means and location. Many shops began in peoples’ back yards, sheds, and kitchens, gradually moving into their premises (often moving several times, as with  The Bicycle Kitchen in LA). The largest we saw was Working Bikes in Chicago, who purchased their warehouse and operate on three levels, also with a dock to load bikes into containers for shipping worldwide.  The Bike Farm in Portland moved to a new, large rectangular warehouse when rental prices hit rock bottom after the GFC, and they sublet part of it.  The Bike Shack, in Seattle, is a much smaller operation with 4 volunteers (Seattle also has a much larger workshop downtown), and their approach, after having to leave bad premises with no water or electricity closer to the UofW, was to share a small space with an organisation that loans out tools. BICAS in Tucson has rented a basement level of a large building for decades, but the building is now threatened by a road proposal, so they may have to start looking for alternatives soon, just at the time when the local real estate market has picked up a bit. Worcester Earn-a-Bike is in the basement of a community house, purchased by several organisations. Their space is small but secure, long-term. Spaces have some cool additions – BICAS has a store selling t-shirts and momentos.
  • Aims. Some workshops aim simply – have enough resources to run a volunteer-led, walk-in bike fix-up program and to have enough space and parts/used bikes to enable that. The Bike Shack is like that – no paid employees. I saw the same in Belgium with La Cycloperativa. Others have additional, specific programs and objectives. The massive Working Bikes scours the region to secure fixable bikes to send overseas to developing countries, working through local NGOs to make sure they reach their targets. Worcester Earn-a-Bike wants local youth in Main South to “choose a bike to earn after volunteering ten hours towards our shop operation and then build it up with tools and parts from the shop”, although they do operate as a conventional workshop too.  BICAS has changed its goals over the years – when I lived in Tucson they ran several youth and cross-border programs, but now the aim is to operate the large workshop efficiently with user contributions, training programs, and with 10% government grant support. Costs of paid staff need to be covered. This resembles CYCLO in Belgium – a slow move over years to having paid employees and  a social enterprise model, still dedicated to velo-autonomy but with a diverse portfolio of activities (and less hands-on fixing by bike owners on CYCLO’s case, if any).
  • People. Key individuals start workshops. Usually it is one or two. They often move to the backseat when the future of the workshop is secured, just like key entrepreneurs in business tend to do, when they cease needing to do everything themselves.  Everybody I met in the US workshops shared a passion for cycling in some form, but in different ways. A. at BICAS and M. at  Working Bikes are non-profit sector employees – committed. But many equally committed volunteers still have jobs in the working week – I also met some on disability benefit, as well as some who worked regular hours as mechanics in conventional bike shops or were completing their degrees in their non-workshop lives. For these people it was the aspiration of the workshop and/or the vibe that drew them  –  driven (or ridden) by personal politics or a desire to pitch in and help, they volunteered. The social atmosphere becomes important here. Conviviality is important for the bike workshop volunteers and staff. Working Bikes has a delightful upstairs workshop for core shop personnel. Social skills are also needed, to an extent, when dealing with walk-in bikers. These can be tested; users can be mentally challenged, without skills and knowledge, good or bad listeners, very young or very old. In most cases a volunteer can lock up or go home if they have had enough. Several workshops, like Worcester Earn-a-Bike, also have extended closures in winter months as well and I learned of one workshop that was experiencing a volunteer shortage, and had to truncate its hours. The social enterprise model affords the staff more responsibility but more obligation to keep the workshop open and friendly.
  • Spinoffs and links – to Critical Mass, to other workshops, to community bike donation programs were common. I was told that nonprofit status forbade some workshops from engaging in political protest as a collective, but individuals did so. Chris Carlsson et al in Shift Happens shown how Critical Mass and workshops tend to go together. There was a good degree of mutual support across bike related activities in each city. Links to conventional bike shops were few; with the exception of one in Brussels, so far, where unwanted used parts came from a shop to a workshop. Links to government are also patchy – I need to look at this, and to shops, more.
  • Vive l’atelier…back to work in Europe!

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Workshop networks in Belgium

Belgium has a split linguistic dimension that outsiders find hard to understand. It is muted in Brussels, where both French and Dutch (Flemish) are spoken as first languages. What I had not bargained for was that this extends to bike workshop networks. The l’Heureux Cyclage network is well known as the big francophone network in Europe, with an annual coming-together that Bernardita went to in 2015. Now I discover that Wallonia (the French bit of Belgium) has its own l’Heureux, which does not involve any workshops in Brussels or in the Flemish speaking part! The Flemish equivalent is not so I wonder what it is?


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Brussels Bike Jungle videos

These are having an effect – the fence in the first one got removed!

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Community bicycle workshops: what are they? How do they work? What do they contribute?

This site is to collect together emerging research and information on community bicycle workshops. In a workshop, you get to fix your own bike, there is a stack of secondhand and donated parts to help you, and some volunteers to assist. Workshops have diverse origins including community development networks supporting social justice, anarchists and anti-car movements, bike enthusiasts, and others. They exist in many countries, and have grown since the 1990s in many towns and cities in the US, Canada, Mexico, Southern Africa, right across Europe, Australasia, and beyond. We (the authors of this site, see About tab) became interested when we realised almost nobody had catalogued the rise of these workshops and their contribution to ‘community economies’ .

Currently (early 2015) Simon Batterbury, a geographer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, is on a  Fellowship at the Brussels Centre for Urban Studies to explore workshops in Germany, Belgium and France.

In the words of  the French l’heureux cyclage network: “Un atelier vélo participatif et solidaire concentre dans un lieu des vélos, des pièces détachées, des outils et des animateurs qui donnent des conseils aux cyclistes”. Simple.

Any comments? See About tab.


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