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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.   https://bikeworkshopsresearch.wordpress.com

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