It’s evening when the cyclists show up at Nomadic Bike in Tunis’ Bardo neighborhood. As the sun goes down, they map out their next bike excursions. Selim Yahyaoui, the founder of this space, prepares mlawi while he exchanges with the group seated around a café table. Their informal discussion is focused on the circuit planned for the coming weekend. « I’ve traveled a lot, especially in Asia, and I realized how much bicycles still really hold an important place. In the Greater Tunis area, on the other hand, it has disappeared from the urban landscape and become an exclusively recreational activity », says Yahyahoui.
« Coming home, I wanted to create a space that brings together everyone who uses a bike on a daily basis, a place for meeting and exchange where it is possible to rent bikes, to participate in excursions and to share this passion with others », he continues. At Nomadic Bike, bicycles are sacred. And when cyclists encounter other cyclists on the road, they greet one another from afar. « The bike is part of our identity », says Yahyaoui as he gestures towards the group.
Failing public transport system, social inequalities
Most of the cyclists here have come straight from work by bike. They are nurses, architects, French teachers and students. They all share one thing in common: bicycling. Nedra bikes six to eight kilometers morning and evening, commuting to and from the El Khadra neighborhood where she works as a teacher. « Before, I would always arrive late: public transport is utterly inadequate. Taxis are expensive and finding one during rush hour is nearly impossible », she explains.
The numbers speak for themselves: the use of public transport has fallen from a rate of 70% in 1970 to 30% today. Tunis’ fleet of buses has also undergone a steady decline, with only 500 out of 1,200 vehicles currently in operation. As for taxis, applications such as Bolt, Yassir and In Driver have only exacerbated the situation for citizens who are deterred by excessive ride costs. The implications are not insignificant: a deficient transport system impacts access to employment and education, thus deepening social inequalities.
Faced with the daily struggle of finding transport, Nedra chose an alternative solution. « I didn’t know how to bike. A friend taught me and I haven’t stopped since despite all the obstacles », she recounts. Nedra’s family did not take to the idea of a young woman riding a bike. Beyond this, students’ parents didn’t take her seriously and worried that her example would make their own children want to bike to school. Finally, there were the remarks called out by drivers little accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists—and women cyclists no less.
« But the more of us there are in the public space, the more we will gain people’s respect and ultimately people’s mentalities will evolve » Nedra insists. As for safety? Fear of sharing the road with cars remains a major obstacle for cyclists.
In Bardo, the cyclists have only just arrived at Nomadic Bike when a sixty-something year-old woman calls out, pointing to the dozens of bikes parked in front of the café: « Think of your parents, don’t be selfish, accidents happen in the blink of an eye », she preaches. For Nour, a nurse at the children’s hospital in Bab Saadoun, the issue of safety is a misleading one: « It’s not any riskier than being on foot or in a car, but you have to be careful and wear a helmet », he says. In order to arrive at work, Nour himself must ride through some particularly dangerous areas like the highway. « If we were to wait until there were not a single risk for cyclists in an urban setting, we’d never get on a bike », he adds.
Fighting CO2 emissions
Passionate about riding since childhood, Nour has never given a second thought to traversing the Ibn Khaldoun neighborhood – Bab Saadoun route on bike, rain or shine. For him, the advantages are undeniable: time and money saved, plus a way to fight global warming. « When I see the pollution at the roundabout in Bab Saadoun, I can’t help but feel proud of biking ».
For Eya Kaoudji, environmentalist and project coordinator for the association Velorution, the decision to ditch her car in favor of two wheels was above all ecologically motivated. « I rode a bike for a long time when I was a kid, but at age 12 I was involved in an accident that left me traumatized », she recalls. Environmentally-conscious about her choices in daily life and convinced that biking is the best means of transport, Kaoudji knew she had to be true to herself. « I could no longer participate in this general asphyxiation. So a few months ago, I started doing Bab Jdid – Mutuelleville, a six-kilometer bike ride morning and evening », she says. A commute which once took 40 minutes by car now takes her 20 minutes by bike.
And yet cars continue to seduce Tunisians. The number of drivers has nearly doubled in recent years, rising from 15.7% in 1994 to 27.2% in 2014. According to the Technical Agency of Land Transport (ATTT), the number of cars on the road in Tunisia at the end of 2016 was close to 2 million. This number increases by 70-80,000 cars per year. In the meantime, road transport is responsible for 25.2% of fossil fuel emissions, making it among the most highly polluting sectors after the energy industries. It is an issue that Tunisia, which is ranked among the top ten most polluted countries on the African continent, cannot ignore. Biking could significantly contribute to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, according to a study published in the magazine « Communications Earth and Environment », we could reduce CO2 emissions by over 400 million tons per year globally if each bike owner were to ride an average of 1.6 km per day. « Greenhouse gas emissions are one of the main causes of global warming », Kaoudji comments.
« Through the biking school, circuits in urban areas and the installation of bike racks, we at Velorution are advocating for the bicycle to become a real means of transport », she continues. Since 2018, Velorution’s biking school has trained 1,500 people. « It’s no guarantee that they will all commute to work by bike, but we believe that things can change », affirms the young environmentalist. In any case, biking could help Tunisia to achieve its nationally determined contribution (NDC) which aims to reduce CO2 emissions 41% by 2030 in comparison with 2010 levels.
Bringing bicycling back
It wasn’t so very long ago that bicycles were part of the urban landscape. « Geography plays in our favor since the country is relatively flat », observes Yahyaoui. In a number of cities such as Nabeul, residents never stopped using bikes in spite of policy decisions that favored car transportation for urban dwellers. In the Greater Tunis area, however, bicycles as a means of transport have been depreciated to the great benefit of cars. Perceived as indispensable to modernity, cars have become a symbol of social success. « Go into low-income neighborhoods and you’ll find a lot more bikes than anywhere else », Kaoudji comments. « But these are cyclists by default, if they had the possibility of getting a car, they would forget their bikes! » she notes.
In Tunis, opting for two wheels in the absence of public policies regarding bicycles constitutes a veritable act of resistance. « By being present in the public space, we are denouncing an entire model of society », Nedra asserts. And so the humble bicycle is slowly finding its way amidst the brouhaha of Tunis’ streets, as cyclists greet one another (« tahiya ») where their paths cross on the road, conscious that they represent an alternative.