By Layli Foroudi
TUNIS (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Usually during the holy month of Ramadan, when Tunisians break their fast every evening, the streets of Tunis fill with cars and taxis as people go out to catch up with family and friends.
But this year, nights in the capital stayed unusually quiet due to a 7pm curfew for cars as part of measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Working around the new rules, Saif Touati got on his bike to meet friends for a coffee after dinner.
“I used to use the bike a lot, but stopped cycling because it was faster to drive,” said the 28-year-old DJ, adding that he got back into cycling during the country’s first lockdown from March to June last year, when his work abruptly dried up.
He and five friends started going for long cycle rides to pass the time. “I became used to it and now cycling is a pleasure,” he said.
With the pandemic prompting more Tunisians to hop on their bikes, whether to fill downtime or to get around travel restrictions, one activist group is using the jump in two-wheeled travel to boost their call for authorities to take cycling more seriously.
Launched in 2017, Velorution Tunisie organises bike trips for residents and tourists, runs a weekly bike school and holds monthly protest rides to demand officials improve urban cycling infrastructure.
There are only a handful of cycle lanes in Tunisia, and just a few racks or shelters for people to store their bikes, said Hamza Abderrahim, president and cofounder of the group, which gets its name from the French word for “bike” and “revolution”.
Out on a Velorution night cycle one evening in May, Ines Zaghdoudi, a research assistant living in Tunis, said she appreciated the calm and safety of the roads after curfew.
“The problem is infrastructural,” said Zaghdoudi, who has been cycling regularly since December.
“It needs to change because a lot of people I know don’t have the confidence to (cycle) because there aren’t bike lanes.”
That night, Zaghdoudi and around 15 others cycled from the centre of Tunis to a lake on the outskirts of town.
This is one of the only places in the country that has a completed bike lane, which runs along the waterfront.
But, “it is more of a tourist route rather than a bike lane for regular journeys,” said Nachwa Ouertatani, 23, a medical student who started cycling just after the lockdown last year.
“We don’t need a bike lane to go for a stroll, we need lanes to go from place to place.”
Ouertatani cycled as a child but said it was difficult for her family to accept her decision to start cycling on main roads because of concerns for her safety.
“Cyclists and pedestrians are excluded from the city, there is no space for them,” she said.
Currently, only about 10% of Tunisians own a car, but the number is increasing at a rate of 70,000-80,000 a year, according to a 2018 European Commission report.
Another of the country’s scarce bike lanes is in the south Tunis suburb of Ezzahra, built in 2018 by community organisation Nadhef Bledek – “Clean Up Your Country” – in collaboration with the municipality and a local bike club.
The project is just a first step, said Nadhef Bledek CEO Omar Khalfet, adding the group is currently raising funds to extend the 500-m (1,640-ft) cycling path to three kilometres in September.
In its push to encourage authorities to accommodate cyclists, Velorution has prepared feasibility studies on bike lanes and parking in parts of the country.
Following one of these studies, authorities in Ariana in north Tunisia approved a bike lane as part of their 2021 budget, said the town’s mayor, Fadhel Moussa, in a phone interview.
But the project has paused because of resistance from roadside sellers, drivers and motorcyclists, who are against sharing the road, Moussa added.
“There is competition between the users of the road, it takes time and education,” he said.
The group’s research also motivated authorities in Jendouba to install a 1.2-km bike lane on the road leading to the city’s university in July, according to municipal councillor Mounir Sellami.
He said they are just waiting for final discussions with the Ministry of Equipment, Housing and Infrastructure, which is responsible for that road.
A spokeswoman for the ministry said that bike infrastructure was the responsibility of the Ministry of Local Affairs, who referred the Thomson Reuters Foundation to Adnen Bouassida, president of a non-governmental federation representing Tunisia’s 350 municipalities.
“There is no strategy, it is commune (municipality) by commune,” he said.
Bouassida is also mayor of the Tunis locality of Raoued, where he said there is a plan to include bike lanes in a new industrial and residential development project.
But inserting bike lanes into existing roads is more difficult, he added.
“Some roads are only six metres wide because there was an idea (by authorities) to sell more land instead of leaving space for roads – the roads and pavements are not big enough (for bike lanes),” he said.
“I’m going!” a young woman cried as she pedalled forward – wobbling a little – across a car park beside Tunis’ Menzah Stadium, which had been taken over by bikes on a Saturday morning in May for Velorution’s weekly bike school.
The bike school has seen a boom in subscriptions during the pandemic – around double the numbers they were seeing before the lockdown in March 2020, according to Abderrahim.
Some come to gain confidence, others are first-time cyclists, such as Mazer, who said he wants to learn to cycle to avoid the heavy traffic in Tunis.
“I thought only kids could learn to ride a bike, that it was too late for me,” said the 34-year-old doctor, who declined to give his last name.
Despite the sudden surge in cycling, the majority of Tunisians have stuck to the familiar modes of transport, including crowded trams and buses, even as COVID-19 cases in the country continue to rise.
“People don’t consider cycling a mode of transport and a cyclist is considered poor, (without) the means to buy a car,” said Ouertatani, the medical student.
For Abderrahim, these prejudices must be tackled, because he sees a citizen movement as necessary to make cycling in the city easier and safer.
“All politics in Tunisia depends on citizens. If the citizens don’t push the authorities to do it, they don’t do it,” he said.
(Reporting by Layli Foroudi; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)