Having recently moved to Brussels, it was about time I built up my confidence of cycling. By chance, I found a bike shop that runs adult cycling lessons. So figuring I would probably put it off otherwise, I signed myself up during the summer and let me future-self worry about the logistics.
This weekend was the first class of four. It was a pleasant experience with the weather holding out (particularly considering it’s October in Brussels!). But as a policy geek, I found the experience fascinating as much as from my observations as the physical task of rolling down a slight incline without touching the floor.
Perhaps it was because the practice session was right in front of the European Parliament, however I could not help but make observations around what adult biking lessons meant from a wider policy perspective. (It was either that or I have worked in policy for too long and have lost the ability to socialise with normal human beings).
My first observation was the group. It was notable that our session was made up with a high majority of woman, many of which came from ethnic minority backgrounds. Of those, many had attested to never having ridden a bike before, or feeling embarrassed and discouraged from doing so. One woman mentioned that you would never see female cyclists in her hometown in France, meaning she never got into the habit. I wouldn’t be surprised if street harassment or catcalling played a part in that either.
Others highlighted that they had been looking for adult biking lessons for years – one person I even overheard attesting they had waited over seven years looking for a course. It was incredible to think that a lack of lessons had been holding these people back from something that many of my friends use as their day-to-day means of transport.
So what does this have to do with policy? Well firstly, it is incredible how a lack of adult cycling classes are currently holding our society back. The class I had signed up to was completely oversubscribed and was only running again in March. In other words, there was incredible demand, but nowhere near enough supply. The price I paid at 130 euros for four lessons was clearly very accessible, but my presumption was that this is not the most profitable for the bike shop.
You rarely see policy opportunities that are home-runs, though this is as close to one I have come across – a subsidisation of adult biking classes would lead to a greater number of cyclists, both combating climate change by changing consumer behaviour and Brussels’ horrendous traffic in one fell swoop. Better yet, these classes were being strongly attended by women and ethnic minorities, meaning it is genuinely supporting those who statistically tend to get left behind from policy actions.
Another observation was around the amount of psychological fear that individuals had to cross. Many of these individuals had traumatic experiences with bikes. This included examples of others telling them to jump on and it’ll be as easy as, well, riding a bike. The reality was usually a failure, as many of us forget the initial practice of learning the basics. Instead, we were fortunate to get proper practice by doing small exercises with support from instructors to build confidence.
From a policy perspective, we need people to feel secure in trying new things or using new technology. This needs proper guidance and support; moreover this does not magically happen unless we devote time and energy to do so. For those of us who already understand how something works, we often forget the difficulties of learning a new process – be it riding a bike or using technology. So when creating our policies, we need to dedicate the time to explain them and build confidence on the new tools we want people to use.
To zoom out even further, the experience highlighted the disconnect of policymaking at a supranational level compared to what we are seeing with individuals on the ground. I say this as someone who certainly supports the new EU policy measures announced this summer, including the European Green Deal which aims for Climate Neutrality by 2050.
Nonetheless, there is clearly more work to be done to link up long-term vision with what is happening on the ground – we need to better understand the way people act and how we can support them to be more comfortable around sustainability. Local action is just as important as the EU-supranational level, so we must not lose sight of making our policy have a genuine effect on the ground.
So I am glad I signed up for these cycling classes. Aside from learning that I don’t need too much more practice, it also gave a genuine insight of how we can tailor policy to be effective to real people on the ground. Now all I need to do is rest my legs for next week’s class.