Bicycles for Development Workshop: Exploring a Community of Practice

Written by: Jessica Nachman

On January 31 at 9am EST, the York University Bicycles for Development Research Group hosted a Bicycles for Development virtual workshop. Bicycle organizations from all over the world tuned in for research presentations and a community workshop. It was the first meeting of introductions, meant to explore the possibility of pursuing a Community of Practice for the transnational Bicycles for Development space.

We started off the call with a Padlet where workshop attendees could post their organization activities, aspirations, and contact information on a virtual map. We filled it up with 38 posts! Check out the Padlet here, and feel free to add your organizations.

We were excited to share findings from phase 1 of the BFD project (2017-2021, funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant). Dr. Mitch McSweeney – a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia (School of Kinesiology) leading the project provided an overview of ‘Bicycles for Development’: Findings and recommendations from a five-year study in Nicaragua, Canada, Uganda, India, and South Africa. Some highlights from the research findings included:

The Benefits of BFD

  • The bicycle as a transportation tool, and an enabler for women.
  • The bicycle as a tool for independence, self-learning, and skill mastery
  • The bicycle as a means to challenge cycling identities, construct safe spaces, and disrupt gender norms.

The Challenges of BFD

  • Bicycle infrastructure and safety.
  • Gender norms, relations, and inequalities.
  • Intersecting considerations and exclusion of particular identities.
  • Environmental conditions, bicycle structure, and government regulations.

For phase 2 of the BFD project (2021-2026, also funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant), the research will take place in Canada, Uganda, and Nicaragua, with a specific focus on social entrepreneurship, reducing gender-based violence, and ‘green recovery’ in a (post-)COVID-19 context. The team will be utilizing participatory mapping, visual methods, and a trauma-and-violence-informed approach. Stay tuned!

Susan Bornstein (Global Director, Institutional Partnerships & Influence) from World Bicycle Relief (WBR) presented the research findings from Wheels of Change: The Impact of Bicycles of Girls’ Education and Empowerment Outcomes in Rural Zambia.  Susan shared WBR’s Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program (BEEP), which provides bicycles to students, teachers, and school volunteers to improve access to education. The World Bicycle Relief research team conducted a randomized control trial, and key findings included reduced absenteeism, reduced travel time, and increased punctuality for students who received bicycles. Currently, WBR is undertaking the 2022 BEEP Zambia follow-up research to assess long-term outcomes. WBR and USAID are partnering for an upcoming project called “Bicycles for Growth to improve bicycle availability and uptake for mobility in sub-Saharan Africa.

Next, Jonars Spielberg from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology D-Lab presented findings from the project Improving Access to Affordable Bicycles in Africa. Jonars discussed the factors influencing access to cycling, including the purpose of the bicycle (e.g. load carrying), the COVID-19 pandemic, cycling conditions, ownership, procurement, and maintenance of the bicycle. Barriers and enablers were also discussed, including affordability, personal attitudes and perceptions, design and quality, and personal riding experience. For more information, feel free to contact the team via email.

After presentations, Jess Nachman from York University facilitated a workshop on the benefits of Communities of Practice and how to create a collaborative space for the BFD space. We then went into breakout rooms to discuss how we might benefit from a Community of Practice, or simply a collective space to connect.

Once we returned to the large group again, breakout rooms shared what they had discussed. Folks shared some discussion around barriers that organizations have been facing, including: a lack of spare parts and supplies; volunteer availability due to COVID-19 and the winter season; and research and distribution costs. Folks also shared that a Community of Practice may be potentially useful for:

  • sharing research resources (e.g. infrastructure, data, questions, methods, and findings);
  • sharing data collected by various stakeholders;
  • sharing transnational work being done;
  • facilitating partnerships and connections on joint advocacy (e.g. making bikes more accessible, supporting access in rural areas, global taxes and duties to ship bikes, government policy); and 
  • amplifying our individual voices through shared advocacy.

This feedback was incredibly useful for beginning to brainstorm how staying in touch with one another might take shape. While this workshop was just an introductory meeting, we hope to facilitate a space for folks to take part in whatever way they can and want. This might be in the form of 2-4 BFD meetings per year, a virtual repository for sharing information and resources, or even just dialogue on Twitter. To assess how organizations want to be involved, we are sending out a survey to workshop attendees to provide input. Our organizers are also looking to host a BFD conference in June 2022 in Toronto, Canada. All this is to say – we are SO looking forward to what is coming up in the BFD space!