Strokes to Empowerment: with Julienne Chen

9 min. read

Julienne Chen is the Citizen Engagement and Programme Manager at EIT Urban Mobility, an initiative of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), which is a body of the European Union. She is based in Brussels and co-leads the TandEM Women in Cycling programme in partnership with BYCS.

What inspired the start of the TandEM programme?

The core of EIT Urban Mobility is about developing ways to further sustainable urban mobility. Often this focuses on facilitating partnerships between industry, cities and researchers to advance technological innovation: different mobility products and services that can take us closer to achieving our collective climate goals. That being said, we know that these solutions will not be effective if they’re developed without involving those who are intended to use them. 

To achieve that, we have to connect more deeply and deliberately with people on the ground. We need to understand what drives and motivates them, what barriers they face. Programmes like TandEM allow us to work more closely with people, hear their perspectives and stay informed of different needs that we and our partners within the innovation ecosystem can address in meaningful ways.

For example, speed pedelecs [e-bikes] are doing incredible things to transform the potential for people to get around on two wheels; but at the same time, we also have to remember that a significant portion of the population doesn’t even know how to ride a standard bicycle. So we need to work with people not only in creating impactful technologies, but also in developing them in an empathetic way and to ensure that everyone has access to use them – that these innovations bring everyone along, rather than increasing inequality.


The TandEM programme is exclusively made for (and predominantly by) women. Could you talk more about that decision?

It’s clear that there is a gender gap in cycling, especially in cities where a large percentage of the population doesn’t cycle. One root cause is that women perceive different barriers than men  — research shows that women are more concerned about factors like safety, good infrastructure, roadside aggression, their own lack of cycling abilities and even maintaining a professional appearance. The nature of their trips can also be different, for instance shorter trips with multiple stops. By focusing on women participants, we can better address these specific needs.

On top of that, we also looked at different profiles of people who often express an interest to learn to bicycle. For example, many existing cycling training programmes have a lot of interest from people from an immigrant background who previously never had a chance to learn how to cycle or were told that it wasn’t socially acceptable for them to do so. In some cases, it’s actually vital that they are taught by other women to gain their families’ support to participate. 


Could you speak more on some of the barriers that the trainers are being taught to support their specific target audiences?

As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of different profiles of people who want to start bicycling, either for the first time or more regularly as an integral part of their daily activities. One profile that emerged from this programme is mothers (and more generally, parents) of young children. Even if you are a fairly experienced cyclist and you feel comfortable putting yourself on the road, you may not feel comfortable putting your child on the road. So we should also look at training that’s not about teaching someone how to bicycle from scratch, but focuses on how to bicycle with a child – what different options exist, what are the safety factors, etc. One of the tips we got from one of our programme’s trainers is that you can, for instance, put a sack of potatoes in a child seat to help the parent get more comfortable with understanding how to carry the extra weight. 

In another case, one of our participants took a small group of women to bicycle in a quiet urban street for the first time. She found that the women were cycling on the side of the road on the section that is reserved for stormwater drainage. She had to tell them, “You don’t belong in the gutter – you should cycle in the road.” For people who aren’t used to cycling in urban environments, it can take a while to understand how to take the space that they deserve – both physically and metaphorically.

The point of these two examples is to demonstrate that there is a wide range of cycling abilities, and even for people who already know how to cycle, there’s almost always still ways that they can ‘level up’ to make cycling a more convenient and integral part of their lives. And this is essential if we want to support broad-scale behaviour change. 


In the running of the course, barriers that were not immediately apparent were made clear. Could you also speak about opportunities that you discovered?

One of the participants is planning to create a bicycle library — trailers, panniers, baskets, child seats — equipment that normally someone who wants to further develop their cycling doesn’t initially have access to. There may be a woman who feels okay with her cycling abilities and is interested in expanding her bicycle use to also do daily chores like grocery shopping. Having access to test and learn how to use different equipment can help to see what works for her before she makes a bigger investment. It may seem like a small thing, but I firmly believe that these small things add up over time.

Another thing that surfaced was that for some adults who have not cycled in a long time or never learned, this may be due to a bad experience they have had, or it could even be related to broader issues around self-esteem and personal confidence. We have one participant who used one-on-one coaching to better respond to these deeper challenges that require more tailored engagement on a human level. It’s not just about teaching people the technical skills to turn left, brake, slow down, etc. There’s also an important need to address these broader factors at play.


What would you say to a funding body if you were trying to convince them of the need for and potential of empowering women to cycle?

I do see a promising trend where funding is slowly becoming more holistic, and definitely when you’re talking about topics like mobility, we can now quite clearly acknowledge that it’s very cross-cutting – affecting sustainability, quality of life, economic development, health, and other vital areas. 

Take for instance homelessness: there’s a study about Finland that concludes the cost of housing someone is actually much cheaper than the cost of not housing them. When someone is forced to live on the street, they have difficulty accessing the labour market, they need to use more social services, etc. – but we oftentimes don’t realise the total impact because different government agencies are addressing different segments of the challenge independent of each other. 

So, in terms of gaining funding support for cycling, we should look more broadly across societal silos. When we support more people to cycle, we unlock a huge swath of potential benefits. One of our participants is working with refugees from Ukraine and the cycling lessons are helping them to practice the local language and help them feel more integrated in the society. There’s productivity: for women who currently take buses to get to work, perhaps going to multiple clients over the course of the day, their inefficient travel makes their jobs more difficult. If they can save time by cycling, they can grow their participation in the labour market.

And we haven’t even started talking about the long-term health benefits of people cycling, or the savings on infrastructure maintenance and space consumption that cities benefit from when fewer cars are on the road. 

These are just some examples of why programmes like TandEM that enable more people to cycle are important to fund, and I do strongly believe that ultimately it’s huge value for money. 

How do you envision this programme growing and developing in the future?

The core goal of this programme was to find 10 women from across the EU who saw this need in their community and were already interested in teaching people how to cycle. However, they might have felt that they lacked the skills and the knowledge, or maybe the credibility or the structure to put their ideas into action. That was really the problem we were trying to solve. 

While our training programme showed them the basics of how to teach someone to cycle, what we worked equally hard on was to instil the notion that you can start small and grow from there. If you talk to your neighbour, and then she talks to her neighbour, then you have two people to go on a bike ride with and gain skills together. For the participant, teaching those two women comes with the realisation of, “I can do this.” They start to identify as someone who can teach people to cycle and they have the starting tools to take that forward. Our goal is to fertilise that seed and see each participant organically grow their own programme from there. The network that they’re now part of – with the other participants, the many brilliant guest speakers we had, BYCS, EIT Urban Mobility – will also support them to continue.


Are there any final points you would like to add?

Sometimes when we talk about transportation and mobility, it sounds very utilitarian. I think it’s important to acknowledge that bicycling is also about finding joy. Seeing someone take their feet off the ground and pedal on their own for the first time is joyful. Their eyes light up, there’s a big smile on everyone’s face. At the end of the day, it’s not just about helping people get around the city or combatting climate change, it’s also about fostering a sense of happiness and community and the power of an individual. And if we can play a part in achieving that, well, that’s also a worthy goal in and of itself.

All Images: BYCS & EIT Urban Mobility