15 min. read
Marti Frutos Gabioud is Bicycle Mayor of Santa Fe, Argentina. She is also an active member of Pibxs en Bici, a cycling and feminist organisation for the construction of a dissident, open and plural space. In this interview we address the challenges to close the equality gaps in cycling, and the different ways in which it works to empower women and dissidents.
Could you introduce us to your journey in urban cycling and your work with Pibxs en Bici?
I’m Martina Frutos, I’m from a small town in Entre Ríos, which is a province in Argentina, and I’ve always had a bike in my life. I went to study in Santa Fe capital, but when I got there I had a break with the bike because my parents were afraid of all the road violence that happens in big cities. But later I ended up having a bike when I went to do a specialisation in Rosario, which is a much bigger city, and that’s when I started to bike again. However, when I returned to Santa Fe, many of my friends had gone to live in the Federal capital or had returned to their cities in the interior of the country. So, I only had my bicycle.
I started to go to a bike shop because it was close to me, and the person who attended was a big fan of bikes, and he had a lot of history in Santa Fe. And like that I started to meet other people, until one day I found out that the second women’s and dissidents’ night bike ride was being organised, and I thought, “that’s great! So, I joined a meeting where we were about 15 women and dissidents, which later became Pibxs en Bici, and from there I stayed. I really liked this idea of empowerment, of getting together and being able to say I want to be able to move around the city on my bike. We were a group of people who wanted to make it clear that we always wanted to be able to do it. And I stayed in that group always trying to find ways to continue empowering more women and dissidents to get on the bike.
Then I met the rest of the organisations in Santa Fe. We are still rebuilding our activism because the pandemic was a big setback for our relationship with the municipality. So I started to participate in Ciclo-ciudad, which is another cycling organisation, but with a more holistic approach to the city. But it has been difficult to find the will and start again to do activities with other organisations.
And why do you think there was a rupture with the institutions?
The health crisis was a big factor, as we started to see that everywhere in the world they started to make “pop-up bike lanes” with just a bit of paint,and with the pandemic itself as an excuse. And in Santa Fe, together with other organisations, we were making a lot of noise and asking for exactly that. And that made the municipality cut off the relationship with us, making a lot of excuses for it not to happen. The only thing we were asking them was that we take advantage of the fact that there were a lot of people going out on bikes. As public transport had suddenly become very dangerous, due to the issue of contagions, there were many people who could not circulate as they normally did. So we saw that it was a great possibility for cycling, but on the part of the municipality it was all prohibitive.
And well, we became quite intense, and there was a communication cut of the meetings we had been having. There was huge silence, and that also affects an activist. That for me was something key, and it made the level of effervescence that we had in 2017, 2018 and 2019 drop a little. We were five cycling organizations for a city of just under 500,000 inhabitants, so we were doing very well.
Argentina is undoubtedly a reference in terms of activism in Latin America. What can you tell me about the general activist environment in the region, and how does that climate extend to the promotion of urban cycling?
We have a sector of the population that is not interested in politics at all. But for those of us who are interested, we are very much there and networks are being woven. Here you meet someone by bike and it turns out that this other person has a group that is interested in street culture. And then a link is generated between the bike and street culture. And then you meet another person who comes with an environmental agenda, and it turns out that the bike also goes with that. So we can constantly support each other’s groups.
What we did, and what was even being done before, is that we looked for the media, and we started to put the issue on their agenda. For this we did bike counts in one of the avenues of the city to see how many cyclists passed by per hour, and then we could say “hey, we are not just five crazy people who ride bicycles”. Then we started to try to reach the media and explain why what we were demanding was fair and not only fair, but something good for the whole city, whether they ride bikes or not. And we also went out to communicate on the streets. At some point we made some tours of the parks and talked to people, especially motorists. We were not saying that everybody has to ride a bike, but I can assure you that the more people ride a bike, the more comfortable you will be in your car, when you have no choice but to go by car.
Besides, it is not so comfortable to live 30 blocks from downtown, when it takes you 10 minutes to get there in your car, but it takes you another 15 minutes just to find parking. And then you don’t find parking and you say, “oh well, five minutes in a double line”, and it’s not right because the street is not only yours (motorist). But I always try not to argue or fight, but to look for reflection and reach an agreement, because otherwise, nothing comes out of it.
Within your work as Bicycle Mayor it seems that you are constantly trying to make road and gender violence visible, but at the same time helping more people to get trained, for example with the bicycle mechanics workshops. How do you think these trainings are helping more women and dissidents to lose their fear, and to strengthen their empowerment in public space?
For me what it provides is security. Security of knowing if something happens, if something breaks, I can fix it. Or maybe I can’t fix it at the moment, but at least I have the tools to know. And that’s what we’ve said in many workshops, “this is a tool” and now at least you have that confidence in knowing what’s wrong with your bike and not just letting any man come to “mansplain” you and then charging you for something that doesn’t exist. Or being told that you don’t know what’s wrong with your bike. That kind of thing, because you go without knowing anything, and it seems like everything they tell you is right.
Pibxs en Bici is a very rebellious organisation. We are a feminist organisation, but very rebellious, in the sense that we like to question: “why do you have to tell me what I have to do, how I have to do it, how to pedal, how everything is done?” So this knowledge already empowers you somewhere, like a bicycle shop.
And the second thing is that you know that if, for example, you go to work on your bike, and you leave work with a flat tire, you can fix it yourself. You already know that it is not so difficult. Women and dissidents are always questioned “you can’t, not because you are a woman”. So, this exclusion has meant that on the one hand, fewer women ride bicycles.
At least in Santa Fe, out of every 100 people who ride bicycles, only 20 are women. So, that’s when we start to ask ourselves why. One is street harassment and nocturnality. The fear, not only of being assaulted, but also of being groped, raped, something. On the other hand, there is also the fear of “they didn’t teach me when I was a girl, because I had to stay at home and not get hurt, and what do I have to do in the street being a girl”. All those things that take you far away from the bike. So, how do we take that back? No longer as a child, but more as an adolescent or young person to say “but I want to move freely in the street”. It is more dangerous in this city – and I’m sure in many – to wait for public transportation than to ride a bike alone.
I, for example, feel much safer riding a bike than walking. It gives me freedom and also gives me autonomy and security. And that is what we want to happen with other women and dissidents. That’s why we started to say, “they are afraid of not knowing what to do if a brake breaks or comes loose,” I don’t know. Well, with a fairly simple workshop they can learn it. I think the best thing about the workshop is that we try to let the girls do it on their own. Because it’s also about getting to know their bike, identifying when it’s right and when it’s wrong. And they end up thinking “hey, I learned how to do this here, I can do it! They don’t have to depend on a brother, a father, or a boyfriend, or the bike repairman, they can do it. And then they say “I can teach a friend,” and that also gives them a lot of empowerment.
And with the issue of street harassment, we were also moving a lot and associating ourselves with feminism. Feminism was at its peak, we were unstoppable with the struggle to achieve the legality of abortion. Then from cycling we also associated with women’s organisations and we managed to get an ordinance in the city that contemplates street harassment. And from that, we began to disseminate information on how to act. But beyond that, it’s like a network among us, talking about what we can do to feel safer. And we also started to disseminate this information with some brochures on the streets.
It’s interesting what you mention Marti, because when we look at urban cycling, especially from a feminist perspective, it always seems to come with support networks, doesn’t it?
Yes, of course. It seems to me that feminist activism has a way of weaving networks and of accompanying each other, of generating pressure, which has taught cycling activism a lot. Feminism, at least here, came to say “let’s stop doing isolated actions, let’s join forces”. Because what feminism shows us, and the fact that we have achieved our legal abortion law, is just that. When we are in the streets, when we mobilise, when we raise our voices is when they listen to us. They cannot look the other way. They cannot say, “oh, no, this is not happening, it is only a minority”. Well, no, because there are people who are mobilising.
In Latin American countries, there are many shortcomings from economic, governmental, and other societal points. But we have to try to look beyond that, and ask how we can organise ourselves? How do we find our own answers? That is why within various activities we did in Pibxs en Bici, is the initiative of accompaniment. For example, when we organise night bike rides, we try to get people to sign up beforehand and to know more or less where they live, so that later we can accompany them home. That way they don’t return alone, and that gives them a lot of security.
Another thing we created was a WhatsApp group called bike-emergencies. In that group people can ask for help and if I’m close by, I’ll reach out and help them. It’s a very nice thing to have, because it’s also there to talk about specific issues, like “I need to buy a chain, which one is best for me?” So this network is also very valuable as a form of cycling fellowship.
Going back to what you were saying about how feminism has taught cycling activism a lot, what other intersections do you think we need to close more equality gaps and achieve more equitable, sensitive, and just societies?
Well, when urban cycling activism had not met with feminism, it had other objectives, a bit more “bourgeois” let’s say. And feminism comes to break with that a little bit. But I think that another intersection that is very much needed is the voice of the people in the hoods. Because in this city and in many others, bicycle lanes are starting to be built in the centre. But the reality is that people in the hoods use bicycles a lot. Especially when we are in an economic crisis, a bike or a car are unthinkable.
And there have always been people in Santa Fe who rely on urban cycling. Since 2015 it has resurfaced, but actually people in the hoods have always used it, or people who go to work by bike or who do their care tasks by bike. But those people are not regularly thought of. And what happens here is that people in the hoods don’t really get out of it. It is very difficult to get them out. There are young people who are in a place that can be very violent, but it is even more violent for them to come downtown and have to face the looks of other people, questioning what they are doing or why they are there. And that is also a very strong symbolic violence. So, I think we need that intersection, because there are many people who use bicycles because they want to and others because they have no other choice, and we haven’t incorporated those voices. I have been told, “but people in the hoods need sewers, they need to have drinking water”. And yes, obviously, but they also need that if it rains one day, and they only have a bicycle, they need to be able to go to work, and not have to carry it on their shoulders for 20 blocks.
Sure, this ecology and cycling, or feminism and cycling, or the right to the city. But what about the most vulnerable people and why are we not giving them access so that they can leave their house and connect with the rest of the city.
And from your perspective, how can we create more platforms for greater citizen participation of these people who are usually unrecognised or excluded from decisions and solutions to their own problems?
Directly inviting them to join. The responsibility lies within the groups to create the conditions so that the people who need it can join. Let’s see, we want people from the hoods to join, well, we are going to have to look for them. They are not going to come on their own, or they are not going to see it on a flyer on Instagram. We have to go, look for contacts, and go to the place. Let’s go there and tell them why it is important that they join.
Here in Santa Fe, for several years there have been public policies of cultural places in the hoods called “aleros”, and they are very powerful places because the kids go there, and there is someone who not only listens to them, but who helps them to overcome their problems, their insecurities. And that can be a place to start looking for and meeting people who will even accompany you. Because also, if there’s someone from the hood with you, they’re validating what you’re going to say. And to be very sincere with what you go and look for with them, and how we want them to add their voice.
If we want there to be more participation of women and dissidents, those men are also going to have to make a change, because if not the girls are simply not going to participate. If we really want the hoods to participate, we can explain everything from our place, from the comfort of being in the part of the city that has all the services and that has a lot of things solved. I think that the spaces themselves have to have that debate internally, so that later they can open up.
All Images: Marti Frutos