Cycle proficiency classes give immigrant women more self confidence

Background Reading


Dutch nationals of foreign origin cycle less than Dutch nationals who were born here. Despite a lack of good recent statistics, however, immigrant women seem to be catching up. They are doing so by attending cycle proficiency classes, which are being offered in more and more municipalities. Two good examples are the projects in Amsterdam and Tilburg.

Twenty or fifty years old, newcomer or long-time resident in the Netherlands, of Turkish, Moroccan, Surinam or other origin, the participants in the Amsterdam project Cycle Proficiency Classes for immigrant women are as diverse as the multicultural society itself. Woman from other European countries are also enrolling. Refugee organisations and centres for asylum seekers also provide candidates. “We clearly fulfil a need”, according to Roxanne Stienstra, bicycle project coordinator at the Sport & Recreation department of the Welfare Services Amsterdam.

Meeting place
The reasons for the increasing popularity of the bicycle among immigrant women are the same as for any other person: taking the children to school, shopping and outings: cycling is cheap and fast, increases their self-confidence and independence and also gets them active. But there’s more to it than that, Stienstra has noticed: “The classes also function as a meeting place, where they can chat, exchange information, have a cup of tea, while many go on to other activities like swimming, aerobics or fitness training.” The cycle proficiency classes in Amsterdam have been going for over ten years. Each of the fourteen urban districts has at least one project. Publicised through advertisements in the local newspaper, for example, the women can enrol at the community centre. Some urban districts have a permanent community sports worker. Others hire someone. The classes are given in the nearest gym. “We provide the bicycles, the teachers and help with the start-up”, says Roxanne Stienstra. She personally trains the teachers, paid employees with a sports academy diploma and a First Aid certificate. They tend to be women, which is particularly important for Turkish and Moroccan participants. “But in the south-east which has a big African population, it doesn’t matter whether the teacher is male or female. Here, a complete men’s group was recently formed. And in the River district, a mixed group recently started. There are also immigrant women giving cycling lessons.”

No prying eyes
The course involves twenty weekly sessions lasting one hour: ten for beginners and ten for advanced cyclists. The first series, in which ten to twelve participants learn the theory and practice of cycling, is given indoors. “Very important, because the women don’t want to attract prying eyes. The long skirt is swapped for trousers, the headscarf comes off: they have to feel uninhibited.” In the second half of the course, they learn the Highway Code and participate in traffic.
“First they practise in a quiet park, before moving on to the public road, eventually in all weathers, because cycling with slippery tyres makes braking difficult and that’s something they have to learn too. Outside there is always an assistant teacher in attendance, so that someone can cycle behind the group.” The course ends with an exam. Successful candidates receive a certificate. The urban districts operate autonomously, but Sport & Recreation coordinates the cycle proficiency classes. Stienstra strives to achieve unity, such as a uniform price. The price now varies in each urban district from thirty to sixty guilders for ten classes. Two videos supported by a reader were presented to former Sports councillor Roel Walraven in January and are intended to promote uniformity in the classes. An introductory 25 minute video tells the teachers about the organisation and structure of the classes, and how they can reach the target group. The second film lasts 2.5 hours and instructs the teachers about preparing the classes, the contents and the best way to teach. “This can be used in two ways: the teacher can prepare her lesson and show the participants what the class will be like. This helps overcome any language barrier.”

Knowledge distribution
The municipality of Amsterdam subsidises some of the cycle proficiency classes from its sport promotion budget. The Infrastructure, Traffic and Transportation department granted the subsidy to make the videos, among others. Roxanne Stienstra regrets that there is no information exchange with other big towns about the cycle proficiency classes. “This kind of exchange is long overdue”. The Centre for Foreign Women (CBV) in Tilburg has been promoting cycle proficiency classes for immigrant women for years, both inside and outside its own municipality. Angela van der Kloof, coordinator of the Steunpunt Fiets (Bicycle Support Centre) run by the CBV, has developed the course Stap op de Fiets (Get on the Bicycle); over 400 have already been sold all over the country since 1996. Besides developing and distributing teaching material, Van der Kloof also gives cycling and traffic classes to immigrant women and girls, trains teachers in various towns, advises institutions like community centres and organisations for asylum seekers about launching cycle proficiency classes and brings the subject to the attention of policy makers.

As long as the CBV has existed, almost a quarter of a century, cycle proficiency classes have been given to immigrant women. Angela van der Kloof became involved when she volunteered to support the only teacher at the time in 1991. In 1992, the teacher retired and Van der Kloof took over the cycling activities. “When she left, her experience was lost too. A real shame. I wanted to structure and professionalise the classes. Because there was no teaching material anywhere in the Netherlands, we developed our own course material.” This includes a teaching manual, an instruction booklet for participants, photo cards showing the right and wrong way to follow the Highway Code and certificates. Teachers can decide for themselves what they want to use. “Through this package, we came into contact with other municipalities, I started to organise workshops and an annual study day”, Van der Kloof continues. In Tilburg, three teachers assisted by volunteers teach four groups: two at the CBV and two in district centres. Nine participants learn cycling proficiency on one morning or afternoon a week. Just like in Amsterdam, their background is very diverse, from highly qualified to uneducated, from refugees from Somalia and Afghanistan to immigrant women from Italy and Portugal. So no lack of candidates. “There is still a waiting list. And that’s just thanks to word-of-mouth advertising.”

Tailored classes
The classes are divided into cycling, having a cup of coffee and theory. “All three are equally important. The women must be able to talk about it”, says Van der Kloof. “We tailor the classes as far as possible: if someone needs more time and attention, we give it. If someone learns fast, they finish sooner.” The CBV provides the bicycles, but strives to ensure that every participant has her own bicycle. “We take the whole group to a bicycle shop.” Sometimes there are difficult situations. “Some women may have been given a bicycle as a wedding present, but it’s the wrong size. Then you have to tactfully advise the woman and her husband that she would be better buying a more suitable bicycle.” According to the coordinator, like most municipalities, Tilburg does not have a traffic policy for immigrants, let alone immigrant women. For the classes themselves, the CBV gets a subsidy in the framework of traffic safety. In 2001, for the first time the municipal council allocated more money which facilitated two classes in the district. For developing teaching material, the centre was granted a financial contribution by the provincial Fiets AdviesTeam (Cycling Advisory Team).

Low threshold
On 15 March, a new instruction video was presented in Tilburg during a national study day of the CBV. In the fourteen minute film, (future) teachers are instructed how to teach someone to ride a bicycle and organise this in classes. “We tried to make the video as low threshold as possible. Cycling classes are usually given in a community centre by volunteers, who have to think up the teaching material themselves. This is not always successful. Some people think that it’s better to hold someone, for example, but the best thing is to let them do it themselves. With the video, we try to move them towards another approach.” She knows how important it is for the teachers and participants to have a video like this that can be used again and again. Despite the many immigrant women who want to learn how to ride a bicycle, the available budget is very small. Here is an opportunity for many municipalities, Angela van der Kloof is convinced. “The women are very motivated, but classes are too marginalised at the moment. In some places, cycling lessons only involve a tour of the square. There is often no money for a good quality course. Yet with a municipal contribution of just 5,000 Euros, you can achieve a great deal. That’s nothing compared with the cost of constructing a cycle path costing a couple of hundred thousand Euros. If you want to approach cycling proficiency classes for immigrant women seriously, you need a budget and people. It’s time that policy-makers responded to this need.”

More information:
Amsterdam: DWA,
Roxanne Stienstra, tel. 020 5522027
Tilburg: CBV,
Angela van Kloof, tel. 013 5359043

Fietsverkeer no. 2, February 2002 pages 13-15.