“I feel good that I am playing part in changing our culture and showing girls anyone can cycle. I don’t care what people say. I am the one benefitting from this bicycle. The most important thing that anyone can do is stand up for him or herself.” – Ayan from World Bicycle Relief (Eldoret, Kenya, Dec. 2017)

“You cannot lie when you’re on your bicycle, it will always tell you the truth” – Fagodien Campher, BEC Owner – Bicycle Empowerment Network (Lavender Hill, South Africa, date unknown)

“We believe in the bicycle as a means of increasing access to vital health services, economic opportunity, educational empowerment and independence.”  – Bikes Without Borders (Toronto, ON)

“It is not a hyperbole to say that bicycles can change the world.” Mike Brcic, Board Chair of BWB


Photo: Bikes Without Borders

The narratives above provide a small glimpse into the values and experiences people place onto bicycles across the globe. These narratives encapsulate the bicycle as a tool for development that has the ability to address a range of social issues, including poverty, lack of transportation, gender inequality, health and education. In addition, various social actors – such as the United Nations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and corporations – praise the bicycle as a tool for reducing poverty, and supporting youth development and education within marginalized communities around the globe. As a Master’s student and a member of Dr. Lyndsay Hayhurst’s research team at York University in Toronto, Canada, these kinds of narratives enable research teams like ours to highlight and identify what is called the Bicycle for Development (BFD) movement.

Bike Host in action.

The BFD Movement

The BFD movement has continually grown but has received limited attention. BFD is premised on the bicycle’s ability to catalyze social change, but it has yet to be determined if the BFD movement and the object at its centre – the bicycle – could be a way forward for the growing field of Sport for Development (SFD). Could the bicycle be a practical development and social tool for marginalized communities around the world?

There have been many instances where the bicycle has been an agent of activism. For instance, the bicycle was a tool of empowerment for Western women during the 19th century. The bicycle facilitated women’s mobility, independence, and an entry point for women’s public personas. In more current forms of activism, The Biking Public Project advocates for policy changes to New York City’s e-bike bans as a way to counter prejudiced attitudes towards  immigrant delivery cyclists in NYC. Additionally, Ciclovía is an organization that uses the bicycle as way to re-claim urban public spaces in Colombia. Through these examples, the bicycle becomes more than a mode of transportation – it becomes a text marked with multiple meanings. Similarly, with BFD organizations, the bicycle’s purpose and meaning all vary, but they inherently agree that the bicycle holds the possibility for change.

Taking a Closer Look at BFD Initiatives

Let’s take a moment highlight a few BFD narratives that showcase the significance of this movement. Bikes Without Borders (BWB), a Toronto-based non-governmental organization, uses the bicycle in multiple ways to effect social change in communities both locally and internationally. In partnership with CultureLink, BWB provides refurbished and donated bicycles to participants who complete the Bike Host program. Bike Host is a free mentorship program that connects Convention refugees and Permanent Residents with cyclists in Toronto, who then lead group bike rides in and around the city.

As a few Bike Host participants highlight:

“you might just think, how can a bike change everything? Actually, it changed a lot.” 

And,“you’re not only a part of the city, you’re a part a cycling group; you feel accepted”.

The meaning and value that is placed onto the bike (1) provided participants with positive attitudes, (2) provided the potential for individuals to feel a sense of belonging, and (3) encouraged individuals to explore their city (Bike Host Report 2016). These are a few of the ways the bicycle has the potential capacity to enhance social inclusion.

A community health worker transports a patient with the use of an bicycle ambulance. Photo from Bikes Without Borders.

Internationally, used bicycle donations are often shipped via containers to various parts of the world. In the Zomba District of Malawi, the bike is used to mobilize community health workers – enabling them to increase their health outreach capacities through the use of bicycle ambulatory services. In Sierra Leone, donated bicycles from BWB provide children with easier access to education because schools in these regions are located far away from many communities. Through this one BFD organization, the bicycle showcases its capacity to provide access and developmental change in parts of the world.

BFD Research

“A Girl and Boy on a Bike” Street Art by Ernest Zacharevic in George Town, Penang, Malaysia.

As scholars, it is important for us to reflect and engage in critical reflections, analysis, and action, rather than passively accepting BFD solely on its good merit. Many SFD scholars call upon the need to use various perspectives and theories to explore and make explicit the power relations in SFD (for example, see Levermore 2011; Hayhurst, 2014; and van Igen 2016). With this in mind, our current Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada funded study, Cycling Against Poverty? Researching a Sport for Development Movement and an ‘Object’ in/for Development, explores and open discussions about how, in some contexts, inequalities of gender, class, race and other social relations (e.g., sexuality) are embedded in the daily works of BFD.

As the bicycle’s multiplicity of meanings become more diverse and complex, our BFD research team hopes to explore and understand these intersections through the narratives of BFD participants and organizations. Our aim is to display their stories and lived experiences of the bicycle, while utilizing photography, digital platforms, multi-sited ethnography, community-based approaches and digital participatory action research.

Moving forward, our team at York University is negotiating and building trust with BFD organizations and their communities. We are seeking to engage in capacity building with (allowing participants to take part as active research participants) and for the participants (informing organizations about the needs and wants of the community). The BFD community research will be conducted in Uganda, Canada, and Nicaragua. As the team gears up for the second phase of the BFD research, the perspectives and knowledge of the participants and organizations will start to paint the canvas of what the BFD movement means to them. In turn, their perspectives will soon inform the organizations we work with, national sport policies, BFD NGOs, varying academic fields, and public knowledge.

Emerald Bandoles is a MA candidate in Kinesiology and Health Studies at York University. Her research interests include the intersections of sport for development, community health, postcolonial feminism, discourse analysis and Asian studies.

To learn more about the Bicycle for Development research and updates, follow the links below:

Dr. Lyndsay Hayhurst: http://www.lyndsayhayhurst.com/bicycles-for-development

Dr. Brian Wilson: http://css.ubc.ca/projects/bicycles-for-development/

Twitter: @Bicycles4Dev