Reimagining the City: Biking and Public Space in Tunisia

Haitham Hachani (C), a volunteer with the biking association Vélorution Tunisie, speaks with people coming up to their information stand at the Envirofest in Marsa on June 26, 2021. Photo by Dominic Ronzo.

About two years ago, Amany Hamdany and a friend were hit by a car on the road between Lac 1 and Lac 2 in Tunis, despite wearing bright, protective gear. The car drove off, fleeing the scene. The driver, despite making a brief hospital visit to the victims, would later also successfully evade police inquiries and any legal consequences, Hamdany said. Hamdany was lucky to suffer only severe bruising, but her friend broke a leg and has not ridden a bike since.

Hamdany got right back on a bike—though not her own, since it took a year to find a replacement wheel as bike supplies and parts are often hard to find in Tunisia.

“With my biker friends we usually talk about accidents…we face that every day,” said Hamdany, who works as CEO and occasional bike messenger at the bike messenger company Pedalo.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2595 people died in road traffic accidents in Tunisia in 2016 with two percent of these cyclists, meaning about 52 bikers killed. Tunisia sees almost 23 killed per 100,000 population in deadly traffic accidents per year, a relatively high rate compared to other countries in the world, although similar to the rate in several other African countries.

Meshkal spoke with members of biking clubs, biking associations, and businesses catering to cyclists, nearly all of whom said they knew several people in their social networks who had been severely injured or killed in car accidents. But despite such deadly risks, many bikers are still taking to the streets to reclaim space from cars while helping recruit others to take up biking. Cyclists say they are working against obstacles—put in place by the government, private interests, and social norms—to imagine and build greener more socially just transportation systems and urban designs.

Official Obstacles

In 2017, the cycling advocacy association Vélorution Tunisie organized its first “Tunis by Bike” event, what cofounder Hamza Abderrahim said was a “demonstration to raise awareness of people of the advantage of using bikes and also [to] show our place in the city.”

“For the government and for the authorities, that means that there are bikes, there are people using bikes, they have to take into consideration this number of people and think about their security,” Abderrahim told Meshkal.

But instead of receiving the message that they need to do a better job protecting bikers, authorities treated the mass gathering itself as a security threat.

“The second ‘Tunis by Bike,’ we were about 300 people in Bab Bhar and we were surrounded by  a number of cops that were ten times the number of participants,” Abderrahim said.

The scrutiny from police forces was the typical initial reaction to something new and unfamiliar, Abderrahim explained.

“In Tunisia we have a cultural walls. It means in the beginning they say no, always no. They don’t try to understand your idea. The first answer is ‘No.’ But you have to fight to destroy this “No” wall, and after this, you will go smoothly.”

Since then, Vélorution has organized about 30 Tunis by Bike events and has received much less scrutiny from police forces.

Lobbying Authorities

Some government officials are willing to listen to biking associations—Vélorution says they have had positive responses from the Marsa and Jendouba municipalities which are considering working with them on projects to build biking lanes. Vélorution already worked with the Ariana municipality to install bike parking—something bike commuters use before jumping onto their next transportation like busses or trains which converge at Ariana.

Adnen Ben Hadj Yahia, who grew up and lives in Ariana and founded the bike messenger company Pedalo, said the Ariana bike parking is “very helpful.”

“The first bike parking Vélorution did, the next day it was 100 percent full. People actually use it,” Ben Hadj Yahia said.

But while some municipalities have shown initial openness to biker demands for reshaping the city, this doesn’t always last. While only a few biking groups are big enough to lobby elected officials for biking infrastructure, positive initial feedback from these officials to biking advocates usually wanes with time.

“During first discussions, [officials] say: ‘Ok, we can do that and that and that.’ And then after that [they ask]: ‘Do you really think it’s useful? Are we gaining money?’ So they slow down the procedure,” Hamdany said.

Another avenue for advocacy was meeting with prospective Members of Parliament (MPs) before the legislative elections in 2019.

According to Abderrahim of Vélorution, they tried to get MP candidates to include in their electoral platforms the promotion of biking as an “alternative transportation solution.”  This was successful insofar as they got some candidates to make promises that “they will do their best to support the movement and support green transportation in Tunisia.”

But, Abderrahim said, “to be honest, up to this moment we haven’t seen big actions.”

No Biking Neighborhoods?

While non-profit associations and biking clubs have sprung up to connect bikers to each other and promote biking in general, new businesses have also jumped in to the sector to capitalize on the growing popularity of biking. Many of these have included bike shops selling parts and repair services or companies like Le Lemon Tour, which rents bikes and offers tours. Bike businesses were particularly successful during recent Covid-19 lockdowns that restricted car use.

Le Lemon Tour recently faced challenges at its headquarters in the upscale, residential neighborhood of Carthage when neighbors complained about noise and parking by clients. Le Lemon Tour also faced scrutiny from officials and police—including the environmental police—scrutiny that made its way all the way to the Governor of Tunis who ordered the company to close its headquarters on May 27, 2021.

“Does the Governor in person really take care of all neighborhood wars in Tunisia? That’s quite impressive,” Markus Breitweg, cofounder of Le Lemon Tour, told Meshkal, speculating that their neighbors perhaps had good political connections. “It is completely absurd that environmental police led an investigation against an ecological actor.”

Le Lemon Tour is located in a residential neighborhood, and non-profit biking group Vélorution told Meshkal that they weren’t supporting Le Lemon Tour’s case because they felt that the company was in violation of zoning codes and had taken and profited off their own pro-bono work.*(see update below)

But, Le Lemon Tour’s Breitweg points to many other businesses operating in the area that don’t have commercial rental contracts and sees the legal arguments against them as a “pretext” without a real means of challenging the decision through the judiciary.

“Today we see our turnover decrease dramatically and it also has impacted our internal atmosphere. People are depressed; people are angry; they fear for their jobs,” Breitweg told Meshkal. “We’re in the midst of an economic crisis…and now have a health crisis…and then you shut down an ecological, a social actor who employs five young Tunisians. I mean, please explain this to anyone in public.”

The strong government response to neighborhood complaints about bike rentals and tours in the upscale, largely secluded area in Greater Tunis raises questions about who gets to use public space.

“I think the Carthage thing is about class,” said Lana Salman, an urban scholar who has done fieldwork in the neighborhood. “It’s super chic, super expensive. The Punic Port is one of the most expensive real estate areas and they don’t want people biking…this is just a class issue and they will come up with anything to convince you. Basically they don’t want people loitering around. I think they already think that people coming around on the beach…is too much for them.”

One of the laws invoked by the Governor in his decree shutting Le Lemon Tour’s operations includes the French colonial law on transportation from 1889.

“They can come up with archaic laws that are unrelated. They can come up with something to justify it so that no one accuses them that it’s about class,” Salman told Meshkal.

As for the disagreements between for-profit Le Lemon Tour and non-profit Vélorution, Salman believes that Vélorution’s complaints about private interests capitalizing on their work are legitimate, but “you can also say this is a class question. You can say this is a municipality that despises poor people and is very happy keeping them in Byrsa, hidden behind Mohamed Ali Avenue…Those who live in that area [in Carthage] want an exclusive space where they’re not bothered.”

Fighting Car Culture

While bicycles have a long history in Tunisia, many point to a change starting with the ramping up of car importation during the Ben Ali era. The promotion and incentivization of car importation under the Ben Ali regime was done partly for the personal profit of his family, said Hamza Abderrahim of Vélorution.

Ben Ali’s son-in-law Sakher El Materi owned a controlling stake in Ennakl, the exclusive importer of Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, and Skoda in Tunisia, which was later seized by the State following the 2011 revolution.

In the 1980s, “Sfax was 2nd city or 3rd city in the world using bicycles. Then came Ben Ali,” Abderrahim told Meshkal.

Abderrahim explained that Ben Ali’s government offered credits for purchasing cars and raised the annual quota for car imports. But there was also a “parallel” cultural offensive to make cars desirable.

“In the media they made sexy stories of people getting a car and house and [that] this is a great life in Tunisia. People day after day became robots, so if you don’t have a car it means you are like a poor person,” said Abderrahim. “The car is always related to the successful life.”

“Tunisians do not really respect bikes because bikes are for poor people. So usually you’re supposed to get a bike, then get a motorcycle, then get a car then get a Mercedes,” said Ben Hadj Yahia of Pedalo. “When I try to explain that I don’t want to buy a car, I want to go on my bike every day, they’re like: ‘You’re an alien.’”

The most recent year that official statistics on cars were made publicly available was in 2015, when the State’s Ground Transportation Technical Agency announced in an annual report that it had tested over 1.7 million automobiles for road fitness. Since then, 2015 and 2016 saw over 90,000 automobiles registered according to official statistics.

Abderrahim believes at least 100,000 cars per year have been imported subsequently, which would put the total number of cars at about 2.3 million in 2020, relatively high in terms of population compared to other countries with similar GDP per capita. A recent Business Insider report put the number at 400,000 cars imported per year, although they did not provide a source for this figure.

The influx of cars in the 1990s made city spaces more dangerous.

“Being scared of cars is one of the first lessons you learn, and then people started not letting their kids go to the streets,” Sihem Lamine, an art and architecture scholar who blogs about the city, among other things, told Meshkal.

“The Right to the City”

The car boom has come alongside decades of almost no investment in new public transportation infrastructure.

“This is what’s killing the city as a whole,” Lamine, told Meshkal.

“The public transportation network is weak, poor and insufficient. The potential of adding a future public transportation is being blocked on purpose. I don’t know if it’s the lobby of cars, the families importing cars, if it’s the State, but this is criminal. This is one of Ben Ali’s real crimes,” Lamine said. “It changed people’s habits. It changed people’s relationship to the street, the right to the city. Our relationship to the city is something that is aggressive because of cars. It’s polluted, it’s aggressive, it’s accidents.”

Cofounder of Vélorution Stéphanie Pouessel found that, in the working class Tunis neighborhood of Douar Hicher, car ownership is nearly half the national average. Yet it is even more deprived of public transportation linkages than other areas of the capital. This absence of both private and public transportation makes it difficult for residents to commute to get and keep jobs, perpetuating their poverty and restricting their constitutional right to freedom of travel, she argues.

Article 24 of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution guarantees all the citizens the right “to free movement within the country.”

“This isolation, like that of rural areas, points to a phenomenon of peripheralization in the very heart of Greater Tunis…their impeded mobility is like a form of discriminatory, institutional violence,” Pouessel wrote in a recent study published by International Alert entitled “Urban Mobility in Douar Hicher: Obstacles to Getting Around for Young People from a City in Greater Tunis.”

Urban scholar Lana Salman explains this is an “urban form” that “thrives on real estate speculation and rents to spread out even more.”

According to Salman, “real estate development comes hand in hand with a private car culture…smaller apartments, walkable cities: that doesn’t work for real estate development, especially in Tunis because real estate developers bank on infinite expansion of the urban perimeter. It feels like the city keeps extending its tentacles.”

“All this makes mobility for poor people tiring, and slow, and humiliating,” Salman said.

Salman sees bikers and advocates for alternative transportation as part of several groups that could lead to a bigger reimagining and reinvigoration public space and city space, like the Winou Etrottoir [Where is the sidewalk?] group which has condemned the lack of sidewalks, or an incipient group Salman and others are organizing to mobilize for the “right to the city.” Salman stresses that “the politics and economics of the city’s urban form cannot be solved simply by switching to more eco-friendly forms of transportation such as biking.”

Nevertheless, to cope with a lack of public transportation and the isolation of poorer neighborhoods, Pouessel of Vélorution found that local biking groups have been organizing and encouraging each other to bike as a form of liberation.

“For them, getting around by bike makes them independent of failing public services, freeing them of the burdens and constraints of transportation (hours, costs, security) and so becoming empowered in their own mobility and life,” Pouessel wrote.

Meanwhile, some bikers have a clear vision for what a reinvented city could look like.

“My ideal city landscape would have each street 50 percent for bikes and 50 percent for cars; the downtown area should be only bikes and clean transport – I mean bike-powered or electric-powered transport,” Ben Hadj Yahia told Meshkal. “And I want to have—not for me but for my dad who goes on metro to downtown, or people like him—bike rentals to go at each public transportation hub or station and in the main parking lots in the downtown area or dense areas.”

Biking as Part of the Solution?

Numerous biking communities and clubs have formed in Tunisia in recent years, often using Facebook to connect with one another. Some are small and neighborhood specific, like one from Douar Hicher called “Monster D. H.” Others, like Baskel, which has tens of thousands in its Facebook network, try to operate nationwide.

Baskel’s cofounder Nidhal Azizi told Meshkal that their group helps bikers find each other and share experiences with each other while encouraging others to take up biking. They also help connect people to bike shops, repair specialists, and bike parts.

Azizi said that their answer to car accidents has been to raise awareness among drivers. In 2018 they distributed stickers with the phrase: “Let me cycle, the road belongs to everyone.”

“Baskel will keep trying to solve the community’s problems until authorities start considering these issues and working on finding solutions,” Azizi said.

Meshkal asked biking activists whether awareness-raising for car drivers is enough, whether there might still be car drivers who endanger bikers given that traffic regulations are rarely enforced.

“Sometimes they’re selfish, I’m bigger than you so I own the street,” Hamdany told Meshkal. “But also I think there are car drivers who don’t know how to react in front of a bike because they don’t know how to ride; they don’t understand; there’s no empathy.”

Tunisia’s First Bike Lane

Teaching empathy is one tactic. Changing city infrastructure is another. Tunisia’s first bike lane was built in “Perles du Lac”—commonly known as Lac Zero—located between the Lac 1 neighborhood and downtown Tunis.

“If you go to Lac Zero, I call this urbanism without cars. You see life. There are kids; there are skateboards; there are bikes. Everything you can see but no cars and this is nice. It totally makes sense. We can breathe. We can see each other. We can walk, we can enjoy the moment,” Hamdany told Meshkal.

The promenade in Lac Zero includes a wide pedestrian area and a bike lane. It was designed by architect and urban designer Khaled Cheikhrouhou after he and his company won the June 2017 bid for the project put out by Al-Buhaira Invest, the public-private partnership company between the Tunisian State and Saudi investors that has built the Lac area since 1983.

Cheikrouhou told Meshkal that the idea of the project was to make the “pedestrian become the king, when it comes to the sidewalk…we’re fed up with cars.”

When it comes to sidewalks, Cheikhrouhou said that municipalities usually have tiny budgets for them, so they don’t consult architects, and construction companies assemble them haphazardly. Unlike in Lac Zero, many sidewalks in Tunisia have obstructions to pedestrians like trees and lampposts, forcing people to walk in the road.

“The most important thing is pedestrians walking, securing the path,” he told Meshkal.

The Lac Zero promenade was finished in December 2019, and it soon became one of the most popular and crowded areas in the city for people looking for public space.

“There’s no restaurants, no cafés, there’s nothing, and still, all day and night it’s totally full, and people running, biking. It’s a source of pride,” Cheikhrouhou told Meshkal. “I told the Lac people: ‘See ? There’s a need to have high quality public space…where they can sit, watch the lake without anyone bothering them.’” 

The municipality will have greater control and responsibility for the Lac Zero area after the Al Buhaira company manages it for the first ten years, Cheikhrouhou explained to Meshkal.

Recently, the association Vélorution shared photos of cars parking in the bike lane in Lac Zero on Twitter, commenting that: “The only urban bike lane in Greater Tunis…is unfortunately neither respected nor protected.” Then Minister of Transportation Moez Chakchouk reshared Vélorution’s tweet, announcing in his own tweet: “That’s a shame! Even the achievements are not preserved in Tunisia. I will be sure to ask that this is rectified as soon as possible.”

Still, Lamine sees Lac Zero as a good example and expects that more such developments are likely in the future.

“This is the first time we see that…some public space is given even before the project has started, and there’s these bike lanes, and there’s space for people to sit, and there’s these public theaters,” said Lamine. “It is nicely designed and it is quite impressive how city-users immediately adopted the new place as part of their daily urban life.”

Lina Azaiez contributed to this article.

*UPDATE: Meshkal had requested from Le Lemon Tour a response to Vélorution’s accusation that Le Lemon Tour had profited off their pro-bono work. After this article went to publication, Le Lemon Tour sent the following response:

“Le Lemon Tour thinks that the defamatory statements have no basis and come from individual(s) who seem determined to harm what they think is a competitor, more than building up a bike ecosystem. We are convinced it is not representative of the bike community, and we keep working in a constructive and transparent mindset.”