There’s an old adage that the city gets a lot smaller when you start riding a bike. It makes things that were hard to get to easier to reach, making it easier to explore more of the city and, consequently, to feel more like a part of the city yourself.
For newcomers to Canada, a bike can also be an important step in feeling welcome in the community, the city, and the country at large.
The Welcoming Wheels program, run out of the Ecology Action Centre, understands this, and has made getting newcomers onto bikes a key part of their mandate.
“Welcoming Wheels started in 2015, in response to the influx of Syrian refugees into Nova Scotia,” says Anika Riopel, director of the program.
“The thought behind it was supporting people by providing them with an affordable means of transportation, recognizing that people wouldn’t have licenses, so they wouldn’t be able to get around their community.”
Broadly, Welcoming Wheels runs two programs.
The first is called their Bike Buddy program, which matches local bike riders with newcomers, who get together over the course of three months and work on riding — skills like where to ride, how to signal, and so on.
“The idea being that we’re meeting people where they’re at in terms of their current riding ability and their current riding confidence,” Riopel says. This way, they can pretty much accommodate anyone, whether they know how to ride a bike (and need to get comfortable on Halifax’s roads), or need to learn the basics first before hitting the road.
The second is their earn-a-bike program for newcomers who want to learn to ride but might not be able to afford any of the gear. For those people, the earn-a-bike program lets them volunteer for at least eight hours helping people with repairs and maintenance in exchange for a bike.
More often than not, Riopel says, people get so into the volunteering aspect that they happily stay on after their eight hours is up. The program tends to have a stable roster of between 20 and 30 regular volunteers, Riopel says, which creates healthy supports for anyone coming through the program.
“A big aspect of this is community and connection,” Riopel says, “this idea of actually creating connections between different groups of people. When you talk to people who ride, often times they learn from a parent or a family member or a teacher or a friend. It’s more of a one-on-one interactions; we’re trying to create those one-on-connections.”
Among the many things working for Welcoming Wheels, it’s the unexpected connections that really show the program’s value.
“On an earn-a-bike night we could see 16 and 17 year olds working alongside seniors, and the cool thing of working over a bike is sometimes that language barrier disappears,” Riopel says. “It’s been really uplifting. There’s a community being built around it.”
“We often talk, in our work, about the idea that active transportation, in order to encourage people to choose it, you need infrastructure and you need programming,” Riopel says.
A lot of their public advocacy work covers things like bike lanes, speed limits and so on, while programs like Welcoming Wheels work on that other part to help get people on the bikes in the first place. That, she says, is an often overlooked piece of the puzzle.
“Sixty per cent of the population would choose to ride if they could,” Riopel says. “There’s a portion of that population who want to ride a bike, but there’s barriers. Are those barriers that they don’t have a bike? That they don’t know how to ride a bike? They’re scared of a bike? Or are those barriers that they live on the side of an 80 km/h highway and there’s no sidewalk.”
Both are important considerations at Welcoming Wheels, and it’s made it a natural fit within the Ecology Action Centre. Both working with the municipality and working with new riders are working towards the same goal of healthy, sustainable communities.
“If we have healthy, resilient communities where people are choosing active forms of transportation,” Riopel says, “We’re actually making our cities run better, our communities run better. It’s a win for everyone.”