Cycling Without Age: The Right to Wind in Your Hair
with Pernille Bussone
Cycling Without Age (CWA) is a volunteer-based organization first started in Copenhagen in 2012. By means of a collaboration with the city municipality of Copenhagen and the nursing homes where the elderly passengers resided, a movement of unprecedented impact has been moving people through storytelling for nearly a decade. From Denmark to Singapore, the organization operates in over 51 countries worldwide today. The organization, rooted in a desire to help elders get back to their bicycles, provides free, leisurely rides to passengers using a three-wheeled passenger cart known as the trishaw, or rickshaw. Pernille Bussone is based in Copenhagen, where she works as the Global Community Captain of Cycling Without Age. Since joining in 2014, she has helped establish CWA alongside its founder, Ole Kassow. Now faced with our current pandemic, we hear from Pernille on what challenges and possibilities still face CWA and what we can learn about the “right to wind in your hair,” the organization’s slogan.
Interview by Nicole de Groot
What inspired the creation of Cycling Without Age?
Curiosity. About other people, people that are different from yourself, that you might have an idea of where they live but don’t have access to. The vehicle we use, the trishaw, presented an opportunity to meet the people on the other side of the street, on the other side of the world, and to relate to them. I would say that’s what sparked the movement. I myself started a chapter of cycling without age in Singapore, and for me that was an effort of promoting a more slow, down-to-earth kind of cycling. In general, it’s a movement that has been sparked by generosity and kindness and curiosity and wanting to relate to other people. And it’s been spreading across the world, which means that it’s also being sparked by different things for different people.
What is the mission, or main aim of the organization?
To provide a link between people, especially people with limited mobility in the city.
How would you describe Cycling Without Age to someone who’s never heard of it?
Many people feel alone. A lot of these people are elderly, many are people with limited mobility, which increases the risk of being physically isolated, and causes them to be socially isolated and lonely as well. And this is true of people of all ages, feeling lonely and depressed and alone. We try to connect people so that through the trip on the rickshaw/trishaw, they will have shared experiences together with someone else in the city. The mission of CWA is driven by and accomplished through five guiding principles: generosity, slowness, storytelling, relationships and agelessness. Ole, CWA’s founder, often speaks about it in his talks about the need of having a clear path to reach a goal, so long as people in this movement are generous, they have relationships and storytelling, they don’t discriminate because of age and then they ride and talk slowly with the passengers, then the mission can be accomplished.
In Copenhagen Cycling Without Age is so popular that you have a waiting list for people who want to volunteer to drive the trishaw. I don’t know if this is still the case due to Covid, but how did CWA become so popular, and what keeps driving people to volunteer?
Yes, of course during Covid the waiting list was not moving a lot because it was difficult to have new people come into the care homes, due to the risk of infection. But it is true that it is very popular. It’s basically because there are so many trishaws. This means that luckily, when people see something like this, this kind of activity, they are naturally attracted to it. With more rickshaws, more people will be attracted to it and I think that’s pretty much the secret. And honestly, I’m not even sure that the popularity of the movement is specific to Copenhagen. I think all cultures are attracted to this idea because we know through our CWA chapters in 51 countries globally that they also think it’s a good idea, so it’s a universal solution. The rapid spread of the idea in Copenhagen is also due to, of course, it being a cycling-friendly city, and having a higher quality of living standards compared to some we see in the global south. So, there are some inherent conditions that make it easier for the movement to spread in Copenhagen, but the movement itself is indeed spreading worldwide.
And what are some of the surprising places or cities in the world where CWA appears?
Oh my gosh, I love that question because there are so many! For instance, Anchorage, Alaska. That’s pretty cool, and another surprising city is Reykjavik in Iceland. They’re very, very active there and you will see some beautiful videos and pictures where they’re cycling all year round. Singapore, I find surprising as well; CWA has become really really popular there. Oh! and the most recent, very cool and very surprising is the chapter in Sikasso in Mali. There, of course, the challenge is that trishaws are quite expensive. So, we do have some projects currently to improve the opportunities to set up chapters in the global south. One of them that we are working on is having what’s called an open-source rickshaw, where people build their own rickshaw and inspire others to do the same with local materials. The other project consists of finding well-functioning, used rickshaws, gathering them, and then sending them to locations in other parts of the world with less access. And that’s what we’re doing right now with Sikasso.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges for CWA as a whole?
I think the challenges are part of the reason to do it. We need inclusive cities, so when we find out that heat, hills, or money are barriers to setting up a chapter of CWA, then we have a checklist of what we have to work on so we can do something about it, you know? That’s what’s most motivating, meeting amazing people around the world while doing it. I would say among the barriers in the global south, one is definitely money, mostly. In the global south, there is often a mentality barrier to cycling for many reasons; maybe for some people it’s kind of seen as a mode of transport for people who don’t have other options, you know, that seems less. Like less important, less interesting to society, less valuable. Because in the global south, they like to look at the future and move ahead, and to them, the rickshaw might represent the past, or going backwards. In some places there is also something, which still blows my mind, and that is the safety aspect of it: that it is not safe to ride a rickshaw or a bike. We definitely have to do something about that mentality as well because it’s not true, it’s not bikes that are making the roads unsafe. On the contrary, more bikes would mean fewer road accidents. And that’s why it’s brilliant to have the principle of slowness, because nothing can happen if you go slow, pretty much.
These challenges you mention focus on the global south, what challenges do you face in the north or more specifically, Copenhagen?
I would say in Copenhagen it’s the people who actually sign up to pilot the rickshaw and then don’t continue to come as volunteers. It’s a challenge because the people who are doing the pilot training, writing the handbooks, guidelines and all that, are volunteers as well. Someone recently conducted research about it and found that in all volunteer work there will be a lot of lost causes. In our case the challenge of having volunteers who don’t come back is an interesting one for which I don’t know if we have found the answer yet. But there are some solutions we’ve actually found to be useful. One of them is that the first time the pilot comes to a care home, for instance, they should go and introduce themselves to a resident, the potential passenger, so that there is a face to that person who actually wants to ride and to maybe even book a ride and say, “OK, shall we do this next week?” Then it becomes a more meaningful encounter than just signing up online, because you’ve made a real-life connection to that person. Another positive initiative has been hosting social activities for our pilots, where they meet once a month at a pub or at someone’s place. It has been working well because I think it gives the volunteers a sense of knowing that their role in the organization is seen, and keeps the energy there that fosters a sense of community that is so important to this and any type of meaningful work.
How has Covid changed or affected the challenges CWA faces?
Covid has presented a good opportunity for people to feel empathy towards individuals in our society who are deeply isolated, because they have by now probably also felt it themselves. There’s an urgency to it now, whereas before some people might have found CWA kind of like a cute, maybe fun thing to do, now you really know that people are not being cared for and their needs for socialising are not being met, that they could die from loneliness. I can imagine that there’s going to be a spike in the number of rides next year.
What are new avenues of possibility that you think Covid has created in the realm of public space and mobility?
What comes to mind as I have been reading and hearing that cycling is becoming more popular, is a project we started early on in the pandemic, the right to relate. It is basically about having relationships as a human right. We want fresh air, we want access to clean water, and we want to be able to have relationships. And there is also one of the things I remember from my conversation with you two years ago, that the city should be much more open to relationships being created, and this is what I think Covid has given us, the capacity to acknowledge relationships as a human right. With this project, we wanted to repair the world for post-pandemic times, we imagined that we went around and planted trees and put benches and had rickshaws everywhere, with enough volunteers, so that when the care homes would open their doors, fresh air would just come in and people would get out and feel invited into a city that was inclusive to people that are old, or in wheelchairs, or in need of stories, relationships, or generosity. So that was the dream that came about as a result of this pandemic.
How has your time at CWA influenced your understanding of inequalities that maybe you were not aware of before you started working there?
I’m much more aware of very specific physical barriers you find in cycling paths that divide the cycling lane in two and make it very difficult for different-sized bike-lane vehicles that are not bikes to pass through, for example a wheelchair, or a rickshaw, as is my experience. The barriers are there so that people won’t ride too fast on the cycling lane, but it’s a bit stressful when you’re on a rickshaw, and you find that it is too wide to fit in the lane. It can also be dangerous. When you’re in a wheelchair you might not be able to go to new places, or you might not want to go to new places because you risk being cut off, or suddenly there is a staircase and all of that. This does not only happen in Copenhagen, but with other CWA chapters also I’ve seen how inaccessible some spaces in the city are. It would be wonderful if city planners could acknowledge the idea that individual mobility is always changing, and they might be thinking about really, really fast cyclists wearing Lycra gear when they make certain limitations to cycling, but then they also might prevent people in wheelchairs or rickshaws, or all kinds of three-wheel bikes, from entering public spaces. I think that’s a shame.
How do you think CWA could operate to potentially also serve other demographics like children and others who are not in nursing homes but who might have a disability or otherwise limited mobility?
Here in Copenhagen, you find many places and homes for people of all ages who have different disabilities, and they go on rickshaws with us all the time. It doesn’t even have to be people with limited mobility, the joy of relationship and generosity and without age is that you don’t have to fit in one box to enjoy it. And that’s actually one of the things that I realized lately through a project where we worked specifically with youth that feel lonely. I realized it when one youth told me he did not want to have a ride because it lets people put a sign on you, let’s them know you’re a lonely person, like there’s something different about you. And in fact, we are all that person. Sometimes, you know, we all feel lonely. We all have troubles and all that. So, I like the idea that the barrier between the passenger and the pilot becomes blurred.
What city could you imagine Cycling Without Age one day being in?
Good, good, good, question. I think I would actually say Bogotá. I would see that as a huge success because Bogotá is a good example of a city that, with ambition, can change its course quite quickly, and serve as an inspiration for others who want to do CWA but face barriers or challenges such as the lack of money and political will. But when we could say, “but what about Bogota?” That would be really, really cool.
When you pilot a rickshaw, what’s your favorite ride to take your passengers along?
It’s difficult to choose from so many wonderful rides! We have a big park, which is also a natural reserve, called Dyrehaven located just north of Copenhagen, and it’s accessible in 20 minutes from the city center. I love going there with passengers because it’s a place where they have also been when they were young. It’s a bit like travelling back in time with them because they’ve been there most of their life, through moments in their childhood, with their children, and later on. To be able to bring people back to that place that is so difficult to reach is magical for both passenger and pilot.
Just recently I went riding with a 101-year-old there and she just leaned her head back and felt the sun on her face. It was just wonderful. She’s one of those people that tans very easily, because of her very delicate complexion. And in this ride, she was just soaking up the sun! Now that she’s living in a care home, she doesn’t get any sun. Of course, she can watch from inside through the window but someone has to push her out to sit in the sun, so this is just such an amazing way to do it. And then it led us to talk about how she used to tan, because there’s a whole culture around it, isn’t there? She said that when she used to go to the beach, she would enjoy just lying there naked. This is actually so interesting because, now that I think about it, with different people but on the same ride to this park, their stories reveal a lot about the time that they lived in and how the city or society was like back then. So with this passenger, you know people could be naked. Other times people have to be covered. Just talking about sunbathing can be revealing about a shifting history embedded over time in this park.
“The right to wind in your hair”; that’s the slogan of Cycling Without Age. What are other rights that you or the CWA community stand for?
Well, first I want to tell you about the slogan and where it came from, because it was actually from one of our passengers who was blind, I believe, or at least she had very limited sight. Somebody asked her, “Since you can’t see, what do you get out of riding in a bike?” We are so focused on that, right? We think that it’s all about eyesight. And the passenger replied, “I might not be able to see, but I can hear the birds sing, I can smell the flowers, and I can feel the wind in my hair.”
Among other rights, however, especially since the pandemic, is the right to relate. Because I don’t know if having the right to wind in your hair should be a human right, probably not [laugh]. But the right to relate, I think it should be and it’s one of those things that maybe we took for granted, and then it suddenly disappeared. Like a lot of the rights that we have to fight for, this is a basic human right. That you will meet people during your day, that they will look you in the eye, share a smile, that you hear someone tell you their lived experiences in the city you share, these are the rights we as the CWA community stand for.
To learn more about Cycling Without Age, or even about starting a chapter of your own in your city, visit cyclingwithoutage.org.
Volume 5, no. 1 Jan-Jun 2022