The Réseau vélo-boulot: Gatineu, Quebec and Ottowa, Ontario’s Bike to Work Network
The Réseau vélo-boulot, or Bike to Work Network, is a 20 week program, which begins in early May and runs until Car-free Day in mid-September.
As a regional event, the Réseau vélo-boulot occurs primarily in Gatineau (Québec), but also includes participants from Ottawa (Ontario). The two cities, located on the Ontario and Québec border, are separated by the Ottawa River, but constitute a single metropolitan area when taken together.
Action vélo Outaouais, roughly translated as the Outaouais Cycling Coalition, is the main organizer of the event and provides online support, including a carbon offset calculator and travel tips. Other sponsors include local bike shops and the local transit agency, Société de transport de l'Outaouais.
The Réseau vélo-boulot, in an effort to instill the habit of bicycling to work over a number of months, opted to use a longer term approach to promote bicycling in the community. Many programs, such as Bike to Work week, generate support for bicycling in the short term, but do not create a culture of bicycling in a community or facilitate bicycling as an everyday activity. The 20 week program invites participants to make a pledge to use their bicycle at least one day each week.
Over the course of the five month event, activities are organized around bicycling, including mechanics workshops and social events as well as workshops in workplaces, which help to enhance public support of bicycling and encourages more participation in the event. Prizes, such as bicycles, bicycle equipment, transit passes, and others, are provided to further incentivize participation. By organizing bicycling through social events and encouraging new or novice cyclists to ride more often, the Réseau vélo-boulot has created momentum around bicycling in the region and has "contributed to significant increases in budget allocation to cycling infrastructure and a closer working relationship with local officials," according to organizers. As showcased by the Réseau vélo-boulot, organizing bike commuting events can have a mobilizing effect on local government and demonstrates how political support can be created around bicycling.
The initial idea for the Réseau vélo-boulot program was put forth in 2005 and based in part on the Challenge Gothenburg in Sweden. The Réseau vélo-boulot organizers were attracted to this particular European event due to the longer implementation period and the idea of a making a personal pledge to use the bicycle on a regular basis. Previous efforts (2001 to 2004) to promote bicycling to work in the region focused on a day or week long event. However, several of these events were not as successful as the organizers would have liked due to rainy conditions, which would often hinder participation, especially with individuals new to commuting by bicycle. Organizers also had doubts about the effectiveness of such short duration events in increasing the mode share of bike commuters. Hence, the idea of organizing an adapted version of the Challenge Gothenburg was done through a pilot project in 2005 with roughly 50 participants. The participants responded with very positive comments on this type of event and indicated that the feeling of "being part of a group" was important. Also, participants recommended providing on-going communication throughout the event to further build the network of bike commuters and maintain participation. Following the successful pilot, the first "official" edition of the Réseau vélo-boulot using the longer term model occurred in 2006. Over 500 participants registered for this event, exceeding even the organizers' most optimistic expectations. The following iterations of the event reached even higher levels of participation, making the Réseau vélo-boulot a truly successful program and a trademark event for the Gatineau region.
Since the inception of the Réseau vélo-boulot program, there has been generous community support for the event in the form of in-kind support from bike shops, while the local transit agency has also contributed to the initiative. Over the years, the Réseau vélo-boulot has also received funding from Transport Canada (federal ministry), Transport Québec (provincial ministry), and the City of Gatineau totaling between $25,000 and $40,000. Unfortunately, the federal and provincial ministry as well as city funding sources were only for a limited duration and have not been renewed. The current budget of between $10,000 and $15,000 is a bare minimum and poses a challenge to the organizers, as more volunteer work is needed and much less funding can be dedicated to promotion of the event. In addition, much work is required to secure adequate funding and complete the required reports once funding has been approved. The organizers are currently working diligently to secure long-term funding sources, most notably with the City of Gatineau. A sustainable level of funding, including both a part-time position and a promotional budget, would be between $25,000 and $30,000 for this event.
The program has been very successful since its inaugural year, with over 2,500 people participating in total. Evaluation data indicates that almost a quarter of the participants had either not used or rarely used their bicycle to get to work prior to registering, while many people that do bike commute increased the frequency with which they bicycled to work. This type of information clearly demonstrates the success of the program.
The first lesson learned is to consider moving to longer term events. This is not to say that Bike to Work Day or Bike to Work Week events are no longer valid or important. The Réseau vélo-boulot still organizes activities to launch and close out the challenge, which is essential not only from a public relations standpoint, but also to communicate to the participants that the activity is currently on-going. Long lasting events like this one (20 weeks) need to have benchmarks, otherwise organizers may lose the "buzz" associated with a special day or week events.
A second important lesson is to communicate with the participants on a regular basis. Organizers need to offer workshops, social events, news items, and even the occasional "call to action" message on issues relating to bike commuting. E-mails, Facebook, and other media outlets are effective and inexpensive tools to communicate this information. This enhances the feeling that participants are part of something, part of a movement that contributes to advancing their cause.
Essentially, these two lessons illustrate the two objectives of the Reseau vélo-boulot —
1) to encourage and support individuals to commute by bike and 2) to create a network (or critical mass) of cyclists that can help in advancing the bike commuting cause. Though the Gatineau-Ottawa region had a respectable number of bike commuters before the Réseau vélo-boulot, organizers feel that the Réseau vélo-boulot has contributed to creating a community around bike commuting and bicycling in general and has increased the visibility of the bicycle mode on a regional scale.