In Damascus, a New Student Craze: Bicycles
This is one of three articles in a package about the difficulties transportation poses for Arab university students. The articles were a cooperative effort between the Jordanian publication 7iber and Al-Fanar Media. The other articles are “A Hidden Obstacle for Arab Student’s Education” and “In Jordan, Poor Transportation is a Drag on Education.”
DAMASCUS, Syria—During the past two years, Lama, an education student at Damascus University, was often late for her morning lectures because her bus had to stop at frequent security checkpoints. The journey from her home to the university, which used to take no more than 15 minutes, now took more than two hours.
But now, thanks to her bicycle, she arrives early for her first classes.
“The idea seemed strange at the beginning,” she says. “But I did not hesitate to try it because I was sick of always missing my morning lectures.”
In Syria’s capital, the cost of public transportation has been going up, economic sanctions have been making fuel hard to come by, and the number of checkpoints is increasing. Sick of terrible traffic jams, a group of Syrian youth used the Arabic word that means roughly “come on” or “hurry up” in a campaign called “Yalla: Let’s Bike!”
Started by Maen Elhemmeh, a Damascus University lecturer who abandoned his car commute for a bicycle, the campaign seeks to spread the bicycle culture to combat the overcrowded streets and create a healthier alternative than riding in a bus or car.
Seeing a veiled woman riding a bicycle is no long weird, says Elhemmeh. “The campaign succeeded in breaking the ice for many university students who wanted to ride bicycles but were shy because riding them did not comply with the traditions of our society,” he says.
Elhemmeh started the idea with a small group of friends through a Facebook page that now has more than 25,000 followers. He does not know how many students ride bicycles now in Damascus, but believes they are in the thousands.
“The campaign is a great idea,” says Nour Shalgheen, a mass communications student at Damascus University. “Riding bicycles is an ideal solution for the difficult circumstances we are living in. This solution saved us time and money.”
Ammar, an engineering student, says that transportation fares can take up 45 percent of students’ pocket money. “I had to find a solution to reduce my expenses,” he says. Riding a bicycle saved him around 8,000 Syrian Liras a month ($36), equivalent to one third of many people’s salary.
Riding a bicycle in the Syrian streets is not easy. Bike paths don’t exist. The pavement can be rough, and drivers are not used to making way for bicycles. Most bicyclists go without helmets.
With bicycle use on the rise, the city’s merchants are taking advantage of the trend. “The increasing number of students using bicycles caused an unprecedented increase in their prices,” says Joud, a dentistry student.
Sarah, a student studying tourism services, couldn’t buy a new bicycle because of the 30,000 lira price tag ($100). She had an old bicycle, which her brother had bought for her seven years ago for 3,000 liras ($14). But her brother was using it, and so she is stuck using public transportation and waiting hours for the bus.
The bicycle fad was slowed by security authorities, who banned riding bicycles last year, saying they were unsafe, given the rise in attacks and explosions. Authorities confiscated many students’ bicycles under various pretexts.
An engineering student who doesn’t want his name used says “My bicycle, which I had bought for 15,000 liras ($70) was confiscated, and the security guards were about to arrest me for arguing with them when they took my bicycle.”
But the problem of bicycles being confiscated was solved, according to Elhemmeh.
“We coordinated with the Damascus governorate to stop the confiscation of bicycles, and now students can ride their bicycles safely,” he says, adding that some bicycle lanes had been created on some streets. Negotiations are underway with the university administration for a place to park bicycles.
Riding bicycles is still limited to Damascus due to the conflicts in the other Syrian governorates. But students welcomed the bicycle campaign and some said it might be expanded in the future after the war.
“Why did we waste our lives riding buses and public transportation?” says Monaf, a law student. “I will continue riding bicycles even after graduation and during my work as a lawyer. It is not only good for transportation, but also as a psychological and physical practice.”