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Pedalling towards integration

Everyday mobility of refugees

Bicycle repair shops as a communication platform for refugees
Bicycle repair shops as a communication platform for refugees © Rückenwind e.V.
Mobility is a prerequisite for social inclusion. The bicycle provides refugees with low-cost mobility, extends their range of action and also offers an opportunity for social exchange in numerous cycling projects.


Enabling refugees to actively participate in society is a central element of a ‘welcome culture’. Whether for attending German language classes, participating in a sports event or going to work: mobility is a prerequisite for these activities - and a core element of successful integration.

Here, the existing infrastructure can both promote as well as limit interaction. Where refugees are primarily accommodated in rural areas or on urban fringes, they usually face considerable restrictions on their mobility from the beginning. Thus, ensuring mobility begins as early as choosing the right locations for refugee accommodation and is a factor that must not be neglected. The transport infrastructure must be included in the planning right from the beginning.

The refugees' experiences in their regions of origin also play an important role in their mobility. There is not necessarily a well developed local public transport system in their home countries - collective taxis or mini buses are widely used. Very often, people who do not have access to a private car simply walk. Bicycle use varies greatly depending on the region - in the Arab countries, however, it enjoys little popularity. After their arrival in Germany, refugees often come to appreciate the bike as the ideal means of transport. It extends their range of action, is cheap and promotes social contacts.

Moreover, road safety plays an important role from the first day of their stay in Germany, as they are not familiar with the German transport system and language barriers are an additional obstacle to getting about safely and learning traffic rules. As a consequence of this gap in knowledge and experience, situations may arise in road traffic which put both the refugees themselves as well as other road users at risk. It is thus important that they become acquainted with the basic traffic rules at an early stage.

Information Box: Facts on the everyday mobility of migrants

The few existing empirical studies show that the mobility behaviour of people from a migrant background is considerably different from people who do not come from such a background. On the whole, migrants depend more strongly on public transport and walking and use a private car or bike less frequently. But there are notable gender-based differences in mobility behaviour. Significantly fewer migrant women hold a driving licence than migrant men and they use cars much less frequently. Quite frequently, they do not know how to ride a bike. Male migrants show a remarkably high affinity for driving, with between 60 and 71 per cent of them using a car on an (almost) daily basis [Suhl et al. 2012].

On the whole, however, next to nothing is known about the mobility behaviour of persons from a migrant background. So far, the everyday mobility of migrants has played only a minor role in mobility research. In view of the high number of refugees currently coming to Germany, new insights in this field are urgently needed.

Mobility experience from the various home regions

Refugees coming to Germany for a safe haven come from different home regions with a different mobility culture in each region. Especially in the Arab region, the bicycle is considered to be a means of transport for the poor and women are even prohibited from using it. It is only for leisure activities that cycling is of any importance. The railways, too, are seldom used. Taxis and mini buses, however, are widely used “public” means of transport. The refugees thus have very little experience of the prevalent means of transport here [Filby 2016]. This, in turn, means that refugees must adopt a new mobility behaviour in Germany in order to orient themselves in their new surroundings and be mobile. Support from volunteers is very important in helping them to do so.

Pedalling towards integration

The advantages of cycling have quickly become known all over Germany and, by now, there are several hundred cycling projects for refugees, which provide bicycles free of charge (abandoned or donated bicycles). Many cities or municipalities do not just simply issue the bikes, but have set up repair shops in which the bicycles are repaired to a roadworthy condition. Together, volunteers and refugees are working on old bicycles in these do-it-yourself repair shops. By carrying out repair work together with volunteers and other refugees and getting actively involved, refugees engage in meaningful activity and connect with members of the local community.

In Berlin, school and university students founded an association by the name of “Rückenwind”, meaning tailwind. These young people repair bikes together with refugees and restore them to a functioning state. These activities facilitate so many contacts that the repair shop becomes a place of encounter. The association also aims at providing refugees with basic mechanical skills and creating the foundation for future professional training in this field.

And it is not only in Berlin that many volunteers are involved. In Saarland, too, donated bicycles are handed out to refugees and repaired together with helpers. A large group of volunteers is participating in the “Bikes for refugees” project.  In 2015, the project was awarded the German Cycling Prize in the “Service” category. While repairing bicycles, new friendships are often established. The participants not only meet at the repair shop, but undertake bike rides to explore the new surroundings or meet for a chat at a café.

The City of Oldenburg usually carries out two “removal operations” per year in which abandoned bicycles are collected by municipal workers. The police then try to find out to whom the bikes belong and eventually issue them to refugees if the owner could not be found. Up to 2015, the bicycles were scrapped or auctioned. Now, they are being restored to a good condition and given to refugees.

Not only individual citizens, but also associations, churches, charities, companies and numerous other organizations get involved. In this process, new partnerships and a wide variety of cooperative structures are coming into being in many communities. The Schwabmünchen Rotary Club, for example, donated the tools that were urgently needed to equip a repair shop. And there are volunteers who now repair the bicycles together with refugees at this shop. Apart from the bike itself, additional equipment is needed, such as a helmet, a lock, as well as functioning lights. Donations in cash or kind must also be raised for this additional material.

The do-it-yourself repair projects appeal more to male refugees. Some of them have already done repair work before and can thus contribute their experience. The bicycles provide particular pleasure to teenagers as they can finally get about and visit friends living in other refugee accommodations.

In the distribution of the bicycles, some cities also take account of the refugees’ own efforts to integrate and get involved. Refugees who take part in German classes on a regular basis, for example, are given priority when issuing the bikes. Better still, some town and cities even have programmes in which you can repair a bike and are taught how to speak German at the same time. Aside from that, the German volunteers can also learn from the refugees, for example the English names of some tools.

Lessons learned from the project work

As with so many things in life, both positive and negative lessons can be learned from the project work with refugees. Cultural differences between refugees and volunteers can make cooperation more difficult - which is not a reason to give up! It is important to keep up the good work and show mutual understanding. For example, bicycles handed out free of charge are often not fully appreciated. In a few cases, bicycles were simply resold to other persons. As a consequence, several projects have introduced a deposit which is refunded when the bicycle is brought back. The bikes are also registered and coded in cooperation with the police. These measures are to ensure that the bikes are put to good use.

There have been frequent complaints about refugees not being on time for appointments or classes. Misunderstandings can be avoided by communicating clearly beforehand and making clear that participants are expected to be punctual.

Interpreters can help to overcome language barriers. In most cases, however, people are simply able to communicate with gestures. As bikes are not a prevalent means of transport in Arab culture, refugees from the region have little experience of cycling. Therefore, it is also important to raise their awareness of the benefits of cycling. In Germany, the bicycle is considered to be an energy-saving and “green” means of transport, which is not only used for leisure activities but also to get to everyday destinations such as work, appointments or the grocery store.

A positive aspect that is always emphasized is that cycling projects help to establish social contacts, to get to know new people as well as their cultures and way of life. Many volunteers state that it is enjoyable and rewarding to accompany the refugees along their way for a while and help them to integrate. Staff managing the do-it-yourself repair shops have reported that some refugees come in and help on a regular basis and have become part of the team. Especially after just arriving, most refugees are happy to have something to do and get into contact with Germans.

Women can cycle too!

Fahrradfahren und Fahrradkurse machen Spaß
Fahrradfahren und Fahrradkurse machen Spaß © Yalla Let’s Bike

Far from everyone has learned how to ride a bike in their home country. Often, women are prohibited from riding a bike.  Thus, cycling courses are offered especially to this target group (e.g. cycling courses for female refugees in Berlin) to help them gain access to cycling in their “new home country”. At such a course, the women first learn to keep their balance, do simple exercises on the bike and are taught how to ride their bike safely on the roads. Learning to ride a bike is fun and offers an ideal opportunity to get to know other people. Moreover, it gives the women a feeling of freedom and independence. In addition to participating in a cycling course, women may find it quite helpful to take part in a cycling mentorship. Here, a female cyclist will be a mentor to another woman who is learning how to ride a bike. For a certain period of time, the women will ride their bikes together on day-to-day journeys, for example for shopping. This will help them feel more confident on their bike and learn how to ride it safely while accompanied by someone. Moreover, it provides them with social contacts and the opportunity of exploring their new surroundings together.

A checklist of the requirements to be met by a successful cycling course for refugees can be found in the infobox. Of course, cycling courses can also be organised for male refugees. Special attention must be given to the different levels of language proficiency and education of the refugees. Guidelines on carrying out cycling courses can be found in the information material provided on the internet platform of the National Cycling Plan, for example the “Guidelines and ideas on projects with refugees”.

Checklist of requirements to be met by a successful cycling course for refugees

  • Objective: Learning how to be safe on the roads and how to use and maintain a bike
  • Theory: Teaching essential information on traffic rules and signs (preferably at the beginning of the course)
  • Provide training bikes and scooters
  • Ensure roadworthy condition of the bikes before use (check lighting, brakes, bell etc.)
  • Where possible, everyone should bring their own bike to the course.
  • Find a suitable location for practical exercises, for example a traffic training area, a school yard or a traffic-calmed area - ideally a very calm, asphalted and screened off area.
  • Inquire beforehand what would be a convenient time for the course (morning, afternoon)
  • Small groups (10 to 15 maximum) + 1 instructor (if required, provide separate courses depending on nationality, gender, age)
  • Recruit interpreters and volunteers
  • Exercises include taking turns, braking, giving hand signals, knowing and observing the right-of-way rules...
  • Plan a bike tour and award a course certificate
  • Material: Flyers, brochures, traffic cones...
  • Follow the principle: “Less is often more!”

Road safety

In order to avoid accidents, refugees must be familiar with the most important traffic rules and be able to follow them. Providing them with targeted information will enable them to move safely on the roads in the future.

Information on essential traffic rules can be provided through flyers, brochures, posters or smartphone apps. The use of simple imagery has proved successful in overcoming language barriers and makes it possible to reach illiterate persons, too. It is also recommended that cycling courses be combined with theory training. Different organisations have already provided information material which can be downloaded in various languages. You will find a list of them in the infobox.

But there is also a need for information on how to use buses and trains. Therefore, several integrated transport associations have already taken action to support refugees by providing translations of information material on their services and fares in various languages.

Information Box: Information material on road safety for cyclists and pedestrians

ADAC e.V.: Flyer “For more road safety. Essential rules for road users in Germany.” (in German, English and Arabic)

ADFC e.V.: Flyer “Travelling safely by bike - The most important traffic rules for bicycles” (Flyer in Albanian, Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Kurdish, Persian/Farsi, Russian, Spanish, Tigrinja, Turkish)

Diocese of Trier: The Most Important Traffic Rules for Cyclists in Germany (Albanian, Arabic, Bosnisch, Croatian, English, French, German, Macedanian, Paschto, Persian/Farsi, Russian, Serbian, Tigrinja)

German Road Safety Council (DVR): “Cycling in Germany. The most important rules.” and “On the roads in Germany - what do I need to know? Essential rules of the road” (Flyer in different languages)

Zukunftsnetz Mobilität NRW: Poster in A2 format: Basic rules for pedestrians and cyclists (in Arabic, English, French, German)

Conclusion and Outlook

There are already a large number of cycling projects for refugees in Germany, which make an important contribution to enhancing their integration as well as to ensuring mobility for them. The projects range from fund-raising campaigns through bicycle repair shops to cycle training courses. But there is a further need for action in the future in order to ensure mobility for refugees. Due to the rising demand for bicycles, there is also an increasing need for funds to provide space, tools, spare parts and other assets. Usually, the number of available bicycles is not sufficient, more extensive cycle training must be provided and further volunteers must be recruited in order to be able to implement projects. Moreover, the initiatives that were launched are far from being accessible to all refugees.


[Fassmann, Heinz; Reeger, Ursula 2014]
Fassmann, Heinz; Reeger, Ursula (2014)
[Filby, Anna 2016]
Bachelor-Arbeit, Augsburg
Filby, Anna (2016)
[Harms, Lucas 2007]
In: Beckmann, K.J.; Bracher, T.; Hesse, M. (Hrsg.): Städtische Mobilität und soziale Ungleichheit, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Kommunalwissenschaften, 46. Jg., Bd. II/2007, S. 78-94
Harms, Lucas (2007)
[Kasper, Birgit; Reutter, Ulrike; Schubert, Steffi 2007]
In: Beckmann, K.J.; Bracher, T.; Hesse, M. (Hrsg.): Städtische Mobilität und soziale Ungleichheit, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Kommunalwissenschaften, 46. Jg., Bd. II/2007, S. 62-77
Kasper, Birgit; Reutter, Ulrike; Schubert, Steffi (2007)
[Suhl, Kerstin; Welsch, Janina 2012]
ILS (Hrsg.), Dortmund
Suhl, Kerstin; Welsch, Janina (2012)
Meta Infos
SPT 06
Date (Text as of…)
2. June 2016
Uta Bauer (Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik)
Handlungsfelder NRVP
Mobility and road safety education
Specific target groups
Mobility education
People with a migrant background
Local mobility
Cycle training