How Can a Rickshaw Change Lives of Elderly People?

On June 29, IMAGURU hub in Minsk organized an inspirational meeting with social entrepreneurs from Denmark Ole Kassow and Pernile Bussone, founders of a social movement Cycling Without Age. The experts came to Belarus to speak at the Second Social Business Forum in Belarus, which was organized on June 28, and then held a separate meeting with cycling lovers of all ages within the framework of the EU-funded Social Entrepreneurship Incubator project.

Cycling Without Age started in Denmark in 2012. Ole wanted to help older people come back to cycling, but had to first find a solution to their limited mobility.

The impulse to change the world

Six years ago, Ole Kassow was riding his bike when he saw an elderly man sitting on a bench, with a walker in front of him. Ole took a moment to think how many people no longer could move around the city freely, and realized that he wanted to help them once again get on a bike. Ole rented a rickshaw and took it to a care facility nearby, where he offered its elderly residents a bike tour. A few minutes later he was already driving an 85-year-old woman who volunteered for the ride. They took an hour-long tour around the city, with the lady speaking all hour long, telling him stories from her past.

Ole shares: “One hour later I knew her whole life! I shared this with the care home staff, and they didn’t believe me: they said the woman did not like to speak much. That was when I realized what a magical effect these bike rides could have”. Not much later the rides became a regular thing, with more and more volunteers getting involved in the process. Then we started receiving calls and letters from all the corners of the country and even the world — people wanted to organize such rickshaw rides in places where they live.

Expanding the borders all the way to Singapore

Pernile Bussone continues: “I was inspired by Ole’s speech and decided to launch Cycling Without Age in Singapore. Introducing this new idea to a foreign country was undoubtedly a huge challenge. There was a lack of understanding, and people had lots of questions. We had to adapt in terms of administrative issues as well, but this experience helped us to get integrated in the society”.

Pernile Bussone, Cycling Without Age, Denmark

The goal of the project is to provide everyone with an opportunity to get involved. That is why all the rides are provided free of charge. The organizers believe that relations where money is not involved to be more honest.

The cycling movement operates on and promotes a number of values and principles: 

Storytelling. The bike rides are an opportunity to hear people’s personal stories, which helps participants discover a whole new perspective on the city, seeing a new, previously unfamiliar layer of history. Elderly people need to share their life stories. Many of them have lost family and friends, so now they don’t have anyone, while this project gives them an opportunity to get their own identity back and make their voices heard.

Slowness. This principle is not just about travel safety. It allows people to take a look around and actually come into contact with life, stop rushing and take a closer look at the next person.

Without age. The project includes people of all ages, as well as various professional and social backgrounds. It helps staff members, family members and elderly people build relations with one another. This point is very important, because people living in isolation often feel depressed, especially when they also have dementia. The bike ride gives them an opportunity to clear their head, forget about their problems and engage with someone else.

Inclusiveness. Anyone can become a rickshaw pilot. In a number of cases since the project began, the person behind the wheel was even older than the passenger. Sometimes the passenger’s condition improves so much that they become drivers and take other people for rides. Once, the rickshaw was driven by a visually impaired person who was guided by his friend in the passenger seat. This experience was really helpful to both of them as it allowed them to believe in themselves.

Photo: official website

All-round effect of the bike rides

The bike rides have an impact on both the elderly people and the staff of care homes, volunteers and other interested parties. A survey conducted in Barcelona to look into the impact of cycling on bike riders confirmed that it increases their quality of life and general well-being:

•    it improves the psychological state and mental health of elderly people;

•    they start requiring less medication;

•    it improves their sense of staying connected to the world and helps them build trust to people around them;

•    they make new friends;

•    their appetite and quality of sleep increases.

Photo: official website

The project also impacts staff of older people’s care homes in the following ways:

The care recipients come back in good mood, which becomes contagious. Overall atmosphere becomes more pleasant and cheerful.

While some of the care home residents are out for a ride, the staff can dedicate more of their time to others without being in a rush.

As the state of the residents improves, the staff feel how significant their work is, see its results and feel like they are actually doing something meaningful.

These rides allow participants to see people they know in a totally new light.

Physical activity and fresh air improve their mood and well-being.

Creating the rickshaw

In order to develop the Cycling Without Age rickshaw, the organizers utilized ready-made production technologies, which were then adapted to specific project ideas. They were continuously updated over the six years of the project: the rickshaws can now go over any road surface, gravel, sand, snow and ice. They are suitable for long-range and protracted trips. For example, they were used to take a group of passengers to Germany: 10 rickshaws with 20 passengers took a 5-day trip, travelling over 60 kilometres daily. There is also an additional motor on the rear wheel, which facilitates the ride and makes it easier to go uphill.

Photo: official website

The rickshaws are stored in garages or in special cases, with a large lock attached to them for safety. The rickshaws are very robust, so they are easy to drive even for people who have problems with their balance. There have not been any road accidents over the time of the project — both thanks to the construction of the rickshaws themselves and to the slowness principle, which all drivers adhere to, since problems can arise if the drivers go over the speed limit or take sharp turns. In order for the pilots to feel the instability and discomfort the rickshaw can experience, Pernile offers the participants a chance to take a very fast ride during training. This is typically enough to demonstrate the importance of observing the rules.

At the moment, the rickshaws are produced by small manufacturing workshops located all over the Denmark or in local companies in the participating countries. One rickshaw here costs about 5,500 euros, while producing one in Mexico, for example, costs about 1,500 euros. Ole underscores: “Any production line must follow one simple rule: never compromising on quality. Organizations and volunteers raise money to purchase rickshaws by crowdfunding and attracting sponsors. This was exactly what students from Bonn, Germany, did: they raised the money to purchase a rickshaw and began riding around German cities promoting the project and offering people rides.”

Pernile adds: "Actually, in order to understand what it is all about, you need to just go out and try to give a ride to someone you don’t know. It is a completely unique experience, which you need to feel yourself”.  

Cycling culture in Minsk

Speaking about the cycling development potential in Minsk, Pernile notes a number of similarities with the situation of lack of understanding they faced in Singapore. She also underscores: it is important to remember that things are changing. In the very beginning, their project did not fall under the laws of the city of Singapore, so they could not find support, and it was a challenge to launch just one rickshaw in the city. Now they have twelve! So Minsk should also start by introducing small changes, which are very soon going to change the system as a whole.

There were people in both Copenhagen and Singapore who argued against the project, but the movement was later adopted and approved in 38 countries of the world. The organizers hope that one more destination is going to appear on the project map very soon: Belarus. They are convinced that Minsk has a lot of potential to do this. Ole and Pernile used bicycles to move about the city all throughout their stay in Minsk, so they could assess the infrastructure well. “Minsk has cyclists, and can have more even if no changes are introduced to the infrastructure. The more bicycles you have, the sooner everyone gets used to them. Then you will achieve change — after all, the city belongs to everyone. Sometimes we forget that cities are supposed to serve people and not cars. Minsk is very beautiful. When you ride round the city, you feel a light breeze in your hair, you feel connected to your surroundings and to life in general”.

Ole says: "Unlike Minsk, for example, Los Angeles does not have a well-developed cycling infrastructure. When we launched the project, the city mayor said quite bluntly that he was never interested in bike riding and did not view it as either meaningful or enjoyable. Then I offered him a short ride. Twenty minutes later the mayor admitted that he started to understand cycling lovers. I also remember very well his turn of phrase: he said that the rickshaw “gives cycling a human face”. Now I think that the rickshaw is the Trojan Horse that is going to bring cycling back to cities”.  

How do I join the project?

If you want to become part of Cycling Without Age, you can fill in an application on their website and receive an invite. When registration is requested by a team of people from a country which has not yet been part of the project, it is preferable that its members have the following competencies:

•    fundraising (for project needs);

•    project management;

•    social media;

•    the main requirements are passion for cycling and socially oriented work.

A lot of focus is placed on training of volunteers (“pilots”). Anyone can become a pilot. The first stage of training includes video lessons about the project, its rules and values, the intricacies of rickshaw driving and passenger interaction. Afterwards, a practical class is organized.


Photo: official website

The project target groups are: elderly people, who the project gives a chance to start a new life, have a new hobby and discover a new area; high school students, who are taught values and ideas of organizing socially significant cooperation and building relations with people; and company employees, who do corporate volunteer work.  

Text by: Kseniya Kireeva

The meeting  was organised in the frame of the project Social Entrepeneurship Incubator that took wich is funded by the European Union.