These are the guys who moved your bike
Meet the men in black (and red)
There’s roughly twenty of them. Dressed in red-and-black coats and speaking in a thick Gronings accent, the university stewards stand guard on campuses at Zernike and in the city centre. Most people think of them as ‘bike stewards’ who guide confused students lost in a sea of bikes. Or as irritating ‘bike police’ who drive you crazy by moving your parked bike a few metres away.
But stewards do way more than fuss with your bike. In fact, they do it all, from re-arranging classrooms, to painting signs on the battered cobblestones, to cleaning greasy PC keyboards. For now, all of the stewards are men – but women could be coming on board soon.
They are out in the rain, snow, and hail. Many people stop to greet them; some stop to confront them. But for the most part, these men are faceless and nameless to most students and staff. That doesn’t bother them. They are used to anonymity. So who are they?
Stewards in action in front of the Linnaeusborg at Zernike
Just a few minutes before the start of the 9AM class, the Zernike campus is filling up with cars. Of course there are bikes as well, but it´s the endless stream of vehicles that really stands out. In a couple of hours, the roads will be lined with parked cars that shouldn’t be there. Steward Joziak grabs a bundle of leaflets to slide behind windshield wipers. The print shows a map of the campus with additional parking locations. ‘We’re not law enforcement. We can only warn and advise’, he says.
At 24, Joziak is the youngest steward. At 60, Anjo is the oldest. The two walk alongside each other. Anjo is pushing a bike and wearing some sweet shades – the other stewards like to call him ‘Daddy Cool’. He has to cover a lot of ground for this job. His legs get tired, so he cycles. ‘This campus is very big and there are only three of us working today. We are understaffed’, he says.
Some of the stewards have autism or ADHD and find it difficult to deal with angry students
Joziak and Anjo make an unlikely duo. Joziak is goofy and lighthearted; he has a tendency to dance around and sing along when a song he knows comes on. Anjo, on the other hand, is graceful and composed even when he is making jokes. The two have become good friends. They even get up at 5 in the morning to take the same bus to work.
As they move bikes that have piled up in front of the local Albert Heijn to make space for customers, a scooter pulls up. Joziak asks the driver to park in the designated spot further down the road. The driver gets aggressive. Anjo steps in and backs Joziak up in his calm, steady voice. But the driver and his scooter continue to fume. ‘I can call the police if you want’, Anjo suggests. Begrudgingly, the moped diver scoots away. ‘You just have to keep your cool’, Anjo shrugs, ‘and looking a bit older also helps. They respect you more.’
More than just a job
But not everyone finds it easy to deal with angry students. Some of the stewards have autism or ADHD. They try to avoid confrontation at all costs, yet occasionally they face verbal abuse, or even online harassment. Sometimes they have panic attacks. ‘But we are a family here, and we help each other out’, explains Arthur Hilberdink, the steward team leader.
Stewards come into the job through social reintegration programs designed for people with working disabilities. Anjo was unemployed for more than a year. Joziak tried several jobs. Now they have a chance to start again. ‘Society tends to forget these people’, says Hilberdink. This job makes them feel that they are part of something. That they are part of the working force again.
This job makes the stewards feel that they are part of something
The stewards could soon get the opportunity to pursue further education. Plans include specific courses from the RUG that will boost the group’s employability. Currently, they can only work 32 hours a week and can stay in the job for no longer than five and half years. ‘We want them to move on to a better life from here’, adds Hilberdink.
But for Anjo, who is nearing retirement, being a steward is already as good as it gets. Not for the money, but for the community. ‘It’s the best job I ever had.’
Stewards in front of the UB
‘Welcome to hell’, Albert Jan grins as he sips his steaming coffee from a paper cup. He is sitting together with other stewards in a small corner office on the ground floor of the Harmonie building. The team is ready to face the morning rush.
They pick up signs and cones that they’ll use to delineate parking areas. After a short walk, they resume their usual position at the corner of the library, patiently observing the escalating commotion. ‘The busier it gets, the more fun it is’, says Ronald, who’s been a steward for two years.
Peak times are every two hours from 9AM onwards, when most classes change. That’s when the stewards are most needed. Today, a student falls off her bike as she slips on the treacherous surface. Dennis, a steward with a distinctive goatee, runs to help her up. Crises averted, he stops to lift another bike out of the jumbled maze of cycles and pass it to its owner.
The job is a physical one. Dennis recently broke his arm trying to move a large container. His colleague Daniel had muscle pain in his arms for the whole first week in the job. Often they have to pick up and move hundreds of bikes a day.
Even still, the impact of their work is not always so apparent. Bikes, cars, and trucks roll in at the same time, jamming the narrow Broerstraat. Everybody is in a rush. Nobody seems to care about safety. ‘It’s like mopping the floor with a rag full of holes. It gets so busy here we can’t do anything. It’s frustrating’, says Ronald.
With the number of bikes increasing each year, stewards are being stretched to their limits. They are severely understaffed. They don’t have the authority to chain up wrongly parked mopeds or get rid of abandoned bikes. As a result, people feel free to continue abusing the rules. Arthur and his team wish they were allowed to do more. ‘We just want to do our jobs properly. But we need more people and power. We’re pushing for change, but it’s taking too long.’