Bike power

Queer co-founder says bicycle co-op could answer transportation woes


Published  July 13, 2007 by Southern Voice
By Zack Hudson 

Queer co-founder says bicycle co-op could answer transportation woes

It started as a college student’s idea.

People and neighborhoods inside the perimeter could be linked through alternative transportation that would make Atlanta a healthier, cleaner and less traffic-addled city. 

Almost instantly, the idea sparked attention from a vocal and rapidly growing fan base.

The idea began to grow, and organizers started looking for money and help to make it happen. Goodwill and offers of support for the bold new project — even from politicians — rolled in.

And unlike it’s similarly fabled Atlanta Beltline counterpart, the Sopo Bicycle Cooperative has been in operation, successfully and with little controversy, for nearly two years.

In December 2004, Emory grad Rachael Spiewak and a friend organized the very first meeting of what would become the Sopo Cooperative. Interested cyclists and community activists poured into a Cabbagetown meeting room, where, according to Spiewak, the energy and momentum radiating from the crowd was palpable.

When an outdoor electrical transformer succumbed to the cold weather and knocked out electricity for the meeting, Spiewak says participants carried on undeterred.

“You could see hundreds of bike lights blinking. Everyone was huddled there, still shouting out ideas.”

And voila — the Sopo Co-op came into being, first out of the home Spiewak and another co-founder shared.

As word spread about the co-op’s missions — to supply participating members with bicycles and tools at little or no cost, and to evangelize the masses on the benefits of bike transportation — the group’s fan club grew to include higher profile members.

Atlanta City Councilmember Natalyn Archibong soon came on board. And an East Side real estate trader donated the use of a facility in East Atlanta Village, which has been the group’s home since October 2005.

“Yes, we have bars and all sorts of neat culture going on here. At the same time, East Atlanta is a really great community of people because it truly supports things like this,” Spiewak boasts about her neighbors.

supporting sopo, which is short for  south of Ponce, means becoming a member and working — cooperating — for the common good of the group. Duties for volunteers span the gamut of tasks required to run any business, and Spiewak points out that interested would-be members need not know how to assemble and fix bikes.

“We just assume that if you participate in any capacity, you’re a member. I feel like this whole city is plugged in,” she says, indicating the support Sopo has received from numerous east side businesses, including Radial Café, Charis Books & More and Lenny’s Bar.

“It’s very much a get what you give situation,” she explains.

Sopo members can assemble custom bikes and make use of the shop’s tools and repair services at little or no cost in exchange for volunteer hours. Members with less free time and more money can purchase bikes from the shop at bargain-basement rates.

Archibong’s office donated $1,300 for a summer program for neighborhood children to keep the shop open an additional night of the week for kids between ages 10 and 18.

In addition to the programs for children, the co-op has started Alternative Lifecyles, which outfits disabled adults with adult size tricycles.

since sopo reconditions bikes for sec- ondary use, co-op leaders are always on the lookout for parts — including whole bikes — and tools. They’ve had success in collecting enough materials so far, Spiewak says, but they’re always willing to accept more.

“There’s bike shit everywhere. It’s sort of the magic of doing bike stuff,” she laughs.

Cash, merchandise trade and donations of skilled labor in or out of the shop are also at a premium, she says. 

Tuesday and Thursday evenings, as well as Saturday afternoons, Sopo members old and new can find Spiewak and others busy tinkering with tandems and 10-speeds.
“It’s people power that makes this happen,” Spiewak says.

During the off hours, Sopo leaders tackle administrative duties, which are mounting as the co-op gears up for more expansion.

“My goal is to move closer and closer to getting this fully funded,” Spiewak says.

In the meantime, Sopo continues its forward — if at times uphill — roll. Races and fundraisers are planned regularly.

“Bicycles bridge a gap. We live in a society that values freedom of movement, which isn’t always addressed by public transportation,” Spiewak says.