Sharing bike skills can solve social ills

In mid-August, more than 200 cyclists crowded into the Pittsburgh Filmmakers School for the fourth annual Bike! Bike! Community Bicycle Conference.

Published September 10, 2007 by CommercialAppeal.com 

In mid-August, more than 200 cyclists crowded into the Pittsburgh Filmmakers School for the fourth annual Bike! Bike! Community Bicycle Conference.

The diverse collection of cyclists represented 62 bike shops from three continents, and the international flavor couldn't distract from the unifying goal of each group: to collect as many idle bikes as possible and use those bikes to teach and empower.

The range of work done by community bike programs is vast. MayaPedal accepts shipments of bikes from the U.S. and in turn converts the bikes into pedal-powered corn grinders and water pumps in Central America. The Working-Bikes Collective in Chicago repairs as many as 5,000 used bikes a year, employing both volunteers and paid staff as mechanics. Bikes not Bombs, one of the first community bike programs in the U.S., has youth programming that ranges from earn-a-bike opportunities for kids, to a girls-specific mechanical training program, to a bicycle maintenance course taught in local elementary schools. The Derailer bicycle co-op simply repairs bikes and hands them out — no questions asked.

These programs are changing bicycling and our culture in unique ways. Community cyclists save thousands of tons of metal from going into local landfills, creating new bikes out of old stuff. They encourage bicycle use among groups that may otherwise be unable to afford to ride, supporting bicycle commuters amid the clamor about global warming and increased gas prices. Local bike retailers benefit from an increased ridership as more cyclists buy gloves, tubes, tires and other new accessories and parts.

Perhaps most important, community bike programs teach the community to take care of their bikes and empower them to pass their knowledge on.

Youths tend to reap the lion's share of benefits from bike education in community bike programs, as the bike shop becomes a much-sought-after hang-out space for kids. As a space that is equal parts learning and equal parts congregating, youths can develop unique strategies for problem solving and teamwork.

Community bike programs are conscious of environment and context: They create a fun learning space, which for kids is a far cry from the drudgery of a math class. They provide a space where unused materials can be recycled, good stewardship of the environment is paramount and conscious global citizenship guides the project.

Perhaps most important, these programs model how much can be accomplished with what we already have. The bikes left over from the bike boom of the 1970s, when 15 million bikes were produced in 1973 alone, can now be placed in the hands of a whole new generation of cyclists. Community bike programs remind us how much potential is right before our eyes.

In Pittsburgh, I heard these shops described as the place where creativity meets mobility. Imagination, ingenuity and persistence were named as key to recycling bikes, and the experiences borne from a community bike shop were said to help cities envision the potential for bikes.

Bob Giordano of Missoula, Mont., says the "experiences, excitement, trials and errors of the community bike shop help inform (city planners) as to what people desire and practice with regards to cycling."

In turn, the community bike shop can adjust its focus to fill the holes in city planning. As communication between the shops and cities strengthens, planning and development for bicycles becomes more complete.

The mark of a healthy city is a strong and vibrant cycling community. And perhaps more than anything, community bicycle programs broaden the possibilities of a cycling community.

Memphians have begun to imagine what we could do with the abandoned CSX rail corridor, or the wide city streets of Midtown, and our bike shops have helped to swell the ranks of these visionary citizens.

Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop here has transformed perhaps a thousand old bikes into new rides for Memphians, showing that a little imagination and a lot of people power and some bicycles can make a difference. (The shop is at First Congregational Church, 1000 S. Cooper, 949-1201.)

Memphis is an obese city and a low-income city, statistics that are confirmed each year. But a piece of the solution to our public health problems and crime might be right in front of us. Community bike programs have opened the eyes of many communities to the possibilities of the ordinary and the unused, and the more rust we scrape off of old bike frames, the more clear these possibilities become.

Memphian Anthony Siracusa is a full-time student at Rhodes College. He is a member of Memphis' Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, executive director of Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop and a daily cycling commuter. Contact him at revolutionsmemphis.com.