Sunday, July 22, 2018

Seeking Cargo Bike Cultures: Rio and Beyond

When I flew to Rio de Janeiro in June to attend the Velo-city conference I looked forward to reconnecting with my bicycle advocacy colleagues from all over the world. What I didn’t expect was my discovery of a bike culture so deep and proud as Rio’s cargo bike riders and craftspeople.

Within my first steps along a Rio street I encountered a cargo bike. It was draped with gadgets for tourists, but my gaze landed on the springs under the front cargo box that looked just like the coil springs from a car. Not far away in an open, car-free square I saw another cargo bike. That one had leaf springs, also from a car.

As I walked through the square I checked the frames and fittings of every cargo bike I encountered. From the springs to the dropouts to the gearing to the cargo boxes, every one of these bikes was unique, built, or at least repaired, locally! And every one of the riders sat proud upon their steads. In my first hour in Rio I had encountered the tip of an extraordinary bike culture.

Since returning to Arizona, I’ve tried to find anything in writing or video about Rio’s cargo bike culture. The helpful advocates at Transporte Ativo sent me some papers like this one that demonstrate the benefits of their city’s cargo bikes. You can also find some of these numbers posted on the Velo-city Rio site. Research and papers like these are extremely important for influencing government policies to enable cargo bikes to function well in a city. Such studies have clearly helped to increase cargo bikes in Europe. Find many of the studies here.

What I can’t seem to find is anything from the perspectives of Rio’s cargo bike craftspeople and riders. There is a quiet culture there of making, caring for, and riding these vehicles. With that sort of care follows a desire to be part of the culture, including to ride the bikes and incorporate the bikes into businesses. That’s a support system that no government policy or funding can cause.

My personal experience with such a culture was as a bike messenger in San Francisco in the 1980s. That’s where delivery by bicycle was born in the U.S. And the 1980s were the heyday of bike messengers right before the fax machine and then personal computers hit. I rode the peak of the wave and will be forever grateful.

Last month, as I walked and bicycled amidst Rio’s cargo bikes, was my first encounter of that level of bike culture since my messenger days. I know there are other proud pockets of working cyclists and craftspeople around the world, too. Perhaps Europe’s cargo cyclists have it, though their fancy bikes and mega companies cause a bit of doubt. I suspect Cuba could be another enclave, after discovering this story, which I posted about a few years ago.

Pedicabs and cycle rickshaws seem to create their own proud cultures in some parts of the world. One example is Rickshaw Bank in India. This video gives a good overview. I hope that Rickshaw Bank is inspiring similar social enterprises in other parts of the world.

Think of your own experiences with working cyclists. Have you ever had a package delivered by someone riding a bike? Have you seen mail carriers delivering by bike? Have you watched from an airplane window as airport workers pedal heavy bikes under wings and across an ocean of tarmac? Have you encountered entrepreneurs perched on sidewalks peddling goods or pedaling bicycle machines that sharpen knives, grind corn, or mix drinks?

Strong cultures of working cyclists are very dear to me because I was part of one. But they should be dear to all of us because they are the support systems that enable these cyclists and craftspeople to thrive even in places where motorized transport still dominates. They are silently shifting transport from noisy, polluting, and dangerous trucks to quiet vehicles ridden by people who take pride in their self-propelled occupations.

Quiet is the unfortunate term here. I can’t find anything on Rio’s cargo bike craftspeople or riders. For that matter, besides some edgy books and movies about bike messengers and a few video interviews with rickshaw drivers at Rickshaw Bank, I’ve found next to nothing from the human side of working cyclists.

Do you know of any? If so, please email them to me at sue{at} If I can pull together several more resources, I’ll use them in a follow-up post and, who knows, perhaps something even bigger.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

Cycling Club Helping Homeless Women Regain Independence

I am always on the lookout for great model programs that tap the freedom of bicycling to help people who are struggling. This recent article from the Guardian caught my eye because the cycling club it spotlights focuses on the dignity that cycling can bring to those caught in homelessness. This cycling club in London shows its women members that they no longer need to be identified as homeless. They are strong, independent people who can transport themselves wherever they choose. The article starts off with this:

A cycling session at Queen Mary homeless women’s hostel in London starts with some reflection in the tea room. Eleven women discuss how they’re doing this week, how the cycling went for them last week and what they’re hoping to build on in today’s session. Then they push their bikes to a local basketball court to practise in the safety of an off-road environment. Supported by instructors from Westminster council’s training team, they practise riding by themselves; pushing off, cycling in a straight line, looking over one shoulder, turning, keeping going.

Small achievements are important and depend on the starting point of each woman; for some, keeping going is a key goal to address physical fitness, for others it is balance or specific cycling skills. They are all working towards Bikeability Level 1 which enables them to control a bike safely enough to progress on to quiet roads, making turns and negotiating traffic. In some sessions the women learn about map-reading and planning journeys, pumping up tyres and other basic maintenance. Read more here.

Enjoy the article and consider how your bicycle programs could be adapted to welcome homeless people.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Social Change through Bicycles and Healthy Organizations

The publication of my memoir, Bike Hunt, gave me the opportunity to present at various venues and through various media about the power of bicycles for improving our world. Even though, or perhaps because Bike Hunt covers my struggle toward that goal, the book offers the perfect backdrop for intense discussions on this topic.

The bicycle is the greatest machine ever invented because it provides so much for so little. With simple pedal strokes it will transport a person six times faster than walking and can carry hundreds of pounds. It is easy to make and available in all parts of the world. When people choose to travel by bike, they not only improve their own physical health, but the health of their communities by reducing emissions and noise. And yet, in most countries, bicycles are only used for fewer than ten percent of trips.

Central to my presentation are the many disturbing barriers to bicycles being used as a tool for social change. Since the 1950s, the U.S. bicycle industry has presented bicycles as toys. On top of that, their push to sell bicycle helmets has stigmatized bicycling as far more dangerous than it actually is. Though car occupants suffer 25 times more head injuries than cyclists, the car industry would never dream of promoting helmets for their customers. Then there is Hollywood with its portrayal of cyclists as dorks. So it’s no wonder bicycles are forgotten by social movements (see my last post on Civil Rights) and even the environmental movement.

The other barrier is one that is faced by all nonprofits – group dysfunction. In Bike Hunt, I delve into many of the causes of this, including power grabs and infighting. Unfortunately, because our bicycle movement is so fragile and undermined by our bike industry and other stigmas, bicycle nonprofits cannot withstand the forces of group dysfunction like nonprofits in other movements.

I show in Bike Hunt and my presentations how to overcome these barriers first by recognizing them then stopping them at the slightest hint. If you have run into these sorts of struggles or more, please read the book and visit to tap into the resources there.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Human Progress Is Neither Automatic nor Inevitable, MLK

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my favorite holiday because the man it honors would expect us to work for good on his day rather than take an actual holiday. I like to start this day by flipping through a huge volume of his writings, stopping to read random passages. I did that this morning and found some good ones, but there is one simple quote of his that I have fixated on this year: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.”

My fixation on this MLK quote actually began months ago. In my job at One Street, I answer calls for assistance from leaders of bicycle advocacy organizations all over the world. Since last fall, I have had the great pleasure of working with several extraordinary nonprofit leaders in some of the most battered areas of our world including Bosnia, Puerto Rico, and DR Congo. In spite of great odds against them, whether a recent war or hurricane, or marauding armed gangs, these nonprofits have become beacons of hope in their communities. But just like them, I have had to recognize the infection of human malice that has crippled and even destroyed other nonprofits that have contacted me for help.

Martin’s quote is imbedded in his book from 1958, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, where he describes the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement up to that point, but shows that much more must be done. I think that he was rightfully afraid that their successes would cause complacency. But even more than that, I believe that Martin had seen both the extraordinary potential of humans to overcome malice as well as the insidiousness of that malice. He knew all too well that backing off even slightly would allow of flood of brutality back in.

Over my more than forty years of working with nonprofits, I, like Martin, have come to realize that our species will not reach a point where we care for each other and halt brutality without a great effort.

I discussed this with a friend of mine recently and, instead of simply agreeing, she described a scene where a child is building a tower with building blocks. He places each block with care choosing his next to ensure his tower will reach the greatest height. Then another child enters the room and kicks the tower over. I tried to butt in here to bemoan the human tendency to destroy things built for good, but she corrected me. The second child did not kick the tower over in order to destroy it or even to harm the first child. He did so simply because he could, because it was easy.

Working to improve our world and help others is difficult. Harming it and others is easy. We must keep Martin’s quote in mind as we commit to this difficult task and always remember that human progress will never be automatic nor inevitable.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Bike Hunt Stories Show the Power of Bicycles - Story 9: Silver

For the last in this series of excerpts from my recently published memoir, Bike Hunt, I’ve chosen the story of Silver’s giveaway. He was an all-chrome adult-size stunt BMX bike I’d found at a pawn shop in San Antonio, Texas. His giveaway was one of the most magical as I found myself in the right moment in the right place with a bike I’d given the perfect name.

After lunch on the last day of the conference, I rode Silver to the bus stop where I would catch the bus to the airport, looking for an appropriate recipient along those empty streets. The bus stop happened to be at the edge of a tiny, lot-sized park, unusual for that city because it actually invited locals to linger. A hotdog vendor had a long line waiting. Families were picnicking in the grass. Workers of all types, some in work pants, others in business attire, sat on the low rock wall that encircled the lawn. I soaked in the scene before starting my slow ride around the park to find Silver his new owner.
            Halfway through my second lap, I spotted a man, maybe mid-thirties, wearing clean worker’s pants and a new plaid shirt, who had just bought a hot dog. The way he stood holding it, not eating, just thinking, gave me my cue.
            “Excuse me,” I said.
            “Yes?” he asked, obviously suspicious of me riding this BMX bike, a backpack on my back.
            I stepped off in front of him in an effort to look a bit more normal. “I’ll be catching the bus to the airport soon to fly back to Arizona where I live. I’ve been riding this wonderful bike I bought at a pawn shop, but now I need to find someone who can take care of him. For free, only the commitment to take care of him.”
            I knew I’d gotten his attention when he began asking questions, mostly so I would repeat that I was soon leaving and could very well leave that bike with him. By then, his hand had drooped to his side in his amazement and I worried he might drop the hotdog. He must have caught my glance because he set it down on the wall. With his hands free, I was able to push Silver toward him until he grabbed the grips and straddled the frame. He thanked me, then told me how this bike would add to a turning point that had happened earlier that day. After months without work, nearly losing his house, he had found a job. Now he could ride this bike and save bus money. When I told him the bike’s name was Silver, he clenched his jaw.
            “My daughter’s name... is Silver,” he said, as he turned away so I’d never know if the tears flowed. I left him like that, not turning back as the bus pulled up and I jumped on.

Silver’s Bike Hunt story is one of many throughout the book. His is the last of the select series of nine I’ve shared on this blog. All have the label “Bike Hunt” so you can easily find them.

Better yet, you can buy your own copy of Bike Hunt to read all of the stories and more. Find it through any online book vendor worldwide (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) or order it through your local book store. We also have copies for sale at


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Bike Hunt Stories Show the Power of Bicycles - Story 8: Penelope

Here in the United States, we’re enjoying a relaxed week as we prepare for Thanksgiving. Food is central to Thanksgiving. But we also must remember the reason for this holiday embedded in its name – appreciation. That’s why, for the next in this series of excerpts from my recently published memoir, Bike Hunt, I’ve chosen the story of Penelope, a royal blue mid-1950s Sears single-speed I’d found at a Chicago bike shop. I’ve chosen her because I gave her to a hungry man who appreciated her more than food.

The morning after the workshop, which was not as interesting as I had hoped, I headed south to give away Penelope, just as I’d done with Sprinter—a Sunday morning with only one hour to find her a home. The streets were deserted save for a few cars. I turned onto side streets hoping to find a park or other place where people gathered. Nothing. Back onto the thoroughfare heading south, all I could see into the morning glare was miles of vacant sidewalk. My pedal strokes slowed. The farther I pedaled, the farther I’d have to walk, or pedal, back. A thick shadow from a hulking freeway flyover crossed the wasteland of blinding pavement. I was drawn to the shadow more for relief than hope.
They appeared as my eyesight adjusted, a line of about thirty forlorn people behind a van with its double rear doors wide open, stuffed with loaves of bread. From drought to flood. How was I going to approach thirty people, all of whom likely needed Penelope? I didn’t have time to worry about it. I followed my instincts as usual, pedaling slowly up to the line then coasting along its length, waiting for a sign.
“Good morning,” said a young, battered man with blond hair and beard. “Nice bike you have there.”
And we’ve found our winner. I slammed on the brakes. “Do you need a bike?” I asked him.
“I sure do!”
“Well,” I said as I stepped off and leaned Penelope toward him, “it would be my pleasure to give you this bike.”
He listened, stunned, as I gave him the spiel. As I handed him the key, the people on both sides of him in the line patted his shoulders and congratulated him, some calling him James. He thanked me with his eyes before I turned away, still enjoying their celebratory chatter as I rounded the corner to begin my long walk back to the hostel. I was on a different street from the one I had come south on, peeking into storefronts and windows I wouldn’t have noticed earlier through my frustration.
Crossing a side street, I saw a homeless shelter a few blocks down with a small group of people gathered outside talking and soaking up the sun. Good to know I would have had an option if I hadn’t found that breadline. Just as I stepped up onto the curb, just before the shelter would have vanished from my view, I caught a glimpse of movement, a flash of blue and that unmistakable blond beard. I stopped, one foot in the street, the other on the curb to watch a beaming James ride up to his buddies. He’d left the breadline to show off his new wheels. That guy had his priorities straight.

Penelope’s Bike Hunt story is one of many throughout the book. I’ve got my eye on several more to share on this blog. All will have the label “Bike Hunt” so you can easily find them.

Better yet, you can buy your own copy of Bike Hunt to read all of the stories and more. Find it through any online book vendor worldwide (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) or order it through your local book store. We also have copies for sale at


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bike Hunt Stories Show the Power of Bicycles - Story 7: Sprinter

In three days, I will step into an official boxing ring to face down a stranger. The moment the bell rings and the referee says, “Box!” I will attack her with all the force and control I’ve learned from my coach and training over the past year. The photo is of me with my official USA Boxing passbook where this first bout will be recorded. Though it will be my first boxing bout, it’s certainly not my first standoff with a stranger. That’s why I’ve chosen the story of Sprinter, a hefty five-speed beach cruiser I found at a Chicago thrift store, as the next in this series of excerpts from my recently published memoir, Bike Hunt.
Sprinter’s story is a miniature of the book because I first relinquished him to a bully, just as I had relinquished myself to the job. Then, in a flash of honor for my former courageous self, I snatched him back to complete the Bike Hunt giveaway, only to face another bully on a desolate South Chicago street. The fighter, the boxer, who faced down that bully that cold, dreary morning is the part of me I will have to find on Friday if I expect to win my bout.

            Two months later on November 1st, 2004, I stepped out of a youth hostel in downtown Chicago with Sprinter by my side. It was the end of a quick, nearly disastrous trip that had centered around another fundraiser for Thunderhead. Like the San Francisco fundraiser, I had expected the Chicago bike advocates to step forward in droves to lend a hand, encouraged to help by the board chair. He was also a leader of the local Chicago bicycle advocacy organization, so he had the means to mobilize a small army and he had assured me he would. This is why I had organized the fundraiser in Chicago. Instead, a month before the event, after I’d reserved the room, secured auction items, and scheduled the speakers, not one of the local bike advocates had helped with ticket sales, promotions, or spreading the word. In the end it was all I could do to get a few dozen people to attend the expensive affair, even resorting to begging my in-laws to help fill the room.
            At the event, after the presentation of a big check from an industry sponsor who would have given it anyway and having introduced the next speaker, I nervously worked the sparse room wishing I had rented a smaller one so it would look more crowded, greeting each precious attendee like royalty. Thunderhead ended up losing money, but thankfully not much.
            When I’d arrived in Chicago, I’d simply gone to the board chair’s house and taken Sprinter. I’d told him I was going to do this via email, in statement form, not a question. His wife seemed relieved to get rid of the hefty bike. I was relieved to have him back under my care.
            That last morning, I stepped out into the chilly November air, a light drizzle falling. It was just past seven o’clock, a Monday morning. Even though it was a weekday, I knew my prospects would be slim in such miserable weather. I swung my leg over, took a few pedal strokes, and let Sprinter roll off the curb into the nearly empty street. I headed south because that’s where I’d seen the most people who seemed to be struggling, some homeless with bedrolls, others worn out from life’s relentless attacks.
            I saw him after several long blocks, his back to me, facing a fence to get a pocket of dry air to light his cigarette. He wasn’t quite frail, not quite old, but definitely sad. I veered across the four lanes of the wide street and bounced up onto the sidewalk, easing Sprinter to a stop not far from him. I gave my spiel as soon as he turned, unlit cigarette back in his hand as he took in my words.
            “Heck yeah, I need a bike!”
            I’d found Sprinter’s new home. It took me over a year, but I did it. Maybe this is what I needed, what that green-eyed man in Victoria had prayed for me to get.
            “Okay,” I said, as I rolled Sprinter close enough so he could grab the handlebar, “he’s your bike now.”
            But he didn’t reach out. Instead he recoiled and stepped back to cower next to the fence, his eyes terrified, looking past me. I turned to find a muscular youth towering over me.
            “You gonna give him that bike?” the punk spat.
            “I already did,” I said.
            “Give it to me,” the punk said.
            “It’s okay, it’s okay,” the man stammered. “I really don’t need a bike. He can have it.” He turned and began walking away.
            “Wait,” I said, maybe a bit too loud, “come back here. This is your bike. I don’t know who the fuck this guy is, but he sure as hell isn’t getting this bike!” This was Sprinter, damn it, and I wasn’t going to let any more bullies take him from me.
            I turned to glare at the punk. Fire must have been shooting out of my eyes because he stepped back. I turned to find the timid man shuffling back toward me through the misty rain.
            “You sure it’s mine?” he said, half asking, half convincing himself.
            “Damn straight this bike is yours! And don’t ever let anyone take him away from you. Promise me that.”
            “I promise,” he said, his grin returning as he finally took hold of the handlebar, swung his leg over, grabbed the key from my outstretched hand, and rode away, back straight and proud. When I turned around, the bully had vanished.

Sprinter’s Bike Hunt story is one of many throughout the book. I’ve got my eye on several more to share on this blog. All will have the label “Bike Hunt” so you can easily find them.

Better yet, you can buy your own copy of Bike Hunt to read all of the stories and more. Find it through any online book vendor worldwide (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) or order it through your local book store. We also have copies for sale at