Friday, May 30, 2014

Are Bike Kitchens Elitist by Choice?

Ever since we launched the Social Bike Business program I’ve been attracted to bike kitchens. It’s hard to imagine a better sort of place than these comfortable spaces where young people gather around the shared goal of repairing bicycles. But something always bothers me whenever I visit one.

For those not familiar with bike kitchens, the concept started in Los Angeles in the early 2000s when an eco-village turned an old kitchen into a shared bike repair area. This repair space was stocked with collectively owned tools and managed by volunteers who offered hands-off suggestions on repairs so that visitors would learn bike repair themselves. Word spread quickly about this cool concept and now, just over a decade later, you’d be hard pressed to find a large city in either the U.S. or Europe without something called a “bike kitchen.” Bike co-ops and collectives often follow a bike kitchen model.

I believe that most bike kitchens share many of the goals of Social Bike Business; that serving the bicycle needs of disadvantage people was once a top goal for them. My question in the title of this post comes from personal experience and my curiosity as to whether the shift I have noticed is intentional.

When I travel, I always buy a used bike to ride during my stay. If the bike I buy needs a specialty bike tool and there is a bike kitchen in that city, I go there first, usually to find it closed or that day set aside for particular sorts of people I wouldn’t describe myself as.

Even though bike kitchens haven’t been available when I’ve needed them, I often like to drop by before I leave their city to see what they do, hang out with fun bike folks, and even help out if they need me. I’ve enjoyed many a fun evening at bike kitchens.

What bothers me is that I rarely see impoverished people at bike kitchens. I also don’t see middle-aged or elderly people nor do I see people of different cultures or even types of cycling. The vast majority have been young people with plenty of income and time to spare, not the faces of the stress and oppression of poverty.

Something is keeping disadvantaged people away from the bike kitchens I’ve visited. The random hours and designated days for certain types of people would be a bit tough to figure out, but not impossible, especially if you’re desperate to get your bike fixed affordably. It could be the hands off, learn-by-experience principle—poverty is not just a lack of money, it is a lack of time as well. When a low-paying job steals your whole day and all your energy, it’s all you can do to get home and enjoy a few hours with your family before bedtime. You don’t have time to learn bike repair by trial and error.

Bike kitchens are fun. They have helped many a young person become a confident cyclist and often find a career with bicycles. This is very important for the growth of the bike culture in the U.S. and Europe.

Should I even worry that bike kitchens seem to have become elitist? Should they? Perhaps this elitism is deliberate as each group of volunteers realizes their limitations and focuses on helping people like themselves. Focusing limited resources is a good thing. Still, I can’t help wondering whether or not this is what most bike kitchens intend. Please offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

“Invisible Riders,” a Timeless Article

Every so often we are fortunate enough to discover a piece of writing that becomes part of us, that continues to contribute to our view of the world. An article originally published back in 2005 in Bicycling Magazine called “Invisible Riders” is one such gem for me. I still draw inspiration and perspective from it as I work to overcome misconceptions about people who depend on their bike every day.

The article is a surprise, not only because it was the first and last of its kind to be published in a bicycle-enthusiasts’ magazine (that I know of...please send links to others if I’m wrong!), but because the author himself had set out to write a completely different article. His subjects for the article are day laborers in Los Angeles, California. Most are illegal immigrants from Mexico and were a bit nervous about taking part.

Most fascinating to me is not what the bicyclists told the reporter, but how the reporter changed as he wrote the article. Before he started, he envisioned an article about changing some of these riders into bike racers and enthusiasts. What he ended up writing was far more profound to him and his readers. We often do not even see these, the most prevalent sort of bicyclists in our cities, and because of this, transportation policies, bike shops, and even bicycle programs often don’t even consider accommodating their needs.

When I taught a university course on social change through bicycles, I made this article one of the required reading assignments. It always caused lively discussions with my students. Some even referred to it well after the course was over as we discussed their plans with bicycles for the future. It truly is a timeless piece and I’m glad to bring it back through this blog post.

Give the article a read. It’s only five pages long. My guess is that you will be as captivated by the reporter’s personal story as I continue to be.