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.


  1. Hi Sue

    Certainly a topic worth discussing. There is definitely the potential for elitism in such ventures. Requires an awareness of and dedication to addressing the problem. One good example is the Community Cycling Center in Portland, Or.
    I have been impressed with the efforts they have made by way of outreach to various communities. A few years ago they got a grant and did a report on this topic. Has helped shape their actions since.
    I think that they Bike Kitchens here in Vancouver, BC have done a reasonably good job as far as outreach to those living in poverty via several specific programs. Not quite so good perhaps in connecting with various ethnic minorities - and there are many of them as Vancouver is very multicultural.

  2. Thanks, Ron. There are certainly exceptions, especially when a bike kitchen or collective grows into a larger organization with broader goals. CCC is a great example of that. It's tough when a bike kitchen is still small, and maybe even wants to remain small, because they can't do a good job of serving everyone. I wonder if some make this choice deliberately.

  3. of course the CCC is not a bike kitchen, it is a retail bike shop operated as a nonprofit, with paid staff. down the street from the CCC is the bikefarm, which is a kitchen. i volunteered at the farm for pretty much the entire five years i lived there. we were open four hours a day three or four days a week, and maybe seven or eight hours on saturdays. every other tuesday was women and trans night, but i think you would have been welcome. we had homeless, we had travelers, we had people who had to sweep the floor or bring in dumpstered food in lieu of paying cash. i was in my late fifties at the time, and the oldest volunteer, but there were several in their thirties and forties, and some of the homeless who dropped by were near my age or older. none of which is to say the danger is not real. portland is possibly a special case. while most of the volunteers did not have steady day jobs, several of them were freelance web designers or programmers, etc.

  4. Nice to hear of an example of a bike kitchen model that may be reaching more of a balance.

  5. Sue I think there is no balance. To run a bikekitchen as a non-hierarchical place (...heh) its always about the money / opening hours and time...I love what you wrote here: poverty is not just a lack of money, it is a lack of time as well. And I think this is very often why there are regular meetings of different groups of people. Then the bikekitchen can be opened 3-4 days in a week. If the bikekitchen is open everyday - it start to be a bikeshop or bike repair it lacks the volunteeer and community spirit in this material world...
    About the different age people, im quite sure that the variety of people is quite big if the workshop is not too specializes (for example in a tallbikes building, freakbikes) if there are people still repairing normal bicycles the variety is always there. Maybe you see it different because as a traveler you cannot see the whole complex thing and people...
    Great topic for discussion. Tomas from Bikekitchen Bratislava

  6. Thanks Tomas! I thought of you when I was writing this because your bike kitchen is in fact the only bike kitchen that has helped me when I was in need--Zozo Bike! But, it wasn't at your place and it was a special event, so I think I can still make the statement.

    It's interesting that you see the benefit of specializing to ensure certain people are well served and to do a good job with certain themes like community spirit, tall bikes, and even regular bikes. I agree! Somehow, if the bike kitchen has made these choices, it seems like a good idea. Maybe most of those I've visited did make that choice and I only brought my, perhaps, inappropriate expectations. But I still wonder if some started out differently and wished more disadvantaged people would take part...

  7. the thing about a kitchen is someone has to start it up, and it will inevitably not be the disadvantaged themselves who do it. it will be the "young people with plenty of income and time on their hands," who imagine they are doing something good for the community. then the challenge becomes not just to make the disadvantaged welcome, but to engage them in moving the project forward. i am not claiming bikefarm in portland has been particularly successful in this, but at least it is on the permanent agenda. one thing we did was welcome anyone at all to drop by the weekly business meetings, where decisions were made by consensus of whoever showed up. when i was there, we had at least a handful of people from the margins who were quite engaged.

    but yeah, if the mindset is people with privilege doing something "for" people without, you immediately get into us and them, and at least defacto elitism.

  8. Oh boy, there's another big hot button for me--when privileged people set out to foist "charity" onto people they see as unable to help themselves; who they see as different from, even beneath them. Thanks rawillis for inspiring a future blog post on this very disturbing topic!

    I've never encounter this sort of harmful charity mindset at a bike kitchen, but I certainly can see how it could worm its way in if a bike kitchen tried to force their programs to "provide for" disadvantaged people. Now that would be a much greater concern!

  9. The Magic City Bicycle Collective (Miami, FL)grew out of a two-wheeled social setting. A bicycle friendly community supported the Collective with money for tools, a shared-use space and enough volunteers to open a few hours for a few days per week. The workspace is in a poor neighborhood and the few neighbors that use services can only really afford what's free. If we weren't donated the use of a space right in downtown we'd be relegated to suburban areas, where fewer poor people could use the services and places are generally more distant.
    Our collective is 100% volunteer run, no one is paid a dime and everyone who does this also holds a job or is enrolled in school, sometimes both. You may be confusing an elitism with cliquishness – the fact that bike-workspaces grow out of the bicycle community and frequently serve the community from which they grow. New ventures need time to become institutions with missions and service delivery systems which are familiar to the general public. Right now few people in this city and only a small percentage of bicyclists know what a 'bike kitchen' is, who we are or what we do. Many cannot fathom that we exist on donations. Currently our outreach relies on word of mouth and various forms of social media.

  10. Hi "Unknown" - Sounds like you and your group are starting something really special. And you are absolutely right to keep your program efforts within your current means. If you get a chance amidst all your other work, take a look at our Social Bike Business page (linked at the start of this article). It's a very brief summary of the concepts, but will give you an idea of how the program can shift strong groups like yours into sustainable organizations that do pay their staff, offer job training, and build a large enough infrastructure that can welcome even the most disadvantaged people, not as charity recipients, but active participants and even leaders.

  11. Here in Sweden the majority of our members are immigrants who cannot buy a bike

    1. I'm so glad you are focusing your bicycle program on immigrants. That shows that your program is not elitist like some that I have visited. Just make sure that you find other ways to support your program if you must donate your bikes to your members. You want to make sure your program can thrive for many years to come. Thank you for your important work.


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