National ridership figures may be down, but grassroots collectives are thriving.
In San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Bozeman, they are called bike kitchens. In Phoenix, it's the BICAS, or Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage. Boston has Bikes Not Bombs, and in Billingham, Washington, it is known simply as The Hub. Whatever the name, the concept is the same: do-it-yourself bike cooperatives are springing up everywhere.
The Bike Church in Philadelphia is, literally, a church. Located in the basement of St. Mary's Church at 39th and Irvine, every corner is filled with bike parts in various states of disassembly and disrepair. Hubs, tires and helmets hang from the ceiling, and a bookshelf along one wall is stuffed with bike books and maps. The smell of oil and worn rubber pervade the room. Volunteers and drop-ins bustle around bike racks on the shop's floor, tools in hand. They have a decidedly thrift-store fashion sense: ratty t-shirts, large wool hats, jeans with the right pant leg rolled to the knee.
According to the Bike Church's executive director, Andy Dyson, this grunge-hipster look is standard for the bike co-op's typically young, against-the-grain clientele. Whereas a simple tune-up at a professional bike shop can cost upward of $50, the Church offers do-it-yourself-in other words, free-coaching on how to install cables, align wheels, and fix flats. Some bike coops charge membership fees and require volunteers to work a certain number of hours each month, though the Church does not. "It's a loosely anarchist kind of thing," says Dyson, "It's outside the economy. We're doing our recycling thing, you're talking about reusing [bike parts] that otherwise would have gone in the trash, and that's appealing."
The hardcore DIY contingent may be busily forming collectives, but surprisingly, bicycle ridership across the country is down. The Outdoor Industry Association, which tracks Americans' outdoor activities in a comprehensive survey each year, found that the number of bike trips Americans take has significantly declined since 1998. The dropoff has been noticeable in recent years. According to the OIA survey, cyclists said they took an average of 45 outings in 2004, and only 36 in 2005.
Still, bike activists say their "kitchens" are full, and it's more than counter-culture twenty-somethings stopping by. Jeffery Rosenhall says the Sacramento Bike Kitchen, which started last June in the low-income Oak Park district of Sacramento, has attracted curious professionals, families, and retirees. "The common goal is teaching people how to fix their own bikes," says Rosenhall. "I'm 33, but I'll see people in their 40s or 50s, who just really like working on bikes, and really like helping people work on their bikes."
The kitchens, perhaps taking cues from soup kitchens, are reaching out to underserved communities. The Sacramento Kitchen recently teamed up with a homeless center, giving away free reflector lights and bringing in work stands to do free tune-ups for homeless riders. The Bike Church in Philadelphia donates proceeds from the sale of used parts to Neighborhood Bike Works, a non-profit that teaches kids ages 8 to 18 how to fix and rebuild a bike (which they can then keep, helmet and lock included). BICAS in Phoenix fashions unusable bike parts into art, which they place around the city. Boston's Bikes Not Bombs ships 3,000 bikes a year to South Africa, Ghana, and Guatemala.
"Some of the people who use this place are just people who can't afford to take their bike to a bike shop," says Dyson of the Philly Bike Church. "But I think it's more than that. I think it's people who want to be able to do it themselves, just so they can be self-sufficient. Not just because it's going to save them forty bucks to get a tune-up."
Thanks to John Reinhardt