we visited three in March April 2016, all in San Francisco.
Simon talks about community bike workshop at 3CR radio, 17 Aug 2015
And a talk on 18th Aug 2015
A constant complaint in Brussels volunteer workshops is the lack of stable premises to operate. I even helped one of them ‘move house’ last month. Last weekend in Berlin I managed to visit two workshops, and found both had stable premises. The ADFC Werkstatt, Berlin-Mitte, is situated in the ADFC Berlin headquarters. ADFC is the everyday cyclists organisation, with about 150,000 members. They offer insurance to members, publish guides and maps, etc. The workshop was given its space at the back of the building for free, along with financial assistance to buy tools and stands, and has a moderate range of opening hours. The front has a bookshop and a few bike parts for sale too. The workshop has pretty much every tool on hand except welding gear. The volunteer we talked to has been working there 13 years, and the workshop is older than that. Non-members of ADFC are welcome and they just take donations and the costs of parts from them. The workshop can afford this because they do not have major outgoings. Arriving on Friday, it was busy. Bike security engraving was also going on. It was nice to see some older, expert mechanics at work.
A second workshop was the Fahrradwerkstatt in the Regenbogenfabrik, in hipster-alternative Kreuzberg (photo on right). This is a legalised former squat, run as a collective, with several activities in the buildings including a cinema, restaurant, and woodworking studio. You pay at least E3 a session plus parts, and as at ADFC, often have to work on your bike outside when it is crowded. The space is stable (gone are the days of housing battles with the police in the 1980s), and the precise nature of labour (volunteer or paid) I am still not sure about, since they were really busy when I was there. They have bike hire and some other paying activities.
Berlin was extremely interesting. Good road treatments for bikes (but certainly not everywhere, and some lanes are pretty ropey), decent junctions designs, masses of bikes around (unlike Brussels, modal share has reached over 10%). Nobody wears a helmet and the city is moderately flat. Different bike hire possibilities at shops, and also citybikes. I am sure it is grimmer in winter! There are other workshops, but weekend hours are very limited so I could not visit – maybe this is just not a tradition there, to be open at weekends. One workshop I really wanted to interview, Bike Aid Berlin offering bikes just to refugees and people without papers, closed its doors semi-permanently before I could get there, following a vigorous debate about its identity politics and mission.
Brussels hipsters Pang (2014). There are some workshop guys in here.
Inès has finished her thesis on Brussels workshops. Here is my preface. If you want to read the rest (in French), contact her on our About page.
Batterbury, SPJ. 2015. Preface. In Vandermeersch, Inès. 2015. Évaluation de l’impact social d’une initiative citoyenne: le cas des ateliers collectifs de vélos à Bruxelles. (Evaluation of the social impact of a community initiative: the case of collective bike workshops in Brussels). Master en Ingénierie et Action sociales. Haute École de Namur-Liège-Luxembourg/Haute École Louvain en Hainaut, l’Institut Cardijn, Belgium.
Brussels is a remarkable city in many ways, but its roads and parking spaces have been congested for decades, with pro-car planning, and extensive vehicle leasing schemes. This compact city has suffered major mobility problems, and recently bicycles have had a second wind in planning circles as offering a significant alternative. The city has supported an extensive Citybike scheme (the Villo), infrastructure improvements, and many education campaigns. But some initiatives have emerged from Bruxellois themselves. The organisations discussed in this pioneering study by Inès Vandermeersch are the city’s community bicycle workshops/ateliers collectifs de vélo. She examines their social impact, in terms of creating social cohesion, supporting local development, and whether they act as change agents in the context of the city mobility ‘crisis’. Ateliers vélos have no financial interest in cycling promotion, have limited opening hours, and are usually staffed by volunteers. They are teaching and promoting vélonomie; the ability to ride and maintain a bicycle as a personal mode of transport. Of course, this has benefits for a healthier lifestyle and a less congested city, but for Inès these are subsidiary issues to their social impacts. Working in 13 workshops, she finds they are staffed by cycling enthusiasts and community development practitioners. They, and the clients and their bikes, are all ‘participants’ in the unique social field of the workshop. Local youth, in particular, attend workshops as much for socialising as for bike repairs. As one organiser says, “c’est un tout petit village au milieu d’une ville”.
Inès builds on her own expertise in workshop organising, and as a mechanic. Her thesis details a resilient urban response to the city’s transport crisis, that creates positive cohesion across social groups, without much support or advertising, and with a precarity of premises and staffing. But Brussels ateliers are certainly not isolated; the movement is global with 200 in France alone, and thousands worldwide from Argentina to Finland and from Australia to Alaska. The city has joined a ‘do it yourself’ response to community cohesion and to mobility problems. This deserves our support as bike riders and as researchers, and Inès has written an excellent first account of it. Vive l’atelier!
Associate Professor, Environmental Studies, School of Geography, University of Melbourne, Australia. https://bikeworkshopsresearch.wordpress.com
Batterbury’s rule source
• Non-cycling urban studies academics tend not to work on cycling issues
• The reverse is not true (cycling academics work on anything, including automobility)
• Dans les études urbaines, les chercheurs qui ne utilisent des vélos, ont tendance à ne travailler pas sur les questions de cyclisme
• L’inverse est pas vrai (les chercheurs qui sont cyclistes travailler sur quoi que ce soit, y compris l’automobilité)
Tell us what you think.
In April my family and I embarked on a trip down the west coast of the US, ending in Tucson where my son was born. I also went to a conference in Chicago and visited friends in Worcester, MA. At the same time I was able to visit five bike workshops, which enabled a comparison with those already visited in Europe. I was struck by several things:
- Space. City real estate markets are a real constraint on community initiatives seeking to rent space. But they are able to do so, even buying, though “how much” space is a question controlled by financial means and location. Many shops began in peoples’ back yards, sheds, and kitchens, gradually moving into their premises (often moving several times, as with The Bicycle Kitchen in LA). The largest we saw was Working Bikes in Chicago, who purchased their warehouse and operate on three levels, also with a dock to load bikes into containers for shipping worldwide. The Bike Farm in Portland moved to a new, large rectangular warehouse when rental prices hit rock bottom after the GFC, and they sublet part of it. The Bike Shack, in Seattle, is a much smaller operation with 4 volunteers (Seattle also has a much larger workshop downtown), and their approach, after having to leave bad premises with no water or electricity closer to the UofW, was to share a small space with an organisation that loans out tools. BICAS in Tucson has rented a basement level of a large building for decades, but the building is now threatened by a road proposal, so they may have to start looking for alternatives soon, just at the time when the local real estate market has picked up a bit. Worcester Earn-a-Bike is in the basement of a community house, purchased by several organisations. Their space is small but secure, long-term. Spaces have some cool additions – BICAS has a store selling t-shirts and momentos.
- Aims. Some workshops aim simply – have enough resources to run a volunteer-led, walk-in bike fix-up program and to have enough space and parts/used bikes to enable that. The Bike Shack is like that – no paid employees. I saw the same in Belgium with La Cycloperativa. Others have additional, specific programs and objectives. The massive Working Bikes scours the region to secure fixable bikes to send overseas to developing countries, working through local NGOs to make sure they reach their targets. Worcester Earn-a-Bike wants local youth in Main South to “choose a bike to earn after volunteering ten hours towards our shop operation and then build it up with tools and parts from the shop”, although they do operate as a conventional workshop too. BICAS has changed its goals over the years – when I lived in Tucson they ran several youth and cross-border programs, but now the aim is to operate the large workshop efficiently with user contributions, training programs, and with 10% government grant support. Costs of paid staff need to be covered. This resembles CYCLO in Belgium – a slow move over years to having paid employees and a social enterprise model, still dedicated to velo-autonomy but with a diverse portfolio of activities (and less hands-on fixing by bike owners on CYCLO’s case, if any).
- People. Key individuals start workshops. Usually it is one or two. They often move to the backseat when the future of the workshop is secured, just like key entrepreneurs in business tend to do, when they cease needing to do everything themselves. Everybody I met in the US workshops shared a passion for cycling in some form, but in different ways. A. at BICAS and M. at Working Bikes are non-profit sector employees – committed. But many equally committed volunteers still have jobs in the working week – I also met some on disability benefit, as well as some who worked regular hours as mechanics in conventional bike shops or were completing their degrees in their non-workshop lives. For these people it was the aspiration of the workshop and/or the vibe that drew them – driven (or ridden) by personal politics or a desire to pitch in and help, they volunteered. The social atmosphere becomes important here. Conviviality is important for the bike workshop volunteers and staff. Working Bikes has a delightful upstairs workshop for core shop personnel. Social skills are also needed, to an extent, when dealing with walk-in bikers. These can be tested; users can be mentally challenged, without skills and knowledge, good or bad listeners, very young or very old. In most cases a volunteer can lock up or go home if they have had enough. Several workshops, like Worcester Earn-a-Bike, also have extended closures in winter months as well and I learned of one workshop that was experiencing a volunteer shortage, and had to truncate its hours. The social enterprise model affords the staff more responsibility but more obligation to keep the workshop open and friendly.
- Spinoffs and links – to Critical Mass, to other workshops, to community bike donation programs were common. I was told that nonprofit status forbade some workshops from engaging in political protest as a collective, but individuals did so. Chris Carlsson et al in Shift Happens shown how Critical Mass and workshops tend to go together. There was a good degree of mutual support across bike related activities in each city. Links to conventional bike shops were few; with the exception of one in Brussels, so far, where unwanted used parts came from a shop to a workshop. Links to government are also patchy – I need to look at this, and to shops, more.
- Vive l’atelier…back to work in Europe!