Tour of US bike workshops

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!

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