Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bike Shops for a Better World

My husband and I once took a bicycle tour of Soweto, the famous township in Johannesburg, former home to Nelson Mandela. (But that’s another story) Today I’m telling you about Afribike, , the nonprofit organization the conducted the tour. We met these amazing folks at their display booth during the World Summit on Sustainability in 2002. Afribike’s motto is, “Freedom is nothing without access.” Its purpose is to promote biking, not over driving a car, but rather over walking. That’s because thousands of South African women have to walk miles every day touting huge bundles on their heads and babies on their backs. To help these women out of poverty, Afribike gives them a course in bike repair and, at low cost, sells them a bike and, if needed, a small bike trailer. With this advanced transportation technology, the women can go to college, commute to jobs, take their children to day care and do all sorts of errands for which many American moms think vans and/or SUV’s are indispensable.

Afribike’s supply of donated used bikes comes in shipping containers from places like New York and London. Now and then one of the shipping containers is reincarnated as a small bike shops in a village or township and staffed with an Afribike trained mechanics who now has a job.

But nonprofit bike shops are not confined to the developing world. There are two on my way down town. I stop often at Bike Works in the Columbia City neighborhood. It’s located in a small New England style house. Fronting on the sidewalk is its garage which has been converted to a store front with a big window full of bikes and all sorts of accessories from head lamps to chain grease to derailers. From this shop, Bike Works conducts normal day to day business for customers like me who push their bikes in from the street. Bike Works is where I have had most of my former repairs done. If I have to leave my bike there for extended repairs, it’s only a ten minute bus ride home.

But Bike Works has a higher purpose than just replacing my brake pads. A stairway leads up from the shop to where a room of the house has been converted to a class room. Kids and adults come there and learn to fix bikes. After a child takes the course and volunteers seventeen hours, they get a free bike. People from all over the city and beyond donate old bikes which Bike Works volunteers repair. Some of the refurbished bikes are sold in the shop, but many go to nonprofit organizations like Tree House and Fair Start that help poor kids. Thanks to Bike Works some poor children may find bikes under their Christmas trees.

Bike Works also partners with an organization called, The Village Bicycle Project a nonprofit organization similar to Afribike. Bike Works donates used bikes which the VPP ships to places like Ghana and El Salvador. The Project conducts a day long bike maintenance course for poor villagers. Anyone who completes the course gets a bike for half price.

Also on my way downtown on 14th Street just north of Jackson is a store front dubbed The Bikery. The shop consists of one lofty spacious room. Along its walls are large clearly labeled wooden boxes of carefully sorted bike parts, one box for derailers, one for chains, one for seats, etc. In the center of the busy room are several bike mechanic stands, most in use. This bike shop has no paid employees. Everyone is a volunteer.

I have not yet taken advantage of The Bikery’s services. That’s because you have to fix your own bike. Surely any self respecting old lady on a bike should try it sometime. The rental of a bike stand costs only $5.00 per hour and there are always expert mechanics on hand to help. My temporary excuse is that my Dahon folding bike is quite new and (knock on wood) does not yet need repairs.. In fact, I was a bit embarrassed about my shiny, new and expensive Dahon parked by the The Bikery door. The Bikery’s purpose is to make bicycling accessible to everyone at low cost. The most expensive bike in there costs $100 and can be paid for at least partly with volunteer hours.

But I have other excuses for owning this fancy bike in a world of poverty and want. Dahon is my accommodation for being an old lady with a piece of metal instead of a real ball joint in her hip. Besides my bike cost a lot less than a car and is friendlier to the planet.