Thursday, February 16, 2012

Biketopia Exists!

Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Bike Church

by Mira Luna

I like to think of utopia as the space where idealism meets reality. Over the years, I have found few radical social change projects that met reality without failure or conflict, especially within a capitalist economy. Transformative projects often fail to take off and end up disillusioning their founders and volunteers. The Bike Kitchen model is one of those unique exceptions that we can try to learn from.

The first time I visited the San Francisco Bike Kitchen, I was struck by the seemingly limitless energy – it was bursting at the seams with volunteers and clients waiting to work on their own bikes. As other local nonprofits and business are struggling or closing up shop, I wondered what makes this model different.

Bike Kitchens have been around since the 1980s, and the earliest recorded one was in Austria. There is little documentation about how they spread, but now they're all over the world: from Argentina to France to Ghana and over 200 in the US alone. Their common mission tends to be bike access for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Reciprocity and self-empowerment are the key operating principles. Everyone’s contribution matters regardless of skill level.

Almost all Bike Kitchens share a remarkably similar model, perhaps because it works so well although there is some variation. Some have “earn a bike” programs for kids, and some, like Bike Not Bombs. repair and ship bikes to developing countries. The Bicycle Organization Project explains what constitutes a community bike shop:

Non-profit bicycle organizations
Bike shops that are accessible to people without money
Shops that have an educational focus, teaching others how to fix bikes
Shops that are volunteer run
Shops that provide free or low-cost services to the community
Organizations that recycle bicycles and parts

Most of these workshops charge small shop day use or periodic membership fees, around $5 per day to use. As ecologically minded organizations, they recycle bike parts and get donations from bike companies to sell at low cost or as “digging rights” for a bigger bike project. Some have flat “build a bike” fees to cover the cost of staff supervision, parts, frame, etc. to build an entire bike from scratch (from a minimal $30 to $60 or a six hours work trade). Patrons at SF Bike Kitchen have a third payment option – to volunteer for another nonprofit on the local Timebank and use their Timebank hours to pay. Shops offer bartering so that costs can be paid in labor instead of money by their lowest income customers, reducing barriers to participation from diverse groups. For this reason, some kitchens, like Colectivelo in Oakland, California, use no money at all.

Kitchens are different from regular bike shops in that they involve their patrons learning to fix their own bikes and becoming self-sufficient mechanics. Volunteer staff may guide them or teach them in classes, but the work is done by the patrons in a learn-by-doing methodology, which is critical in mastering bike maintenance and repair. To keep the shops sustainable, patrons are recruited to be volunteer staff, teaching others at whatever level they are at. SF Bike Kitchen staff seem to love their jobs, are obsessed with bikes, and reliably show up for weekly 5-hour shifts. The San Francisco Bike Kitchen has more patrons than it has space, so there is usually a line at the door even before the kitchen opens.

Cacita Bike Shop in Oaxaca, Mexico (photo by Marshall Hilton)

Bike Kitchens are surprisingly easy to start. Some begin out of a personal garage, like Bozeman Kitchen, sharing tools and skills informally. Biketopia in Berkeley opened and took just two months from conception to become an incorporated nonprofit with storefront shop, stands, tools, and a youth program. Founder Zach Cohen volunteered at the San Francisco Bike Kitchen as staff and earned Timebank hours at BACE Timebank, which he then used to create his own community bike shop in the East Bay. The hours paid for business plan, development, logo design, marketing and helped recruit a dedicated Board member. The SF Bike Kitchen donated the bike stands through its grant program. A local youth organization supplied volunteers to give at-risk youth employment skills. Zach explained his passion in an interview with EcoLocalizer, “I believe the most important form of activism is the creation of alternatives to the failing establishment. Biketopia’s goal is to address diverse social problems with one comprehensive model that builds community while implementing solutions to youth homelessness, climate change, interest based money, and public health.”

Read more here.

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