Pedals to the people

February 05, 2014

by Rachel Walker


The Bike Depot in Denver, CO provides bikes to those who cannot afford them. (Image: Theo Stroomer)

How do you get more people on bikes? Go to where they are, open up a “shop,” teach them to build and maintain a bike. Help them earn a bike. Repeat.

This is the philosophy behind the myriad of community bike shops sprouting up in inner-city neighborhoods throughout the country. Non-profit organizations that cater to the underserved aim to destigmatize and popularize cycling among communities that have probably not heard of Strava or clipless pedals. In these neighborhoods, bicycle lanes, racks, and, most importantly, riders, are noticeably absent.

And that, according to the forces behind community bike shops, must change—for multiple reasons.

“For our core constituents, getting a bike and learning how to maintain it is about economic mobility,” says Ryan Schutz, executive director of Denver’s Bike Depot. “Owning a bike lets them travel farther to find work and spend their money on food, instead of on gas or bus fares.”

Like the majority of community bike shops, Bike Depot puts bikes into the hands of people who otherwise couldn’t afford them or may not choose to buy them. The organization accomplishes this through earn-a-bike programs and by selling low-cost refurbished bikes. They also teach members bike safety and maintenance skills.


Many of the kids at West Town Bikes in Chicago, IL build their own bikes in the shop.

While many community bike shops share a common goal, each one is independent and has its own unique programs. For example, Santa Cruz, CA has the Project Bike Trip, a vocational program that trains middle and high school students, including many under-served, low-income, and at-risk students as bike mechanics. Chicago’s West Town Bikes works with youth programs to teach kids of all ages bike maintenance and construction; the organization also offers earn-a-bike programs, internships for teens, a bike club, and more. And in Portland, OR, the Community Cycling Center aims to make bicycling accessible to people of all backgrounds through its bike camps, bike shop classes, special programs and sale of refurbished bicycles.

For kids and teens who participate, a bike represents independence and gives them access to a vehicle to “get out of what might not be the best situation and get to a better place—literally,” says Schutz.

And for adults, bike ownership is perhaps the most affordable mode of efficient transportation. For many people, owning a car is simply too expensive. And, without a bike, job prospects would be limited to employment within walking distance or commutes on public transportation—which doesn’t exist or is dismal in many cities. Accessing a bike via a community bike shop can change their lives.


Students of Project Bike Trip learn skills to become bike mechanics.

Yet for some, particularly immigrants or first-generation citizens, requiring a bicycle can be a stigma that signifies they haven’t yet achieved the American dream of amassing enough wealth to buy a car. Schutz says his organization works closely with Denver’s Latino population to show that riding a bike is nothing to be ashamed of and to change long-held cultural views.

Finally, when the country’s community bike shops succeed in getting more butts in bike saddles, everyone benefits. More bike riders put pressure on existing infrastructure and demonstrate a need for policies that promote safe bicycling. Increased visibility about bicycling’s role among different communities creates pressure on policy makers to meet demand and prepare for what’s coming—ideally more bicyclists in even more communities.

To find a community bike shop in your town, check out the resource page at Community Cycles.


The Community Cycling Center in Portland, OR offers bike camps to local kids.

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