Race, Class and Bicycling
by Zack Furness
"Bicycle, you're keeping me sane."
-This Bike is a Pipe Bomb-
Transportation is a realm that is directly connected to issues of race and class. The ability to have access to, or choices about, transportation are dependent upon one's economic situation and, often, these economic factors are closely tied to issues of race. African-American urban communities, for example, are some of the poorest, most poverty stricken communities in the United States. While certain transportation options exist for people in poor and/or minority neighborhoods, a lack of access to transportation resources are not unlike the disproportionate lack of access that African-Americans and Latinos have to other basic, daily goods and services, such as automobile mechanics or grocery stores. Community cycling programs provide a way in which to address such issues by offering free services and the use of both tools and resources that would otherwise be unavailable or too expensive. Through these resources, transportation--in the form of bicycling--becomes more accessible to people who arguably need it the most.
In 1984, a non-profit community cycling organization called Bikes Not Bombs (BNB) was started by Carl Kurz and fellow anti-war cyclists in Boston who began to refurbish used bicycles and bicycle parts in order to provide material aid, in the form of bicycles, to poor Nicaraguans during the war with the Contra guerillas. With donations from cyclists in Canada, America, and Europe, BNB began to send bicycles to teachers and health workers in the country in order to both help relief efforts in war torn areas and intentionally "plant the seeds for bicycles to be part of the transportation system there." Eventually, BNB began to incorporate an educational program with their refurbished bicycle initiative, wherein children and/or adults in Boston could learn how to rebuild and repair used bicycles while trading their 'labor' for a low cost or free bicycle that they built themselves. Over the years, BNB has donated over 22,000 bicycles and parts to foreign countries, they have created a vocational education program that teaches teenagers how to become bicycle mechanics, and they have a full-service bicycle shop that employs graduates of the vocational program. In addition, they organize tours, visit schools, and provide bicycle mechanic workshops for adults and teenage girls.
Throughout the 1990's a number of non-profit community cycling organizations began to emerge that used Bikes Not Bombs' recycling and 'earn-a-bike' (EAB) programs as models. ReCycle Ithaca's Bicycles, which began in 1990 under the name Operation Free Bike, and Recycle-a-Bicycle, which began in New York City in 1994, were two early examples of groups to follow in BNB's footsteps. Similar organizations now exist in over 17 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, including Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia. While there are certain variations in the format and design of these organizations, the majority of them are small operations that are staffed by volunteers who collect used and/or donated bikes, facilitate programs, and write grants. Most of these organizations begin in small storefronts, houses, or garages and with funding/luck eventually locate to larger buildings or warehouses in order to create more space for workstations and/or accommodate the massive amounts of bicycles and parts that can accumulate through donations. As with other non-profit, non-corporate organizations, funding, space, and volunteers are always in short supply. However, certain groups have been able to secure larger amounts of resources through their affiliation with more established non-profit organizations—especially those that work on transportation and/or environmental issues. Like BNB, certain organizations such as the Community Cycling Center (Portland), and Bike Again! (Halifax, Nova Scotia) offer a wide range of educational, safety, and training programs and have lent support to Public Use Bicycle programs, community art initiatives, conferences, and other activist projects. More often than not, the lack of available funds and/or volunteers severely limits the ability for organizations to develop programs that transcend their recycling and EAB initiatives. But despite these circumstances, groups like Free Ride! (Pittsburgh), Plan B (New Orleans), Asheville Recyclery (Asheville, NC), Le Club de velo Freewheels (Montreal), Bike Woks (Seattle), and the Bike Kitchen (San Francisco) have been able to successfully recycle/reuse literally tons of bicycles that would have otherwise been put into landfills and they have created spaces in which people can have free access to tools, equipment, and volunteer assistance. More importantly, they have created programs that serve to empower people and facilitate the improvement of local communities.
There are certainly community cycling organizations have little or no political agenda, but the majority of these groups are organized and developed by environmentalists, activists, and other politically-minded cyclists who see biking as either an alternative to, or a critical stance against, automobile transportation and car culture. Some groups are more overtly political and they contextualize their programs within a larger framework that addresses the environmental, economic, and social costs of automobility, particularly in cities. Bikes Not Bombs is one such organization: Addressing political issues is an integral part of BNB...all of our work is intended to support people's ability to choose safe, clean and sustainable forms of transportation, and to do so by cooperating across the boundaries of nationality, gender, race and class. Inevitably, therefore, by shipping bikes overseas to self-help groups in the coming year, while engaging the hearts and minds of young people in our own community, we will continue to oppose the dominance of militarism and energy monopolies over people's lives, no matter where they live.
While some groups shy away from politics, per se, most community cycling groups are inherently political because they actively critique the wastefulness of capitalism through recycling programs, they promote an environmentally sustainable mode of transportation through education and 'hands-on' experience, and they advocate self-empowerment and participation as alternatives to consumption and alienation. Importantly, community cycling programs use educational programs and mentoring experiences in order to reach out to communities that are frequently underrepresented, misrepresented, or ignored by the largely White activist community. Programs that integrate people of different ages, races, classes, and genders are a vital means by which to create channels of communication and bonds of solidarity between different groups of people in a given community. While these relationships are not guaranteed to spawn a collective struggle for unity and social justice, the prospects for political mobilization are greatly improved by the existence of organizations that integrate pragmatic, skill-building initiatives with a wider vision of social change that accounts for interrelated issues of race and class.
Through their outreach to poor and non-white communities, community cycling organizations are consistently engaged with issues of race and class. According to the Dead or (A)live bicycle collective in Indianapolis, "any action involving bikes as transportation almost inherently involves addressing class issues, since transportation is harder to achieve if you are not of a more financially stable class. Our bike giveaway program will be directly servicing the economically disadvantaged classes." In other cities in North America, cyclists are similarly concerned with the creation of programs that cater to the needs of disenfranchised peoples and they use whatever means available in order to incorporate bicycling as part of a solution to everyday transportation problems for such communities. For example, The BikeShare program in Toronto recently partnered with three community centers in order to have BikeShare hubs accessible in low income areas. Similarly, BikeAgain! in Halifax, Nova Scotia provides services for the immigrant population, and the Working Bikes Cooperative in Chicago works to recycle and distribute bikes to persons in need. Recently, the Community Cycling Center in Portland, Oregon developed their "Create a Commuter" program in which low-income adults are provided with fully-outfitted commuter bicycles, five hours of bicycle commute training, lights, a lock, a helmet, rain gear and all the other accessories needed to be successful year-round commuters. In an effort to reach those most in need of bicycles as a form of transportation, the Community Cycling Center has also worked with members of Dignity Village, an intentional homeless community that began as a mobile tent village in Portland.
Importantly, organizations like these transcend the notion of charity by allowing people to develop their own skills and feel a sense of accomplishment through their own labor. This has been an especially important feature of recycled bike and EAB programs that are explicitly created for young people in inner cities—whether they are facilitated in schools or at community bike spaces. Children who participate in these programs feel a sense of accomplishment and empowerment by learning skills and working with mentors. Young people, especially those considered to be 'at-risk,' benefit from their participation in community cycling programs and learning experiences that exist outside of school—especially when such programs are fun, interesting, and utilize 'hands-on' techniques. Hands-on atmospheres, like the one facilitated by community cycling programs, help to teach children self-discipline, patience, respect, and cooperation, which are values that are sometimes ignored in classrooms. The processes of bicycle assembly, repair, and maintenance require a working knowledge of mathematics, engineering, and reasoning skills, which also serve to build these skills which are frequently neglected within educational settings that teach such skills without the use of tangible materials or without any real-world applications that young people might consider to be valuable. Perhaps most importantly, children in the recycled bike and EAB programs learn to make connections between bicycling and other environmental and social issues that affect their community. Karen Overton, the co-founder of NYC's Recycle-A-Bicycle reiterates this point: "Most people think that Recycle-A-Bike only teaches technical skills, but it's much more than that. These kids are our future, and we hope we're giving them the means to embrace and respect that future."
Community cycling organizations that work with 'at-risk' children and teenagers, most of whom are poor and either African-American or Latino, recognize how bicycling programs must incorporate participation with pleasure and creativity. As a result, certain groups have tweaked the recycled bike/EAB model in order to create different programs that also incorporate artistic and creative practices that go beyond the basics of bicycle construction and maintenance. For example, Third Ward Community Bike Center in Houston, Texas organized an ArtBike program for 5th and 6th grade children from the Project Row Houses in which the children fixed up a fleet of bikes and designed paper-mache art helmets for use in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. In addition, they host a "Chopper Club" for teenagers who learn bike repair and welding skills in order to create hybrid, motorcycle-esque "chopper" bicycles and "lowrider" bicycles. A similar program is also hosted for at-risk teenagers in San Francisco through a community cycling institution called the Bike Kitchen. Programs like these not only foster peer education and skill building, they provide excellent outlets for at-risk teenagers who might not otherwise be involved in after-school activities or have no creative outlets available to them. In addition, 'lowrider' and 'chopper' clubs are a way to make cycling a more attractive and relevant activity for teenagers who grow up in environments where automobile and bicycle modifications are popular.
Community cycling organizations not only work across boundaries of race and class through the creation of programs in the United States, they also address such issues through their direct support of community projects in developing countries throughout Central America, the Caribbean and Africa. Bikes Not Bombs has been at the forefront of this movement from its inception, and since its initial demonstration of solidarity with groups opposed to the U.S. supported Contra efforts, BNB has not only shipped tens of thousands of bicycles to community bike projects in Nicaragua and El Salvador, it has also sent bikes and technical assistance to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Along with Bike Works (Seattle) and Recycle-a-Bicycle, BNB has sent thousands of bicycles to Ghana, West Africa through the Village Bicycle Project (VBP), a project developed in 1999 in order to help create transportation options for the 99% of Ghana residents that cannot afford an automobile. The VBP has brought trained staff to work with communities in Ghana, they have created bicycle maintenance programs, and they build trailers and cargo bikes that improve farm-to-market access for village growers that are stranded due to lack of public transport. Recently, Emily Lin, a BNB trained instructor, started Earn-A-Bike programs in three communities in the area. In addition to the VBP in Ghana, there are other foreign bicycle projects that explicitly work with economically disenfranchised populations, including Maya Pedal, an indigenous organization in Guatemala that manufactures and distributes pedal-powered machines that shell and grind grain, power rope-pumps for well water extraction, de-pulp coffee and spin fruit blenders. The machines developed and proliferated by Maya Pedal are vital resources in a country where an estimated 90% of indigenous peoples live below the poverty line.
Without the support of organizations like BNB, Bike Works, and Recycle-a-Bicycle, programs such as the VBP and Maya Pedal would not be able to develop some of the life-enriching programs that have been created in recent years. Through their support, these organizations demonstrate the fact that community cycling projects are not only valuable to poor and/or minority communities in North America--they can also create empowering alternatives for people in poor and/or developing countries.
As a vital part of the emerging bike culture in North America, community cycling organizations serve a number of important functions. At the most basic level, these groups develop creative, pragmatic, and effective ways in which to promote cycling, teach maintenance/repair and make transportation options accessible to anyone who wants to learn. Through recycled bike and Earn-a-Bike programs, cyclists have not only developed unique ways in which to educate youth, address race issues and empower economically disadvantaged peoples, they have done so with the use of materials that would otherwise serve as fodder for dumpsters, landfills, and incinerators. Moreover, the participatory environments fostered by these community projects demonstrate the capacity for people to create non-hierarchical, 'Do It Yourself' organizations that put the ethical and political dimensions of cycling into practice.
Community cycling programs' support for foreign cycling programs, local community initiatives and youth education reveals the extent to which they connect issues of transportation, race, and class. Even in cases where organizations are not outwardly political, their support for cycling helps to promote bicycles as a pragmatic and enjoyable alternative to unsustainable modes of transportation. In many ways, even the most politically benign community cycling projects do a better job of utilizing resources, empowering people, and communicating across race and class barriers than most overtly political organizations of similar size—especially those of the radical Left. Radical leftists frequently claim race and class as relevant issues despite the fact that the movement continues to largely attract people who are white, male, young, and middle-class. This is not to disregard the efforts of the radical Left, but merely to point out how even the most 'apolitical' community projects can help to break down racial and class barriers that are often left intact through various forms of 'radical' organizing. Those who desire true revolutionary change must first learn how to communicate and cooperate with people of different races and classes, and the development of 'hands-on' community programs and participatory spaces—like the ones I have just described—are progressive ways in which to work towards such goals. In the words of José Antonio Viera Gallo, "Socialism can only arrive by bicycle."
Zack Furness is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team and the author of the forthcoming book Bike Culture and the Politics of Cycling.