community-run repair shops that help create a culture of cycling
Cycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions, provides many health benefits and reduces traffic. But city planners and policymakers often struggle to get more people to cycle.
To increase urban cycling, we need more than additional cycling infrastructure; we need a culture change. A global movement of community bike workshops, also known as bike kitchens, can help.
Bike kitchens offer tools, used parts and bikes, and friendly help with repairs. They are also centers of community development.
Since 2014, we have visited over 50 bicycle kitchens around the world – USA, Australia, New Zealand, UK, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Portugal, in Mexico and Belgium to study their operation. We also volunteered and led student projects at several workshops.
Building a cycling culture
Dedicated cycle lanes, road treatments and bicycle parking lots are relatively inexpensive to build and maintain compared to roads, parking lots and major public transport networks. There is a certain correlation between better cycling infrastructure and more cyclists.
But better infrastructure alone does not solve the problem. In Paris, with its pro-cycling mayor and traffic calming initiatives, a recent explosion in bicycle use has resulted in crashes and clashes, suggesting other factors like social acceptance and skills improvement should be taken into account.
Locked out this year, Sydney saw a 78% increase in bicycle injuries when more people rode their bikes.
Cycling in the city is a social practice, and building a culture cycling is essential, especially where cycling is traditionally low.
It is essential for cycling culture that a critical mass of people have bicycle riding and maintenance skills, and that the activity is more socially accepted.
This is where the bicycle kitchens come in.
Friendly places to build and repair a bike
The bicycle cooking workshops are initiated and led by activists and cyclists in solidarity. Most teach practical self-repair and maintenance techniques to those who wish to learn. Others offer free bikes to those who need them.
Workshops extend the life of bikes and components. They are part of the community economy and interrupt the flow of waste; most of the parts come from donated or salvaged bikes and are creatively and inexpensively reused with a DIY philosophy, avoiding re-consumption.
Some bikes can be sold to cover routine workshop costs, but rarely at high prices.
The number of workshops has increased since the 1990s and is spread across Europe, the Americas, Australasia and the rest of the world.
The greatest concentration is in France. Most are networked through the Happy Cyclage, which coordinates events, logistics and learning between 250 workshops, helping more than 110,000 people per year.
Brussels has at least 18, as Cycloperativa, spread over boroughs.
Ten bicycle workshops are operating in Austria, of which at least four are in Vienna. They include Flickerei and WUK which, established in 1983, is possibly the oldest in the world.
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How cycle kitchens work
There are two main types of bicycle kitchens:
1) places where tools, spare parts and bicycle racks are made available to everyone, assisted by workshop volunteers and sometimes by paid mechanics. Most are social or non-profit enterprises, promoting what is called in French velonomy: the ability of a cyclist to maintain a bicycle and ride safely and with confidence.
2) those who repair bicycles for others – often for the underprivileged – such as WeCycle in Melbourne which offers bicycles to refugees and asylum seekers. Working Bikes in Chicago sends bikes to countries in the South.
Read more: What Australia can learn from bike-friendly cities abroad
There are often preparation sessions and other activities for specific ages, genders and groups. In one of the oldest bicycle workshops in France, A little bike in my head in Grenoble, a volunteer told us that some repair sessions were reserved for women.
For members of the public without money, “win a bike” programs convert volunteer hours into eventual possession of a bike.
Workshop rules vary, but almost all of them prohibit racist and sexist behavior and promote friendliness, diversity and respect. The main objective is “to integrate a community”, tells us the same volunteer.
Over time, some diversified to become large social enterprises, such as Cyclo in Brussels. Membership or workshop fees, bicycle sales or government employment programs allow some workshops to hire paid staff.
Others like Velorutionary Workshop in Paris entirely reject commercial or government support, defending a more militant stance against cars and capitalism.
Bike kitchens in Australia
Australia has had many community bicycle projects dating back over 30 years, with Melbourne’s Bike Shed being one of the first. Workshops come and go, but there are at least 18, including seven in Melbourne and four in Sydney.
Many small initiatives are operating in schools, churches or recycling centers. They are networked via BiCANZ.
WeCycle in Melbourne is a workshop focused on repairing bikes for others. Founders Gayle Potts and Craig Jackson have provided refurbished bicycles to asylum seekers, refugees and those in need since 2016.
A community approach to sustainable transport
The workshops need volunteers and secure premises with electricity and light, on or off the grid. Limited budgets make this a challenge.
While workshops can be co-hosted, secure premises are the key area where support from the government and pro-cycling donors is welcome. Tools, racks and spare parts are also needed.
Community bike workshops extend the lifespan of bikes and promote a community approach to sustainable transportation, while fostering friendliness and making our cities more livable.
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