Boneshaker magazine’s James Lucas speaks about how the Bristol Bike Project – which he co-founded with friend Colin Fan – has had a positive impact on the local community within Bristol, UK.
Up until the 'Scandinavian trip', my bike for me had always been just a means to get around the city. I certainly took it for granted and only gave it any real attention when it started to make offensive clunking sounds. Then suddenly, there I was, pedalling across Scandinavia, and this was when the independence that a bicycle can bring to one's life really dawned on me.
In the Autumn of 2008, whilst cycling out to a tiny village in the south of Norway to help a friend build a cabin in the woods, Colin – my now co-founder of Boneshaker magazine – and I had first talked about working with bicycles in some benevolent capacity on our return to Bristol, although to what end we were not entirely sure. There already seemed to be a lot of bicycle charities based in the UK that were sending out unwanted bicycles to Africa and there didn't seem to be much point in replicating that model so I asked myself “what we could do that would be different?"
Once back in Bristol, a friend of mine suggested I go with her to visit the Welcome Centre –hosted by Bristol Refugee Rights—an inner-city space for asylum-seekers and refugees to meet people, learn English and generally be treated as human beings amongst equals. I was instantly smitten with the energy of the place and the aims and objectives of the organisation and so became involved with helping to teach English there. After only a few weeks of volunteering, I became aware that a large number of the people coming to the centre were without their own transport and were unable to afford paying the bus fares, and so, were having to walk to it from the suburbs –anywhere between one to two hours each way. Not only that, being able to attend the numerous appointments crucial for them in being granted asylum, or simply seeing friends who lived on the other side of the city, were much more difficult than they really should have been. I spoke with many of the visitors to the Welcome Centre and the need was obvious and measurable. Here was a group of people that would really benefit from being independently mobile with no costs attached; the solution was obvious.
Two weeks later after a few group emails and some quickly cobbled together posters, I had the best part of twenty unwanted bicycles – in all sorts of condition – filling up my flat. It was a very speedy lesson that unwanted and unused bicycles are a HUGE resource here in Bristol, and it started to become evident that most people were only too happy to have an alternative to throwing the bikes in a skip destined to be melted down or put in landfill.
Colin and I worked on the bikes two days a week, first in my sister's garden and then in an old horse stable on the outskirts of Bristol. We would bring the fixed-up bicycles along to the Welcome Centre and they would be given to people there according to a list that they had drawn up, which started with those who lived furthest away. There were a lot of smiles and it immediately proved popular but we quickly encountered a few problems. One of these was the ever-growing demand for more storage as the novelty of climbing over bicycles to get into my bed at night was wearing off. The other was keeping the bicycles roadworthy once they had been given out. So, I started looking for a space in the city and came across our current premises at Hamilton House in Stokes Croft, Bristol. Having a central workshop now meant that the people we were working with could come to us and work on their own bike with us. This totally transformed how we did things and informs the very core of the project to this day: empowering people to do it for themselves –to tighten that wheel nut, replace that brake cable or oil their chain. There is a great Chinese proverb that really sums this concept up well: “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand. "In our fast-paced way of life that is constantly demanding results and outcomes, I feel like there is a lot to be said for bringing the focus back to the process of the way we do and make things.
The notion of 'sweat equity' – a party's contribution to a project in the form of effort, as opposed to financial equity – was something that I had first come across whilst working out in South America, and it sits well alongside the idea of empowering people. This is a crucial concept behind our free 'Earn-a-Bike' scheme whereby those needing a bicycle work with us in fixing up a bike of their choice during a morning or afternoon session. During the session, they will not only learn some bicycle mechanic skills, which will come in useful when maintaining their bike, but also establish a sense of ownership with their bike that may not happen if it were simply a hand-out.
Since those early days the project has evolved massively. At the start of 2011, we took on some more workshop space, registered ourselves as a Community Interest Company (run as a co-operative) and expanded the trading arm of the project in order to keep up with demand, whilst continuing to remain a self-sustainable social enterprise. We now work with a wide cross-section of underprivileged and marginalised groups in Bristol, including those within the mental health sector, the homeless, recovering substance-abusers, detached youth groups and we take referrals from over 60 organisations in and around Bristol.
The project has also evolved into a true community bike project and, aside from our Earn-a-Bike scheme, there is now a way for everyone to get involved here, whether it be through volunteering, our bike kitchen, women's night or maintenance courses – or even a mixture of them all. Importantly, the project provides 'Joe Public' with the opportunity to come into contact with, and work alongside, those who have typically been marginalised and ostracised within their own community because of their background or current situation. I think this can be a very powerful tool for breaking down negative stereotypes and the misinformation that is bandied about in our mainstream press today and is crucial to building stronger communities.
For me, the project is, and always has been, so much more about the people than the bicycles . The fact that those who have typically been ostracised in our community can come to the project and be treated with the respect and compassion that we all deserve in a very 'normal', non-institutional type of environment, is crucial to the project's success. I also love the local nature of the project and the way it addresses in a very tangible sense some of the problems and injustices that exist right on our doorstep.
The project has been autonomous right from its inception and not having to jump through hoops was, and still is, very important to me. We have always worked in a way that is non-hierarchical and so it made total sense that we establish ourselves as a co-operative.
The mode of exploration by way of the bicycle is how people from all walks of life and backgrounds can collectively work together and prosper in the process – working on bikes is a real 'leveller'. In this way, the project is a constant exploration for all of us.
Sweat Equity is a feature from Volume One. If you enjoyed this story then you may like Something New from Old – click here to continue to this story.