How to Start a Bike Program in Your City

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New York City’s Recycle-A-Bicycle sets its sights on prepping small-budgeted entrepreneurs to start their own community biking and mechanics programs. Interested? Read on.

Brooklyn high school student Humberto, 16, repairs a bike at the shop as part of his internship. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911

Standing at the intersection of Pearl and Plymouth Streets in Brooklyn, you’ll find quiet warehouse fronts, a slivered view of the Brooklyn Bridge and the heart of New York City’s biking community, Recycle-A-Bicycle.

The name alone prepared me for a dingy warehouse of greasy bicycles, concrete floors littered with parts and maybe a coverall-clad worker named Jack.

But what I saw was a classroom. Working hands on with the bikes were four high school interns from local Brooklyn schools. Sixteen-year-old Ibrahima tinkered with the intricate parts of the bike’s crankam while Humberto, also 16, worked on rims and spokes.

Recycle-A-Bicycle, Pasqualina Azzarello, Amanda Wills, Brooklyn, New York, Bike

Recycle-A-Bicycle Director Pasqualina Azzarello in Brooklyn. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911

They bantered and joked as typical teenage boys do, but their concentration and diligence to their work was not to be missed. They were engaged, excited… learning.

Would it work in your community?

Recycle-A-Bicycle is more than just its name. It’s a store, a bike-building program, learning center for high school students and a place where you can still repair or – simply stated – recycle your bicycle.

According to Executive Director Pasqualina Azzarello, the organization operates under a model of social entrepreneurship. The majority of Recycle-A-Bicycle’s revenue comes from its two storefronts in New York City where about 1,200 bikes are repaired, refurbished and sold each year.

Outside of storefronts, the organization runs bike-building and job-training programs in six schools around the city. It also partners with the New York Police Department, Department of Transportation and the Parks Department to host its “Bike Bonanzas,” bike swap events hosted at local parks for kids and families.

“Kids grow out of bikes fast, so this is great for parents,” Azzarello says. “In a single afternoon kids get a bike, a helmet, learn how to be a safer cyclist, and it’s all taking place in their own neighborhood.”

Biking programs have room to flourish in pedestrian-friendly cities like New York, but I wanted to know if this would be a fit in a rural, spread-out community like Oklahoma City or Tucson. Azzarello says that focusing on the education aspect has proven successful for Recycle-A-Bicycle, and it works in any setting.

“We found that working with [the education] model is the best way to start within a school or rural community,” she says. “People know their communities, their needs and culture.”

What you’ll need and how to do it

In January, Recycle-A-Bicycle hosted its first three-day Bike Summit conference. It opened to an audience of 200 people from 14 states and Canada. It was the beginning of the organization’s own initiative to inspire similar programs around the country.

“What I was really struck by is the fact that we’re already part of the national network, we’re all grassroots local based, and it’s that local element is what makes us so strong and quick to grow,” Azzarello says.

Azzarello, who has been with Recycle-A-Bicycle since 2001, says entrepreneurs need three basic things to start a bike program: a space, a budget, and most importantly, a partner. Alliances with government entities like the Parks Department and the NYPD have been instrumental in Recycle-A-Bicycle’s success.

However, my first thoughts were of the red tape involved in that process, which alone seems like enough to raise even the brightest up-starter’s white flag. Azzarello agrees that “things take time in any system,” but she says the organization made it happen by appealing to the City’s own interests. Job training skills, usage of parks and the health benefits of kids’ cycling clubs are attractive to governments under the weight of budget cuts.

“The Parks Department recognizes that it’s a resource, and they want people in their parks, so having community events that draw people there is a really good thing for them. And when the NYPD  does bike registration for kids at our events, that’s the happiest cop in the city,” she says with a laugh. “We’re providing services that the city really wants to see happen.”

But it will take more than just a park, some volunteers and a sunny attitude. A budget is necessary. Azzarello says that, in New York, it takes about $5,000 to start a school-based bike program that accommodates 10 students, that’s for bikes and training instructors – who are already teaching auto mechanics – to teach bike mechanics.

Amanda Wills, Recycle-A-Bicycle, Brooklyn, New York, Bike, Bicycle

Recycle-A-Bicycle recycles about 6 tons of metal per year from donated bikes. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911

Bike programs hatch great thinkers

Working with more than 600 inner-city students annually, Recycle-A-Bicycle has bred teenage entrepreneurs of its own. The organization began using its leftover bike parts to create jewelry it later sells at a pretty decent profit. That operation was the brainchild of Isamar and Zuri, two female Washington Heights high school students that were looking for a way to get more girls involved with Recycle-A-Bicycle. It was a task that proved hard in a shop of young men getting their hands dirty.

“They said, ‘We need to find a way to trick them because once the get into the shop, they’ll want to know how to repair these bikes,’” recalls Azzarello. “And the trick totally worked. Ten girls came into the shop to start making jewelry, and 100 percent went on to learn bike mechanics.”

At New York’s Earth Day festival in 2005, Isamar and Zuri sold their jewelry and made $600 in revenue. They later went on to apply for and receive Bank of America’s Social Entrepreneurship award, all while still in high school. Today, Recycle-A-Bicycle sells the jewelry and is working on its upcoming Etsy store.

“The idea that these programs are founded on – taking materials that would otherwise been thrown away and making use of them using them as educational materials and getting bikes back on streets – it just makes so much sense.”

For more information on starting a local bike program in your city, download Recycle-A-Bicycle’s Tools For Life manual here.

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