What we're seeing out there…

Mechanic Josh Chadwick tunes up a whole family of bikes at Dudley Common in Roxbury.

Touring the city’s farmer’s markets and offering free bike tune-ups has really opened up a fascinating window on biking in the city. We’re reaching cyclists of all levels, from those who wish they could ride a bike to those who practically live on one.

As the one fellow that’s going to all nine of our locations each month this summer, and spending all my time listening to bikers from East Boston to Mattapan and from Roxbury to Roslindale, I’d like to use a little space here to send some of these anecdotes and bits of information back to you.

The first thing I’ve noticed is that the love for bicycling is truly universal across neighborhoods. Some areas might offer fewer safe places to ride than others, but the love is there, waiting for a better day.

I’ve talked to Italian retirees in Eastie, single mothers from Hyde Park, Vietnamese families in Dorchester, nurses and doctors in Mission Hill, and dozens of youth in every neighborhood that look to the bike not only as a way to get around, but as a source of joy.

Aisha Shillingford, a graduate of Bikes Not Bombs' vocational ed class, shows a biking family her work.

That’s why being able to create this program with funding from the City of Boston, youth mechanics from Bikes Not Bombs, and volunteers from all over the city has been so satisfying. It’s corny, but we’re out there spreading this joy around. And what people have been speculating is true—access to bike shops and repair does make a huge difference.

In Mattapan, East Boston, Roxbury and Dorchester, where the closest bike shops are often over hills or bridges or not well connected by transit (and health indicators like obesity rates are much higher than other parts of Boston), we see more bikes in disrepair than in Roslindale and Mission Hill, where bike shops are reasonably close. Sometimes we see bikes that are downright dangerous.

On a recent Saturday a 9-year-old boy rode up on an older mountain bike and asked us if we had helmets. Most youth I’ve met wouldn’t take a helmet if you paid them, so I was visibly shocked. “What?” I had to explain that we’d requested them from the Boston Public Health Commission, but they hadn’t arrived yet. (Thanks to Boston Bikes, the first order of helmets that we will offer for $7.50 is being made today.)

Luis at Frederick

BCU Volunteer Luis Sanchez adjusts a seat for a resident of the Frederick Douglass neighborhood in Roxbury.

Then I noticed he had no brakes. What were once a pair of brakes were missing brake shoes, hanging loosely, and wrapped up in the cables that were supposed to operate them.

Well, suffice to say we couldn’t let him ride away like that. Thanks to volunteer Max Lee of Mel’s Hyde Park Bike Shop, 15 minutes later he had working brakes with new pads and cables for free (we normally charge for parts, but this was an exception).

He didn’t talk our ears off, he was pretty quiet, but he made sure to shake all four BCU volunteers’ hands and say thanks before he left. And when he tried those brakes he couldn’t help but smile.

I wish I could say this was a unique occurrence. We’ve fixed over a dozen bikes with little or no braking power this month, most of them for kids who rode up out of the neighborhood on them. We’ve also put at least twice as many bikes back on the road after collecting dust in people’s basements, allowing them a new opportunity to get regular and enjoyable exercise. All together, we’ve serviced over 200 bikes!

Jeff Ferris, owner of Ferris Wheels Bike Shop, shares his opinions about improving the bike network in Roslindale.

At each market we’re also asking what types of bikeways would make people feel safer on the street, and which roads they would like to see them on in their neighborhoods. This information is collected on neighborhood maps, and will be compiled to instruct our advocacy for a citywide bike network for commuters and families.

Next we’re going to take what we’ve learned and tighten up the operation next month. We’ll try to tune up over 250 bikes in August, and also look for more ways to gather local information about more neighborhoods.

Looking forward to next year, we’d like to expand this program well beyond what our small but generous two-year grant from the city can handle. We’d like to double our capacity in 2011, and maybe even add some more market locations before the 2010 season is over.

To do this, we’ll need to keep building our awesome team of volunteers. And if you’re looking for something really awesome to contribute to, well, this might be a good choice. You can also be there to share in the personal reward of watching someone enjoy a resurrected bike.

To volunteer, you don’t have to know mechanics, we actually need folks to just engage with new cyclists, teach fix a flat workshops and collect information about neighborhood streets. Just email pete@bostoncyclistsunion.org or call 617-620-1989. Spanish, Vietnamese, or Haitian Creole speakers encouraged!

To donate, to join the union, or to sponsor a market, click here.


  1. Paul McCarthy on August 5, 2010 at 6:26 am

    This is a great idea! Kudos to all of you for making it work. True community thru cycling!

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