How could I forget to mention, the bicycle is a good invention?"
— The Red Hot Chili Peppers
New York City — where pedestrians boldly jaywalk into the street, and delivery trucks use bike lanes as personal parking spots — did not make the list of "Top 5 Bike-Friendly Cities" in 2008. But with more than 200 miles of new bike lanes scheduled for completion this year, a popular bike-safety ad campaign appearing across the city, and a slew of cycling events each May for Bike Month, 2009 might be the year of the bike in the Big Apple. Standing tall among the organizations that live and breathe cycling and bike advocacy is the humbly named Recycle-a-Bicycle.
Founded in 1999, Recycle-a-Bicycle is an organization with multiple, overlapping missions. To the random passers-by at one of its two locations in the East Village of Manhattan and the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, it's simply a gem of a bike shop. Inside, the smells of rubber and bike grease perfume the refreshingly unpretentious store, and lines of used bikes, refurbished and reasonably priced between $200-$400, await customers.
To someone heading to the store for a weekly volunteer night, it's a community center and gathering place. The shop opens its doors to volunteers Wednesday evenings to repair the 1,200 used bikes that New Yorkers donate to Recycle-a-Bicycle each year. "Volunteering helps the organization [finance itself], and is also a great social activity," says Recycle-a-Bicycle's head mechanic, Chris Brunson, who says about half of the donated bikes are resold, with the other 600 bikes sold for parts or — as a last resort — sent to the scrap yard to be recycled.
And then there are the teens. At its core, Recycle-a-Bicycle functions as an empowerment and environmental education organization for the city's youth. Partnering with several New York City public schools and after-school programs, it runs a series of bike-maintenance courses, where teens aged 14-18 learn everything from fixing a flat tire to taking apart and fully rebuilding a bicycle. Teens who make their way through these programs can apply to intern at one of Recycle-a-Bicycle's retail locations. Some even end up with paid positions in the store.
During the spring and summer, Recycle-a-Bicycle also runs group rides for younger participants aged 10-14. Through this program, the kids — many of whom would not otherwise have access to a bicycle or a safe, chaperoned outlet for riding — head out on two-wheeled adventures of the city. "One of our rides last year had nearly 30 kids and 15 adult chaperones," Brunson says. It was like a mini-Critical Mass in Midtown!"
Recycle-a-Bicycle also periodically hosts community art programs, like jewelry making with bicycle parts, and partners with several other transportation and community groups, including Transportation Alternatives, the Children's Aid Society and Bike New York to spread their impact even further. "I don't think it would be a stretch to say we have reached thousands of kids over the years," Brunson says.
Brunson, who hails from America's haven of bike culture, the Pacific Northwest, feels that New York City has made some important strides toward becoming a more bicycle-friendly city. "We have a long way to go, but the city has been very aggressive with their expansion of bike infrastructure," he says. Additionally, he has noticed a growing number of utilitarian cyclists — people who use their bikes primarily for transportation instead of recreation. "I've seen parents dropping off their kids [at] school on their bikes, which is great," he says. "The more we embrace cycling in a utilitarian way, the more it becomes part of the city's fabric."
By providing hands-on bike-maintenance training to kids and teens across the five boroughs, Recycle-a-Bicycle also plays an important role in increasing the normalcy of bike culture in New York, and fostering a new generation of bike advocates. But its ultimate goal goes beyond the bike. Fixing a bicycle properly and safely takes more than skill — it takes dedication and attention to detail. It also imbues the mechanic with a sense of accountability and responsibility to get the job done well — virtues that translate to other areas of life. "We hold ourselves and our teens to high a standard," Brunson says. "The bikes become a conduit for teaching the skills we all need throughout life."
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