Social Change Happens a Lot Faster When It Comes on Two Wheels

A Boston-based nonprofit uses cycling to give those in need mobility and employment.
Bikes Not Bombs collects some 6,000 used bikes annually that are turned into a means of transportation and employment. (Photo: Bikes Not Bombs)
Jan 17, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Amy DuFault is a sustainable fashion writer, consultant as well as Digital Content & Communications Director at the Brooklyn Fashion+Design Accelerator

While many people give up their bicycles probably about the time acne and dating enter their lives, the trend to get back on and ride is becoming more acceptable with the younger crowd. Bikes Not Bombs (BNB), a Boston-based company, is championing that cause by promoting self-empowerment through cycling, and targeting kids and young adults looking for some low-cost freedom.

According to the Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, the total U.S. Bicycle Market rose from 15.2 million in 1997 to 16.6 million in 2001 and continues to grow in leaps and bounds yearly. Credit it to the popular velo trend, or link it to a less structured, outdoorsy way of getting exercise, but consider that the EPA has said that for every one mile pedaled rather than driven, nearly one pound of CO² (0.88 pounds) is saved.

Regardless of why anyone bikes (most Americans do primarily for exercise), groups like BNB champion the activity as a means of sustainable transportation for kids and a tool that levels the playing field when it comes to oppression.

MORE: Shannon Galpin Breaks Out Her Bike, Empowers Afghan Women

Sarah Braker, the group’s communication manager, says the one thing their international partners and youth participants have in common is they’re on the losing end of a transportation gap.

“In developing countries, many people walk long distances to access basic resources, and in the neighborhoods that we focus on in Boston, public transit is limited and expensive. In both cases, access to healthcare, food, work, and education is limited,” says Braker, who adds that when Bikes Not Bombs saw those needs, they immediately had the idea to reuse discarded bikes.

Yearly they collect roughly 6,000 used bicycles and tons of used parts from supporters around Boston and New England. While they ship most of these bikes overseas to economic development projects through international programs in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, bikes that don’t get shipped become part of the youth programs where teens learn bicycle safety and mechanics skills in the process of earning bikes to keep for themselves.

“Once you fix up a bike, it doesn’t take a lot of money to keep it working. We also include training in bicycle mechanics in all our projects so that participants have the skills to fix their bike if something should break. For young people specifically, we find that they get such a sense of independence, no longer needing money or parents to get where they need to go. And internationally, where people are walking great distances for everyday needs, the time saved is really significant. So it’s in all these ways that biking makes sense as a primary mode of transportation,” Braker tells TakePart.

While she admits that bike mechanics are a specialized skill, when kids get familiar with it, they become the ones that others turn to for help. They’re also better able to rely on their own abilities, and not just in terms of bike repair.

“The knowledge is transferable to general problem solving, and it gives people confidence and faith in their own abilities. All of these qualities translate into leadership,” says Braker, who says she’s seen more than one success story.

Take for example, Miriam Oduro, one of the members of the Ability Bikes Cooperative in Koforidua, Ghana, a sub group of Bikes Not Bombs. Braker says as a physically challenged woman in Ghana, Miriam’s employment opportunities were severely limited. Ability Bikes has given her an opportunity to make a living as a bike mechanic, and this has translated into economic and personal freedom that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to achieve.

But one of the most profound statements Braker has experienced through her work with the organization happened in Boston and came from a gang-involved youth instructor.

“He was reflecting on the difference between his role as a gang member and his role as a BNB Youth Instructor. ‘On the street I would get kids coming up to me and asking me how to cock a gun. At Bikes Not Bombs, I teach kids how to fix a bike.’ ”

Sometimes effecting major change is not the result of loud protests or govenrment intervention. Sometimes, it is these smaller acts, like handing someone a bicycle, that facilitate employment, personal responsibility and purpose.

Would you seriously consider making cycling a daily means of transportation for you? Let us know in the Comments.