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Accessing a healthier commuting alternative

Q&A: Pedals for the People gives out 120 bikes a year to help people with barriers get a bike, but face a growing waitlist

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Vancouver might be on a mission to improve its status as a bike-friendly city, but unfortunately, getting a pair of wheels isn’t always accessible for everyone.

This is where Pedals for the People rides in. It’s a catchy name with an even catchier mission—to provide bikes for everyone, no matter what barriers, financial or otherwise, they face. Far from a “hand-out” program, the organization teaches volunteers how to build and fix bikes which are then donated to folks in the community who face barriers in accessing them. Recipients can receive hands-on mechanical training to fix up their own bikes, providing independence and sustainable access to transportation.

The program has been around in some form for more than 20 years, operated out of East Van staple nonprofit bike shop, Our Community Bikes (located at 2429 Main Street).

We caught up with Pedals for the People’s human resources coordinator, Bhakti James, to chat about the personal and societal benefits of biking, empowerment through mechanical training, and how this grassroots program is nurturing reciprocal relationships and bringing the community together through cycling.

Megaphone: When was Pedals for the People founded?

Bhakti James: Originally, it goes back to the free bike program which has been in the organization for quite a long time. It has a lineage back to 1993, there’s always been an impetus to include access to bicycles for people who don’t have a lot of money.

M: What makes providing bikes to people so important?

BJ: Big picture, it gives people a really independent way to get from point A to point B. So somebody doesn’t have to wait for someone to give them a ride. If someone has anxiety, they don’t need to take the bus. And so it makes their employability more stable, or just makes their life more enjoyable, and it has health benefits as well—it reduces cardiovascular health risks.

Then on the small scale, being the one to maintain your bike independently, it reduces a lot of stress in your long-term plan of having the bike, you know there’s a way to maintain it. But also, it’s really empowering to build a skill and get good at it and feel like you have something to share with your friends, so it’s something that really boosts people’s confidence in a manual skill that a lot of people in the city don’t get to use. The access to those skills is actually pretty limited for a lot of people, so it’s pretty empowering to see someone who is confident enough to go touring or who knows that they can have a reliable vehicle. People meeting their own needs gives them security that they’ll be able to move forward, and also just makes them feel good about themselves that they have that ability that they didn’t used to have.

M: Why is it important to also teach mechanical skills?

BJ: It makes people more able to independently sustain their healthy transportation. We try to approach people with barriers, in terms of their physical ability, their financial status, or even things like gender and ethnic background. We try to overcome as much as we can in those areas.

A lot of mission statements say regardless of gender and ability, and it’s actually in regard to those things that we’re trying to approach it. I feel like there’s some people who can ride bikes but can’t fix them, so we would give them full service support. It gives people better access to their community and to their work and we provide long-term support. For example, with the free bike program, people can come in with their bikes and get help with them, so we don’t leave people hanging with a bike.

A long time ago, there was a thing where Oprah gave people free cars, but it turns out in the States when you give people a gift, they have to pay the tax on it, and people weren’t able to pay the tax. So she fixed it, but it was this stress for people, she didn’t even know. So we try not to "Oprah Winfrey" people with these free bikes that they can’t maintain or support.

M: What other supports do you provide?

BJ: We also have a lock and light program to keep it more sustainable. A lot of people could access a bike but don’t have locks, or their bike gets stolen so they can’t afford a second bike. And that’s the reality in Vancouver, to be a cyclist, you almost need access to two bikes. The rate of theft is just so high. Even when you lock sometimes, they get cut.

M: How can someone who is interested in receiving a bike access the program?

BJ: To be a recipient of a bike, there’s quite a long wait list, and there’s an application with a letter of reference, but it can be a self-referral to remove barriers. Right now, we are able to output about 120 bikes per year, but there’s about almost a year’s worth of people waiting right now which is really unfortunate.

It’s something we’ve been working to approach, and we have been doing special events to increase our output, but we also support people who have a bike, that they have someone who can help support building their bike up. So people can access the shop no matter what their income is. A lot of people aren’t needing a bike, but maybe they have a flat or someone stole a wheel off it and replaced it with a different sized wheel.

M: Can people come in to have a bike they already own fixed up or repaired?

BJ: People can come and access the bike as well and get help fixing their bike, which is something that is more immediate. And we do free assessments, so people can know how much it would cost them to fix it, and we have used parts so it’s usually less expensive. We offer things like used parts for whatever people can afford, and used parts we can offer at a discounted rate, just not for free because it wouldn’t be able to be offset. We do try to do what we can to have people leave the shop with a working bike no matter who they are.

M: Where does Pedals for the People source their bikes from?

BJ: We get a lot of community support. When somebody donates a bike to us we’ll either refurbish it and we can sell it for revenue to support our program, or the bike will go straight into the Pedals for the People program and it’ll go straight to someone in need.

M: Have you seen demand increase for bikes in the city?

BJ: There’s been an increase in the refugee population, and so we’ve built bikes for people who have just immigrated from Syria, that’s an area where there’s been a big increase.

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