DETROIT — About a dozen kids gathered around bicycles and work stands on the Milbank Greenway learning how to replace tubes and tune their brakes Friday, Aug. 3.
It was the inaugural community pop-up bike shop, which runs near Outer Drive and Van Dyke in Detroit’s Osborn community.
Founded by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, the pop-up bike shop and Earn-a-Bike programs were borne from the Coca-Cola Metropolitan Grant Program and seek to help underserved communities throughout the Midwest by teaching youth about the benefits of place, transportation alternatives and a sense of pride in a community.
According to Eric Oberg, the Conservancy’s manager of trail development for the Midwest regional office, the whole point of the program, which is targeted towards youth, ages 10-14, is to spread the idea the bicycle is more than just a toy, but rather a tool and a key to a healthy lifestyle.
“We want to get kids at the right age to see a bike as not just something fun but as a tool for life and a way to be active and to get out and explore their city,” Oberg says. “We really want to plant the seed in kids of the right age that the bike is a tool for life-long use – we don’t want it to be the thing they get when they’re eight and throw away when they’re 16 and get their driver’s license.”
According to Oberg, the Conservancy wants to focus on underserved communities like Osborn because there are no bike shops or programs in the area, and they also have a large youth population.
Oberg says the Conservancy has three fundamental goals they wish to achieve. The first is to teach bicycle safety so one has the skills to ride safely no matter what the surrounding conditions. The second is bike maintenance.
“Lots of people are teaching safety, but the problem with so many people, they ride and then all of a sudden, a brake cable or chain breaks, or they get a flat, and those bikes end up sitting in people’s garages and they don’t see the light of day again,” Oberg says.
The third core concept is stewardship. They hope the program inspires children to the point of teaching others to keep their roads and greenways clean, as well as teaching others how to maintain their bicycles.
While teaching classes like this seems elementary, many people in the Osborn community haven’t had access to bicycles or education about them, so it does involve work and plenty of resources.
Oberg says because the Conservancy isn’t based in Detroit, they rely on partnerships with local organizations to help implement programs.
The Osborn Earn-a-Bike program was possible through a combination of a $12,000 grant from Coca-Cola and local partnerships with Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, Detroit Eastside Community Collaborative, IMPACT and NorTown Community Development Corporation. Of course, he says, it’s also possible because of the hard work from their organizers and instructors.
Participants earn bikes by participating in the class, learning how to maintain their bicycles by fixing flats, changing brake cables, lubing chains and tuning derailleurs. They'll learn the anatomy of a bicycle, and if they prove proficient by the end of the program, they get to keep the bicycle they've worked on.
Jayla Pierce, a 12-year-old participant of the program and resident of the Osborn community, says she didn’t really ride a bike before she attended the program. “I just didn’t know how to ride around.”
Pierce’s mother, Carmen McCloud, 41, who also lives in Osborn, says she loves the program and what it’s doing for their neighborhood.
“I think it’s awesome. It’s our first time getting out and getting involved in the community,” she says. “It was a good experience and was hands on, where the kids actually had a chance to get involved and learn how to fix their own bike … now they can fix it themselves because they have skills.”
While Oberg says the Conservancy enjoys a good relationship with Fuji Bicycles, who has supplied new bicycles for their program in Chicago, Todd Scott of the MTGA says the Osborn program opted for used bikes.
“We decided to increase the stipends for our instructors and use prepped bicycles from the Hub of Detroit so we could provide 30 bikes instead of 15,” says Scott, who is a coordinator for Detroit’s greenways. “If we bought new bikes there’s no work to do – you just have to disassemble and reassemble them.”
And that works to the benefit of the program overall, because Oberg says they heavily emphasize the bicycle maintenance portion.
Olivia Dobbs, a 21-year-old instructor at the pop-up shop and member of the Hub of Detroit’s collective, says there are huge differences in using new and used bicycles for the program.
“The budget allowed for [the program] to buy new bikes, but if you buy a new bike, what do you need to do to work on it?” she says.
“There are so many things that go wrong with bikes, but you can fix it with one turn of a screwdriver,” Dobbs says. “When you know how your bike works … the more you’re willing to stick with it and say, ‘I can fix it if it breaks and this bike has more value to me because I know how to make it last.’”
She says it just made more sense.
Pride and Placemaking
While the Conservancy focuses on promoting cycling and safety, the point of this program transcends bicycle-centric themes and lands into the placemaking realm as well.
Scott says the Osborn pop-up shop had alternate components outside of bicycling as well, including taking care of greenways. He hopes to partner with the Greening of Detroit in the second installment of the course to help teach about greenway maintenance.
In any form, all parties involved hope the program continues.
“If this program lasted forever that would be my dream job,” says Bailey Gamble, 30, who’s also an instructor at the pop-up shop. “We could just go to every neighborhood in Detroit -- there are so many thousands of kids that would love to participate in a program like this. I would love to see this continue on every single block in the whole city.”
“If people can learn and get accustomed to getting around on bikes before they even start driving then maybe they won’t end up being dependent on cars,” Gamble says. “It would be great if we could find some kind of next step so the kids have a bike shop or at least a space where they can continue working on this – to keep the kids engaged.”