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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Re: Starting a Youth Bike Program

I wrote this a while back, thought I should put it here, instead of tossing it... =================================== R. I. P. Chain Reaction Chain Reaction, a Washington, DC, community bike and youth program, shut down in 2006. It had been around for 10 years, give or take, and had become a genuine community resource. I have lots of strong feelings about this, likely because I spent a few years working with the kids there, a while back. If you're thinking about Bike/Youth programs, and you're starting with THE KIDS, then you're right on target. Recycle-A-Bicycle is a good resource. Karen Overton, their ED, has written two books on starting neighborhood bike projects. One is the mechanical side--teaching kids how to fix'em up. The other is about ride clubs--how to help them develop safe habits. She is a terrific person, and was happy to sit down with me and talk turkey, but I would start with her book One Revolution at a Time. There are lots of bike programs out there. I think someone started keeping a comprehensive list, but its tough, since they are usually very close to the ground (that is, grassroots). Some of my favorites are The Community Cycling Center in PDX and Bike Works in Seattle, there's a short list I've collected on The Practical Cyclist. I'm sure there is one nearer to you, though. If you can, visit a few of these places, or look at their websites. They're all unique, and it helps to see the different ways that folks have dealt with the various universal issues--some work in school systems, some stay independent, some have retail ops, some don't, etc. I strongly recommend that you should not start with the mechanical side of things. Chain Reaction was a "Youth Bike Shop," and while folks love the idea, and people would be banging down the doors to get us to fix their bikes, we ended up with a bifurcated program: one side for retail, on side for education. Retail, especially bike retail, is hard enough without having to teach as well. I've talked with Karen (from Recycle-a-...) a bit, and I think that she came around to the same conclusion, which is why she came out with the second book, One Revolution At A Time. The Ride Club is the ticket for maximum community involvement, and to maximize the "benefits of cycling" educational lessons, not to mention the love of bicycling. Now that said, be prepared to fix a lot of cheap, mistreated bikes. It's my opinion, however, that retail and education have fundamentally opposed goals (which are: do it right, do it quick v. make mistakes and learn from them). Bicycles, it turns out, are terrible vehicles [ha] for vocational training. It's one thing to teach a kid how to build a Hardrock from a box, and then have 'em repeat the process until they've got it down. It's somewhat different to give a kid a bunch of old bikes and help 'em work out the compatibility issues. Old bikes are a lesson in diversity, which is a good reason to love them, but makes them a difficult teaching tool. I mean really, do you want to give a bunch of disadvantaged kids a wacko bike obsession, or get them into a business (bicycle retail) that suffers from chronic unprofessionalism? (Not all, but certainly some. You know who I'm talking about.) Underserved communities, and especially poor kids, need to experience the joys of riding, rather than trauma of bicycle retail/repair. Bicycles are a fringe subculture in America. Poor kids don't need a subculture, they need access to mainstream culture. I know, mainstream culture means suburbs and SUVs and materialism and obesity. But it also means reasonable housing, nutrition, education, health, self-image... Safe Routes To School may be the only good thing in the Federal Budget. It is a program leveraging FHA funds for pedestrian and bicycle advocacy specifically focused on encouraging kids to walk and bike safely to and from school. Every state in the US has money designated for Safe Routes To School, and should have a Safe Routes To School Coordinator. Find them--efforts are multiplied when coordinated. There are several useful links at The Practical Cyclist. If there's an local bicycle advocacy group active in your area, they may have some ideas and resources, or a project up and running already. At the very least, they should be able to get you a couple dozen free helmets, which is a good place to start. The League of American Bicyclists is also a good resource, and as a member organization you can get some basic insurance coverage, which is not fun to think about, but even less fun to do without. I guess I'd been saving up for a good rant/rave.--d

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