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The Bicycle Diaries

"A bicycle is a dream come true."


Each year nearly 6,000 of Chicago's bicycles go from being scrapyard alley junk to humanitarian aid on two wheels. The journey is made possible by Working Bikes (www.workingbikes.org), a volunteer-run cooperative that finds and fixes the used and abused bikes. They sell some of them at a south Western Avenue storefront to fund monthly shipments of bikes to partner groups in Africa, Cuba and Central America. Founder Lee Ravenscroft discusses how the six-year-old cooperative recycles the detritus of abundance into powerful tools for change:

Was there one seminal moment when you saw a discarded bike by the curb? I used to volunteer in Nicaragua with a program called Tecnica. They sent professionals to developing countries. I was sending sewing machines and would go once a year and volunteer my engineering skills. I would visit these projects I had sent sewing machines to and usually the machines were just sitting there. Nobody had any money at all to make clothing, buy material [or] repair material. The importation of used clothing from the United States is killing those industries. I did notice that bicycles were never idle. Bicycles are the workhorses of these countries. They're used for everything. You can give everybody in the village a bicycle for the same cost as giving the head of the project a Toyota Land Cruiser.

What is it about a bicycle that is universal? A bicycle is a dream come true in these countries. The villages don't have bus service. The buses are either infrequent or overcrowded. The bike has total flexibility. You can get stuff to market with baskets or trailers. You can mix--ride your bike to the bus, put whatever you have on the top of the bus, the bike, the produce going to market, the shelves to sell the produce. For a small investment you can run a business or get yourself to work or get your product to market. It's a wonderful system. In Guatemala they take whatever bikes they can't fix and turn them into bike-powered machines. They have machines that grind corn, make shampoo. I'm working with the Maya Pedal Project to make bicycle battery chargers. You can produce the equivalent of a $500 solar panel pretty easily. This is not business. This is to save humanity from its petrochemical dependency.

How does an organization like this avoid the implications of a crusade to shoulder the white man's burden? We don't go there very often, for one. We find the best partner we can. We don't have a budget for travel. We have mechanics, but we don't have overhead. We don't have marketing, we don't have sales, we don't have project directors, [and] we don't have volunteer coordinators. We'll send a delegation every couple of years. We're not telling them how to do it. We're learning. There is no correct answer. Some of our partners give away the bikes, based on how far kids have to travel or economic need. Some people sell the bikes to finance their program, like in Tanzania, where the money is put back into the project, which is working with AIDS orphans. Some people teach kids how to repair the bikes, and they earn bikes that way. I like them all.

Is there ever going to be a lack of demand for bikes? It's virtually infinite. There are projects that we like more than others. In these developing countries, [the benefits of] bikes and their distribution are mostly accruing to men. We sent [bikes] to women's organizations, but I don't think it's the women who are riding the bikes. They might benefit and the family unit might benefit if they sell the bikes. It's not entirely true in Cuba and Central America--women ride bikes. But in Africa it's more of a boy thing. We want to put some pressure on our partners, as we do on ourselves, to be more open and diverse.

How does donating bikes fit into the landscape of development? What about the teenager who gets a bike, rides into a city, gets a taste of life there and ends up migrating? Bikes have been around for a long time. Truckers are the problem in Africa, not bikes. If you're going to be a disease vector, you wouldn't take a bike. You're spreading fitness and health on a bicycle. It's a machine that weighs 30 pounds and yet carries 300 to 500 pounds. It's five times as efficient as walking and three times as efficient as running. It's probably the best machine ever invented.

Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: Fall 2006