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Q&A with Bikes Not Bombs

Green Streets is interested in the pandemic’s impact on transportation in the Boston-area and on organizations working to promote sustainable and active transportation. We are starting out with a Q&A with Community Engagement and Events Officer, Gary Chin of Bikes Not Bombs (BNB).

BNB has been working since the mid-1980s on using the bicycle as a vehicle for social change globally. Locally the organization runs youth, earn-a-bike, programs in Boston (Jamaica Plain) that teach teens bike mechanic and safety skills. Youth have the opportunity to apply their skills by working in BNB’s retail bike shop and, since the pandemic, through outdoor pop-up bike repair stations.

Q. How has the pandemic impacted your organization and its mission (the positives and the challenges)?

The pandemic gave us the opportunity to try out new program delivery approaches and new programs altogether such as Bike Match which we launched in April. We matched donated bikes to essential workers. So far we have matched 40 bikes to essential workers primarily working in healthcare, food services and food delivery.

We canceled our in-person maintenance clinics but shifted to a virtual model using Facebook Live. These free virtual live events allow us to record the workshop and make them available more broadly. During these sessions we look at basic do-it-yourself maintenance and how to conduct safety checks on your own bicycle. The success of this program has got us thinking about offering a hybrid in-person / virtual program in the future.

The pandemic required us to cancel our traditional youth earn-a-bike program which is our flagship program last summer but we revived a past program focused on navigating the streets of Boston on a bike and teaching basic maintenance. We had 12 kids ages 12 to 18 join our program and they were able to keep the bike they rode on. Our young adults (in their 20s) have been working away on fulfilling bike purchases through our ecommerce site and on ebay.

Boston and other cities are focused on giving every child a Chrome book to engage in virtual classrooms. In preparation for transportation to in-person schooling, do you think the city should also be giving a bike to every child who wants one to commute to school?

Children and parents should all get bikes. They should have the opportunity to ride safely with their kids and should be given the tools and know-how to do so. If everyone could feel confident about riding one to two mile trips that would be a tremendous win. But if children and families don’t feel safe now, how do we expect them to participate. We need to remove the stigma around cycling and lift the stereotype that it's only for white men living in the suburbs. We also need to make biking in the city safer. Our organization is involved in advocacy through our youth advocacy group, BOCA. This summer they worked on demonstrating the need for protected bike lanes on American Legion Highway in Mattapan.

Is cycling among youth growing during the pandemic?

We think so. We have a lot of youth coming to our shop. When youth see other youth on bikes that is the most important thing for growing cycling. Anecdotally we know there is a lot of demand for bikes right now. Our sales floor is hard to keep stocked; our youth are building bikes as fast as they can to meet that need.

The time is ripe for youth to adopt cycling. There is a youth cycling movement right now among urban youth seeking to reclaim the streets. They organize ride-outs, stop at our shop to hang out, talk to each other and swap parts.

What should the city do to encourage cycling?

I think tax breaks would have the most impact. We need to change the monetary incentives and make those widely known.

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