Salvaged bicycle wheels dangle over the workshop of midtown’s Sacramento Bicycle Kitchen as visitors turn wrenches in the fluorescent light. Reggae-soul plays softly beneath the sounds of clanging tools and pleasant chatter as shop volunteers help community members repair damaged bikes.
Do-it-yourself repair shops like this, often called bike collectives or co-ops, began as hipster haunts for green-living advocates and bike enthusiasts. But they also have become a major resource for Sacramento’s homeless and low-income populations.
At the Sacramento Bicycle Kitchen, outreach coordinator Don Bybee said he generally works with people who cannot afford a regular bike shop, as well as antique collectors, college students and mechanics. The shop asks for a $5 fee to cover the cost of tools, but waives it for those who cannot pay, accepting shop help in exchange. At least one person uses this option every shift.
“At one point it may have been the hipsters,” he said. “But the demographic is changing because some shifts it’s just a lot of old white dudes. It’s a space that’s open to work and it’s a supportive environment, not just for the homeless but for the LGBT community, women, the inexperienced. I think people travel pretty far to get to the shop because we’re unique.”
The Bicycle Kitchen started its 2014 season with a new electronic log-in system requiring a name and ZIP code, which the shop hopes will provide more demographic information about its customers and identify possible locations for expansion.
Rasool Rucks, an unemployed Del Paso Heights resident who visited the Bicycle Kitchen for the first time Wednesday, said he heard about the low-cost option from friends on the street. He gets everywhere by bike, he said, because he considers public transit sporadic and unreliable.
“The recession caused a lot of people to start looking at other forms of transportation,” he said. “Just getting around town and running errands, it’s a lot easier on a bike.”
Access to bike repair is crucial for those who use cycling as a primary mode of transportation, said Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates. The nonprofit is working with Walk Sacramento to improve foot and bike routes in south Sacramento, one of 14 areas identified by The California Endowment as part of its Building Healthy Communities Initiative. The areas were selected based on information about income, unemployment, health conditions and violence.
Brown said the area is almost barren of retail bike services, and “a little bit like a food desert in the sense that you can’t get tools.” This means people rely on unsafe equipment in an area that is already dangerous for bikes due to heavy traffic, said Brown.
SABA and Walk Sacramento are using a $20,000 grant from the endowment to map potential pedestrian routes. Brown hopes to use some of it to offer more bike repair options, and possibly a bike co-op, in the Franklin Boulevard area in the future.
“Bike kitchens are almost like the storefront of bike advocacy – they demonstrate self reliance, they demonstrate community. They ensure that those who have the fewest choices can rely on their bikes,” he said. “This is in some respects a story about poverty. The dialogue about bicycling in this country has been narrowly directed to people for whom bicycling is a choice, not a necessity.”
On the 2012 American Community Survey from the League of American Bicyclists, Sacramento ranks ninth among the 70 largest cities for bike commuting, up from 10th place in 2011. The survey found that 2.6 percent of Sacramento residents now commute by bike, compared with 1.8 percent in 2005.
“A lot of folks ride their bicycles because they don’t have cars,” said Christine Tien, program manager at The California Endowment. The Franklin Boulevard area “is not really bicycle or pedestrian friendly. There’s public transportation, but it’s infrequent and might not be at the right times. We want to make sure our city planners are aware that this is an area that needs safer access for bikes.”
Since 2008, Cycles4Hope has provided and repaired bicycles for Sacramento’s homeless, as well as veterans and people coming out of prison. Volunteers spend a few hours each week building or fixing bikes, which they distribute monthly out of a trailer near homeless shelter Loaves & Fishes in the north end of downtown Sacramento. The Granite Bay organization provides or fixes 1,200 bicycles annually and relies on donations from Intel, REI, Wal-Mart and Bayside Church in Roseville.
Managing director Curt Nichols said he hands out about 100 raffle tickets each month to homeless people. He provides free bicycle repair service to 40 ticket holders chosen in the raffle.
“The organization was founded to help people help themselves,” he said. “A bike is a tool that they can then use.”
Each month Cycles4Hope gives four bicycle vouchers to Loaves & Fishes’ Friendship Park, two vouchers to women’s shelter Maryhouse, and six more to the Salvation Army.
Andy Biedlingmaier, the Friendship Park staffer responsible for distributing the vouchers, said he has 85 men on the waiting list, some of whom have been waiting since October. He chooses bicycle recipients based on position on the list, greatest need and trustworthiness.
“If you don’t have a bike, something as simple as primary care can become a whole day event, and that’s one less day they have for searching for a job or getting a free lunch,” he said. “Getting a bike increases how efficient they are with their time, and most of the people we work with actually have a lot on their to-do lists every day.”