Collect, donate, and educate: a community program getting more bikes rolling in Boston

By Jiao Xu


When Boston is drawing up the blueprint for city bike network, it’s also actively engaging in the bike development in communities, especially minority and low-income ones. Roll it Forward is a representative of the community programs conducted by Boston Bikes, a department established by Mayor Menino in 2007, aiming at transforming Boston into one of the best cities for cycling.

Roll it forward collects, repairs, and distributes bikes mainly to low-income residents but also to schools, youth development organizations and other groups. It also provides bike education. From its start in 2010 through January 2014, this program has distributed 2,728 bikes in 18 neighborhoods in Greater Boston.

“There are always groups interested in getting bikes,”  Jenny Duquette, the program manager, said. Though the program has its targeting communities, she generally tries “to say yes to everyone”. She added,“At this point, I don’t need advertise much to find groups.”

Duquette said about 70 percent of the groups are long-time partners. Among them, Boston Housing Authority (BHA) is the biggest one, and its target group is children under 10 years old in low-income communities.

According to the program data, 52 percent of the recipients are children under 13, and 12 percent recipients are adults.

Different age groups have different approaches. “Kids mainly ride bikes for fun, and adults mainly use the bikes for transportation,” said Duquette.

According to research done by Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) in 2012, more than half of the residents in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan area do not have convenient access to subway or other rapid transit. As a result, they rely on local bus service. The research says although the area is  close to downtown Boston, traveling between the two sections by bus can require a frustratingly long amount of time. And due to the transit demand, there is also overcrowding.

Duquette said she thinks bikes could be a promising alternative for the residents there and a good supplement to the public transportation system.

The growth in bicycling among racial minorities is becoming a trend in America. The League of American Bicyclists, a non-profit membership organization that promotes cycling released a report in May 2013. It says that between 2001 and 2009, the trips made on bikes increased 100 percent for African Americans, 80 percent for Asians, and 50 percent for Hispanics in the U.S. The League of American Bicyclists defines them as “the new majority.”

Because of the greater need, the bike collection work has become more difficult. “It’s not a one-day activity, but an on-going process,” Duquette said. “It’s not easy to keep the word out.”

Local bikes shops and outdoor sports shops are important partners, such as Landry’s Bicycles and Eastern Mountain Sports. They accept bike donations, but mainly Boston Bikes does the promotion.

“We don’t publicize the information much, and many people find us through Boston Bikes,” Matt Reiche, the clerk of Eastern Mountain Sports store in Newton said. “Some customers tell us they want to get rid of old bikes, and then we will tell them they can donate the bikes here.”

To encourage bike donation, the program staff will send any donator a free jersey or a Perfect Fuel chocolate if they request. But that’s not enough for Duquette; she always tries to think of more ways to collect bikes. She contacts scout groups to do bike drives, and also works with police departments and colleges to collect old bikes.

Seeking donations with big apartment buildings is a new approach. When people move out of an apartment, sometimes they leave the bikes in the building. So in the last winter, an intern at the program reached out to big property managers in Greater Boston.

Building a new way is not easy. “We send out at least 200 emails, but only about 5 people respond to us,” Duquette said.

The participation of several companies take on some of the burden. Pedro’s USA, a tool and bike care supplier and Giant, an internationally famous manufacturer both donate bikes to Roll it Forward. Breakstone, White & Gluck, a personal injury law firm, also donates some locks and helmets.

“We always donates helmets and locks along with bikes, and we don’t give out any bike without safety education,” Duquette said.

With bikes and other supplies, the program staff and its community partners work hard on the event execution.

Emily Medina, the senior secretary of BHA, is responsible to choose which properties to receive bikes according to number of the bikes that the program has for one event. Then she will send emails to residents to ask if they need bikes. For the big event in South Boston on April 22, the program staff prepared to donate 87 bikes. Medina sent out exact 87 emails, and 35 replied with a yes.

“Some people don’t reply because they don’t understand English,” Medina said. “When they see the event on the street, they will come to us and say they also want bikes for their children.” Considering the non-English speaking residents, BHA also brings translators on site.

When bikes are given to the people who registered through emails, any remaining would be given to other children. And the program staff always bring extra bikes. “For most time, everybody, literally everybody could get a bike,” Medina said. “Some parents are very grateful, and they will volunteer for our other bike events.”

Last winter, Roll it Forward staff did a follow-up survey in the people who get the bikes to see if the bikes are still working, what they use the bike for, etc. It’s still in the process of collecting data. The analysis of data will start at the end of April.

“Biking is fun, healthy and fast,”Duquette.”We hope to bring the experience to more people, no matter what they use bike for.”

Roll it Forward on the road: A day of bike collection and distribution activities

At 11:30 a.m. on April 4, Jenny Duquette, the manager of Roll it Forward program, drove a truck away from South Station, starting a day of bike collection and distribution activities. She normally does such bike collection every two weeks from different program partners around the greater Boston area.

在较大的地图中查看bike collection and distribution map

For this time, the first stop is Sasaki Associates in Watertown. This design company just did a bike drive. About six months ago, Roll it Forward started to approach different groups to see if anyone would like to host a bike drive. The first response cam from scout troops. So far, three Girl Scout  troops and one Boy Scout troop have done bike drives. “In all, they contribute about 150 to 175 bikes to us,” Duquette said. “It’s a great number.”

But having a business conduct a bike drive is new. Sasaki Associates is the first company that agrees to do the bike drive. “Maybe because we lack experience, there is some confusion in communication, and they thought we only wanted new bikes.” Duquette said. She only collected seven bikes from this company, which is lower than her expectations. “I am a little bit disappointed,” she said.

The second stop is the International Bicycle Center (IBC) in Newton. This local bike shop has been the program partner since the program started. It only contributes kid bikes through its bike trade-up program. If a customer buys a new kid’s bike from the store and bring it back within 2 years, this person can get a next size bike at a discount price. Duquette said this may be their biggest kid bikes supplier. It provided five kid bikes this time.

The third stop is Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) in Newton. This outdoor clothing and equipment retailer accepts bike donations. Duquette collected six bikes from here.

After or before moving bikes into the truck, Duquette would tour the shops to check if they have promotion materials for Roll it Forward. IBC and EMS have bike maps made by Boston Bikes, but neither of them has the special brochure for the Roll it Forward program. Jenny said she forgot to bring any with her, and has to mail them to the shops later.

The final stop is Landry’s Bicycles in Natick. This shop has the biggest bike warehouse of all three shops. The promotion material of PeopleForBikes, the national bike advocacy group, also appeared in this shop, the first time in this day’s journey. It accepts bike donations. Landry’s Bicycles has a Boston store, but it’s smaller. “It’s worth a long drive, but I hope they call us when they make sure they have enough bikes,” Duquette said. This time this shop gave Roll it Forward eight bikes.

Not all the collected bikes are in good shape. For example, one bike’s saddle is missing, and another bike’s handlebar is loose. Some bike shops also donate a few bike components. Boston Bikes has its own mechanic who can repair those bikes.

These bike shops also donate bikes to some other bike groups in Boston, such as Bikes Not Bombs. But Duquette said she didn’t feel competition exists in them. “If we have extra bikes, or we have bikes hard to repair, we will give them to other bike groups,” she said.

After finishing the final collection, Duquette drove back to Boston. Once in Boston, she refueled the truck, and then she drove to the Boston Bikes warehouse on 12 Channel St. Boston Bikes’ mechanic Nathan Typrowicz-Cohen helped Duquette unload the 26 collected bikes. Besides all sizes and types of old bikes, a few new kid bikes, boxes of helmets, wheels and other bike components are all in here.

The mechanic’s workshop is located on the third floor. Many bikes are also stored here,as are the bikes for the next distribution event. Typrowicz-Cohen and Duquette loaded them on the truck, along with helmets, locks, and other tools. The helmets and locks are all new. Unlike bikes, Roll it Forward doesn’t accept the old helmets donated by the public. Duquette said they never donate bikes alone, but always with complete accessories.

The schedule was too tight for Duquette to eat the lunch. Now she had to drive to the next destination, Artists for Humanity. Artists for Humanity (AFH) is a non-profit youth arts and enterprise organization. Young people can get hired and paid for their own creative work in the arts through this organization.

As an arts organization, AFH finds its connecting point with Boston Bikes in a unique way. From 2008, AFH started to make artistic bike racks for Boston Bikes. Community Network Director George Mallett said they have finished eight such projects, and another is on the way. One of its projects, Mission Hill Bike Racks is also listed on the website of the Boston Art Commission.

Besides this connection, Mallett said AFH always tries to promote sustainability, and encourages people to use bikes. “We have about 140 young people here every day, and we think joining this program is good for them,” he said.

About 3:40 p.m., Typrowicz-Cohen and Duquette arrived the AFH, bringing a demonstration bike, a box of helmets and a toolbox. Nine young people sit in a circle with Typrowicz-Cohen and Duquette. They will be getting bicycles, but after a training session on safety and maintenance. They received bike maps, biking guides and a bike helmet after being trained how to wear it. After all that, Typrowicz-Cohen and Duquette went downstairs with the nine to check out which bikes they will own.

An application form comes with each bike, seeking basic personal and contact information. Applicants also will rank their top two out of five different types of bicycles they would like to get. They also must explain how and why they would use the bike. With that information, Roll it Forward tries to give each applicant the most suitable bike. Mallett said all young people apply for a bike directly , and AFH just helps organize the event.

Each applicant has a different story. For example, Maya Chin, 17, living in South End, will go to UMass Amherst in the fall. Because it’s a big campus, she applied for a bike to use around the campus. She said the last time she rode a bike was five years ago. Another applicant, Chane Arthur, 17, living in Roxbury, is a student of Excel High School. He said he doesn’t like taking subway, and it’s also expensive, so he applied for a bike. He described himself as “an experienced biker” and also skateboards a lot.

“It’s fantastic,” Mallet said, seeing many young people who didn’t have bikes before get bikes through this program. “I think it works well for both sides,” he said.

Although Roll it Forward tries to match each applicant to a specific bike, some adjustments still had to be made, like raising or lowering the saddle. When this was done, the nine could finally ride their bikes nearby. While some knew how to ride, others needed some extra help.

Then Typrowicz-Cohen gave each of them a bike lock and showed them how to best use it. Duquette then ask them how they planned to get the bicycles homes. Some decided to lock bikes overnight at the AFH and let parents drive here to pick up the bikes some day later. Others took them home.

Chin would walk home. “I am still scared of the traffic on the streets,” she said. But Arthur said he would just ride home. “I am used to the traffic, and I will ride it to school every day,” he said.

About 5:30 p.m., the final bike event of this day was over. But planning for a much bigger bike distribution to about 80 children through the Boston Housing Authority was underway.

The bike donation event at Artists for Humanity.

About Jiao Xu 2 Articles
Jiao Xu is a multimedia journalism student at Emerson College. She is a film festival organizer, and a freelance writer/translator. Influenced by her parents, she is a long-time sports fan. She is also a game fan, who hopes to eliminate people's prejudice against game and believes game has the power for social impact. Theatre and issues about urbanism are her new interest. She is from China, hoping to make people from both sides to understand each other a little bit more.