CASE STUDY: recycling bicycles

| 1st March 2009
It’s the greener way to go, but it seems bicycling can tackle everything from health issues to homelessness. Claire Baylis learns the meaning of true pedal power.

Forget portable wind turbines and designer wormeries – when it comes to bona fide green investments it’s hard to beat a good old bicycle, right? It appears we think so. According to the Department for Transport’s 2007 survey, 42 per cent of people aged five and above now have their own wheels, and recent research suggests bicycle manufacture could soon outstrip car manufacture three-to-one.

While such trends could be good news for carbon emissions, however, there could be repercussions further down the line. The key materials used to make bikes – aluminium, steel and rubber – are all recyclable, yet numerous unwanted cycles wind up in landfill, wasting precious resources.

Thankfully, the dearth of bike recycling is just one issue being addressed by Bikeworks, a nifty social enterprise nestled near Victoria Park, east London. Wander into Bikeworks HQ, complete with its own bustling workshop, and you can take your pick from a range of recycled options, from mountain bikes to vintage-style 1970s models.

But that’s not all: you can also get your own bike fixed, sign up for cycle lessons, even learn to become a cycle mechanic. In fact, this deceptively small setup has numerous means by which it hopes to boost sustainable living on a local – and potentially national – scale. ‘We’re not just about one issue,’ says co-director Dave Miller, 33, from Hackney. ‘We’re about how you use cycling and bikes, at a local level, to tackle social, economic and environmental issues.’

The Bikeworks concept was born out of a combination of factors. With a background in the voluntary sector, Miller was working as a social enterprise manager for a community organisation when he started tinkering with scheme ideas of his own. ‘I was always interested in creating opportunities for disadvantaged groups, the young and homeless in particular,’ he says. A trip to London’s Brick Lane – an area notorious for the shifting of ‘hot’ wheels – set him down the bike-recycling path. ‘The stolen bike trade there used to really bug me,’ he says. ‘I thought, “Why isn’t there somewhere you can get decent secondhand bikes that aren’t nicked?”’

Bicycling, recycling

From that came a plan: ‘The idea was to create a bike-recycling enterprise employing disadvantaged people to help run it’. In March 2007, having secured funding through Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the City Bridge Trust, Miller was just gearing up when he met Jim Blakemore, now his co-director. ‘We’d heard about each other through friends, because we were both thinking along similar lines,’ says Miller. ‘Jim had actually registered Bikeworks as a community interest company, doing bits of cycle training. I wanted a business partner and could see that his skills and background – he previously ran a cycling company in Cambridge – fit really well with mine.’

Working together, the options appeared endless. ‘It quickly became apparent we could do lots of different things centring around cycling,’ says Miller, ‘projects that’d be not just about protecting the environment but also about getting people active, healthy and mobile within their communities and creating opportunities for work’.

Aware that cycling – thus cycle training – was in a period of growth, they initially focused on that; Miller even qualified as an instructor in order to help out. ‘Then it grew organically from there,’ he says. They chose east London as their base ‘because it’s where we both lived and worked; it’s our community’.

Organic or otherwise, growth was fast. In February last year, Miller and Blakemore were running the show; today they have six staff on salary, 20-odd freelance cycle trainers plus mechanics, offering numerous services. Cycle training is still a core element. Thanks to local authority funding, designed to encourage more people on to two wheels, Bikeworks actually offers free lessons to local residents.

‘One thing that majorly kick-started Bikeworks was getting the contract to do cycle training for the borough of Newham – worth £100,000 a year,’ says Miller. They went on to win the contract for Waltham Forest too, plus smaller contracts for Tower Hamlets. With this, plus paid-for private lessons, they’ve trained all ages – from Year 6 pupils to 60-somethings – and abilities. ‘In all, about 3,500 people so far.’

The main thing that stops even more would-be cyclists donning Lycra, Miller says, is the idea that cycling is unsafe, or that the infrastructure is bad. ‘And yes, the infrastructure needs work,’ he admits. ‘I’d like them to stop putting stupid cycle lanes all over the place and create proper, well-lit, off-road cycle roads… But the biggest difference you can make is to do the training, even if you think you’re a good rider already, because it’ll give you the awareness, skills and confidence to ride assertively and safely.’

A key part of Bikeworks’ training work is its weekend All Ability Club. ‘It’s open to anyone with any kind of physical or learning disability,’ says Miller. ‘They can just come along and try out some of our specialist bikes – we have all kinds: various recumbents (sit-down bikes), trikes, a bike car, bikes you can attach to the front of a wheelchair and power by hand…’

They’ve already had some great results. ‘For people with cerebral palsy, for example, there can be real difficulty controlling the limbs, therefore walking,’ Miller says. ‘But if you sit down and strap yourself into a bike, it’s easier to move because you create a rotational movement without any pressure. People who are hardly mobile can get in one of those and hare off around the park at high speed.’

Helping the homeless

Cycle training also provides an important revenue stream. As well as the free lessons, Bikeworks has corporate clients, including News International and Lloyds of London, to whom they offer training, ‘Dr Bike’ onsite servicing, support with ‘bike2work’ schemes and more. They explored the corporate route for two reasons: ‘One, it’s about trying to make businesses more cycle- and therefore environmentally friendly,’ says Miller. ‘Royal Mail, for example, told us an estimated 25 per cent of its carbon footprint comes from staff commuting to work. And two, it’s also about getting business, creating more employment opportunities for our people.’

Likely to benefit from such opportunities are those currently involved in another Bikeworks project – the new homelessness programme. Thanks to £75,000 of funding from Spark, Miller and Blakemore worked with homelessness charities in London to launch the scheme, designed to train the homeless or formerly homeless as cycle mechanics, trainers or both. ‘We’ve started with eight,’ explains Miller. ‘We do a two day a week programme for three months, at which point – or before – they will become accredited as cycle trainers and/or mechanics. We then hope to employ some of them ourselves and help others into work.’

The plan is to do three of the courses within one year, then see. ‘But the main reason we think it’ll work is the fact that it’s a relatively short time frame for people to skill-up in,’ says Miller. And despite only being five weeks into group number one, they’ve already reason for optimism. ‘There’s one guy who literally had nowhere to live and had to move around every night,’ says Miller. ‘But the programme’s been something to hang on to while the rest of his life is completely chaotic. And he’s skilled, works really hard and has learnt really quickly. We think he’s going to be a good ’un.’

Raleighing to the health call

An even more recent project is their Cycling for Health pilot, working with Tower Hamlets Primary Care Trust. ‘It’s really exciting,’ says Miller. ‘There’s the whole agenda around preventative healthcare now, a recognition that if we don’t do more, problems such as obesity will worsen,’ he adds. ‘But with our programme, for a lot of participants it’s about mental health too; we have people with problems like depression, for example. We basically take people on referral from a local GP, who asks patients if they’d be interested in doing cycling, if they may benefit from it… then they come down, we do lessons to get them riding, then run regular group rides, too.’

The pilot is expected to run until the end of this financial year. ‘But there’s a good chance it will grow,’ he adds. ‘We’ve just had a meeting with Newham Primary Care Trust who want us to start an obesity-focused pilot for young people, too.’ It’s easy to see how such projects can impact locally. ‘People are just not getting out of their houses, not getting around,’ says Miller. ‘Tower Hamlets is a fairly poor borough, with fairly high levels of obesity and heart disease. But just giving someone a couple of cycling lessons which doesn’t cost much, could make a huge difference. It could, potentially, transform someone’s life.’

On top of all this there is, of course, the recycling, Miller’s initial ‘baby’, which fits neatly into the picture. ‘We get bikes donated by the public, from housing co-ops or buildings where they’ve been left, from businesses, from the police – all over,’ he says. ‘We then refurbish and recycle them.’ Ultimately, he explains, it’s about stopping bikes going into landfill. ‘A lot of abandoned bikes do; when they’re dumped they don’t tend to enter the recycling system, yet about 98 per cent of a bike can be recycled or reused. Plus, do that and you have a decent-quality, low-cost bike available for somebody in the community. Last year we resold around 500.’

Miller admits that not all cycles used at Bikeworks have come via the recycling route; they use new ones too, and yes, they’re made overseas. ‘There are one or two British companies, but the main ones tend to be quite expensive, hand-crafted bikes – not really the kind of thing we’d use,’ he explains. ‘But to be honest, we’ve decided not to worry about that too much so far; it’s more important to focus on the positive things we can do. I think that aspect will be something we try to develop more, though. We’ve recently found someone who’s started making ecological bike-cleaning products, so we’ll try those out. It’s a great idea.’

With numerous strands, Bikeworks may appear potentially complex, but Miller reckons it’s the differing elements that make it tick. ‘The business model has different income streams, so it’s not dependent on any one thing,’ he says. ‘There are bike projects that have been around longer than we have, but while we’re maybe not unique, the thing about us is that we take a very rigorous, business approach to it all. We’re already sustainable, covering our costs. Turnover last year was just under £170,000. This year we’re expecting it to be about £450,000.’

The fact there’s a Bikeworks base, a facility people can visit, boosts business too. ‘You can come in for a lesson and think “Maybe I’ll get a recycled bike,” or “Maybe I’ll do a mechanics course” and vice versa. Come on a Saturday and you’ve got all these different people doing different things – there’s a real buzz.’ This also ups Bikeworks’ community-building potential. ‘It does bring different social groups together,’ says Miller. ‘We have a real mix. There’s your more middle-class cyclists, maybe Hackney-based, then there’s what we’re really about: Tower Hamlets, which has quite a poor, East End, white community and Bengali and Somali communities, plus the Shoreditch lot come too, so it’s a curious mix.’

What does the future hold? The key aim, says Miller, is to create a way to help not just local communities, but entire cities become more vibrant and sustainable. They’re already working on replication plans. ‘We’re looking at what the model would be and talking to potential partners,’ he says. ‘We’re already being approached to set up in other UK cities; Bristol, possibly, is one.’

But while Bikeworks’ future may appear decidedly rosy, Miller insists it’s not all been an easy ride. ‘There have been the usual hurdles: not having any money, the chicken-and-egg period when people won’t give you a chance because you’ve no track record… Yes, we’ve had a good success rate with funding, but a lot of legwork went into that.’

The ride’s come with plenty of highs too, of course: ‘Like getting the homelessness programme going – that was something I was really passionate about’.

Then, of course, there are the clients. ‘I don’t get chance to do so much direct work now, but I did a lesson with a middle-aged Chilean woman the other week,’ Miller recalls. ‘She’d never ridden a bike before, but I got her going at the end of it and she was so ecstatically happy she hugged me. She came back the next week with a bike of her own and said, “I love it; you’ve changed my life.” She had no car and little money for bus fares, but now she could scoot around the community, had a little basket on her bike for her shopping, could pretty much get wherever she wanted. It’s times like that that reinforce the sense you’re doing the right kind of work, and that the enterprise really is delivering.’

For more info on Bikeworks

Claire Baylis is a freelance journalist

Photography: Phil Fisk

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009

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