“Here in San Francisco, bicycling is super popular but it’s not necessarily poor folks, working folks, people of color who are the face, nor the voice when it comes to advocating for bike infrastructure,” says Oscar Grande, an organizer with PODER: People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Justice.
The nonprofit has worked with the Latino communities of the Mission and Excelsior districts for 25 years, building grassroots campaigns for parks that serve the needs of low-income people, teaching youth to cultivate urban farms, promoting civic engagement among immigrant communities and more. Now they’re turning their attention to cycling. As part of a budding foray into transportation justice, PODER is founding bike clubs, teaching repair and maintenance skills, and giving away bikes recovered by the police.
“We recognize that a barrier for our community is money,” says Grande. After paying rent in an increasingly expensive city, a bike might be the last thing residents are looking to purchase. With the support of S.F. Supervisor John Avalos, PODER partnered with the city’s human services and police departments to pass an ordinance in 2014 that allows community groups to make surplus bikes from the SFPD property room available to low-income youth.
Hundreds of these stolen bicycles sit in a warehouse in the Hunters Point neighborhood. Road bikes, mountain bikes, rusted hunks of scrap metal: They were all lost or stolen, recovered by the police, but not claimed by their original owners. Since last March, PODER has received on average, 30 bikes per month from the SFPD. They gave out about 180 in the last year and are aiming to give away the same number this year.
Grande says he and the rest of his team, who are mostly organizers by trade, are still figuring out what creating this type of programming looks like. They’ve dubbed their bike equity program Bicis Del Pueblo: Bikes for the People. “Our approach has been let’s make the world by walking in it,” he says. When they first started receiving the surplus bikes, PODER would host enormous, hundred-plus-person bike build events where they gave them away and taught maintenance and repair.
“That was great. You kind of feel like a hood Santa Claus,” says Grande. “But in terms of really building a community and a network of bike commuters and advocates that are pursuing bike equity issues, it wasn’t working. It felt like charity, and that was something we didn’t want to recreate. … We wanted to create more of a community cooperative.”
The organizers retooled, adopting an earn-a-bike model instead. At PODER’s monthly bike build convivios people learn to construct and maintain bikes by building their own. After investing 10 to 20 hours of sweat equity, they get to keep one. Grande says those skills are important, but not the ultimate goal. He wants people to learn enough that they can repair their bikes, but more importantly to have a community of people to turn to when they don’t know what to do, access to a workshop space with tools and resources, and a pathway to becoming advocates for their community.
“We’re trying to bring in the new folks. We’re trying to bring in that person who doesn’t know how to ride a bike, that person that hasn’t ridden a bike in a long time. We’re trying to get those folks who are dying to commute … but are feeling nervous because of traffic. Those are the families that we’re trying to bring into our space,” says Grande.
Just a few months ago a mother of three in her early 40s learned to ride a bike for the first time, he says, taught by a teenage apprentice. Currently in its pilot phase, PODER’s youth bicycle apprenticeship program is teaching young people not only repair skills, but also people skills, mentorship skills and how to teach a curriculum. PODER hopes to deploy them to start bike clubs in schools and other organizations. Grande sees it as a career pathway. “We’re planting the seeds for a future engineer, mechanic, organizer.”
PODER already runs several bike clubs, including one for middle-school students at the San Francisco Community School, where the nonprofit holds its bike build events, and at a high school where they store some cycles. Several other organizations have approached PODER about launching bike clubs. Even though the nonprofit’s focus is hyperlocal, Grande says the aim is to improve conditions for all of the city’s low-income communities and communities of color, through partnerships and capacity building. “We try to provide as much of the foundational structure to these organizations [as we can],” says Grande. PODER already acts as a distribution hub for other groups looking to receive bikes through the city giveaway program.
Grande is adamant that other cities should adopt or expand similar programs. “Those bikes are public property,” he says. If they aren’t given away, they end up dismantled, in a landfill. “In a city where we have such a huge … income disparity, this would really help out a lot of working families, if they don’t need to shell out $300 for a bike.”
PODER also hosts monthly bike rides, and gives away a helmet, lock and light to every person who receives a bicycle. Bicis del Pueblo recently received a $50,000 award as part of the Just Transit SF Challenge, which funds projects addressing both carbon reduction and social equity in San Francisco. Much of the prize money will go toward equipment.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.