What does it take to transform cycling? A leaf from Our Community Bikes’ playbook

cycling across canada

Isobel Duxfield, an adventurous soul, has been pedaling her bicycle across continents for about 7 months now. From the rugged terrain of southeast Turkey to the picturesque landscapes of Europe, the winding roads of the UK, and now the vast expanse of Canada, her journey has been nothing short of extraordinary. Isobel’s fascination with cycling began during her time pursuing a Master’s degree in Gender Studies at Cambridge University. Observing the gendered dynamics within local cycling communities sparked her curiosity, leading her to delve into the world of women’s cycling clubs for her thesis.

After spending years advocating for sustainable mobility with Polis in Brussels, Isobel decided it was time to experience firsthand what she had been writing about. With nothing but four panniers and a heart full of curiosity, she embarked on her cycling odyssey. Documenting the Canadian leg of her trip, Isobel shares the stories of the people she’s met and the communities striving to promote active travel across Canada.

In this article, Isobel explores:

  • Equity in cycling through the work of Our Community Bikes (OCB).
  • The importance of advancing infrastructure and addressing inequalities.
  • OCB’s key initiatives:
    • Affordable bike maintenance
    • Community outreach
    • Promoting diversity in the sector
  • Elements essential for promoting active travel.
  • OCB’s efforts in creating an inclusive cycling culture in Vancouver.

What does it take to transform cycling? A leaf from Our Community Bikes’ playbook

Vancouver’s local bike non-profit demonstrates how equity for bike users as well as those working in the sector can be delivered.

From London to Paris, San Francisco to Calgary, street space reallocation and prioritisation of cycling is routinely attacked and denounced for reshaping cities around a privileged elite, marginalising the “common man” (a deliberate use of this pronoun here).

A quick glance at the figures shows this is not true. Low income groups have dramatically diminished car ownership levels, while it is in fact lower income workers who are most reliant on pedal power for commuting purposes.

Yet, at the same time, in many North American and European cities, cycling does indeed carry an exclusionary, often gendered and racialised culture that it must confront. Across the globe, men cycle three to four times more than women, while in the UK just 14% of ethnic minority groups, 12% of people with disabilities and 19% of LGBTQ+ people cycle regularly, with widespread discriminatory cultures frequently reported. This is reflected in the sector itself; in the UK, women occupy just 8% of workshop-based roles.

Advancing infrastructure and services, while simultaneously recognising and addressing existing inequalities within cycling, is thus a complex task for active travel advocacy and public policy. 

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In Vancouver, one such forum with a blueprint for progress is Our Community Bikes (OCB), a non-profit organisation providing accessible and affordable support to the community as well as those working in the industry- fostering diversity across the board.

Having pedalled into Vancouver on broken gears (the result of months of use and abuse finally coming back to bite), the store was in fact my first point of call. I had asked around as to who could help fix my steel companion, and was pointed firmly in the direction of OCB. 

OCB has an unassuming shopfront at the northern end of Vancouver’s Main street, and, without the large pride flag displayed in the window, one would perhaps not pick it out from the city’s growing volume of bike stores. However, as soon as you enter, the difference is immediately palpable. A medley of various refurbished bike parts sit in boxes (all available for purchase at ridiculously cheap prices), posters for cycling advocacy programmes line the walls and the store is bustling with people from all walks of life, it is unapologetically a bike shop for the people.

The non-profit, which has been in operation since 1993, now boasts around 8 full and part time mechanics, alongside programme coordinators, as well as their army of volunteers who help coordinate the spectrum of community outreach programmes they deliver and oversee.

”It was initiated by several friends 31 years ago, in what started out as ad hoc bike maintenance and support for the community, before blossoming into what it is now,” said Cavan Hua, a Floor Leader and senior mechanic at the non-profit.

“However, many people are not familiar with the full range of work we do!” He continued.

Indeed, the organisation’s work spans the breadth of accessibility and inclusion. OCB’s store offers affordable bike maintenance and sales, and their low price refurbished parts and accessories are in high demand. They also oversee a huge donation programme, ‘Pedals for the People’, where donated bicycles are refurbished and provided to individuals in the local community who could not otherwise afford them. 

"We work with homeless shelters, social workers, youth projects and others to provide this service, directly giving away around 100 bikes each year, as well as many more through other organisations...”
Cavan Hua
Our Community Bikes

When considering the environmental impact of used bicycles and bike parts- a growing challenge for the industry particularly given the proliferation of e-bikes- such recycling efforts under this more circular economy are instrumental.

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However, sales and donations are just the tip of the iceberg. From bike fixing workshops to access evenings, to providing free bikes for vulnerable members of the local community, OCB’s activities endeavour to attract new folks onto the saddle, equipping Vancouver with the skills and experience required to maintain their own bike.

”These workshops are not just about physically mending somebody’s bike, it is about instilling a knowledge about the process and how to care for one’s bike in order to ensure expensive maintenance is not a frequent occurrence,” says Hua.

As OCB’s activities have grown and developed, so has their organisational capacity.

”We have significantly improved our programmes by carving out and reinforcing our Access roles; we now have an Access Programme Coordinator as well as several colleagues which support here.” 

I went along to their ‘Women, Trans and Queer night’ to see this programme in action. For two evenings each month, the shop is open after hours for women, non-binary and trans and queer identifying cyclists to work on their bikes with the support of store staff. I use the word ‘cyclist’ here intentionally as those who are not kitted out in lycra or own expensive carbon fibre bikes are often omitted from the group commonly regarded as ‘cyclists’. This thus suggests there is a singular way to navigate space by bike, so, while the attendees at this session might not define themselves as ‘cyclists’, here, I will.  

The initiative was a fantastically calm space, where no question was deemed stupid, no unsolicited advice dished out, and all the necessary tools were on hand. This was augmented by the presence of trans and non-binary staff who helped to spearhead the inclusivity of the event. However, coordinating such a programme is not without its challenges.

“We are aiming to change what mechanics looks like, but it is actually incredibly difficult to put on a night like this,” their Access Programme Coordinator told me.

”You need to be able to have trained women and gender variant mechanics on hand to help customers, which, in this sector, is difficult to secure.”

Indeed, OCB’s programmes are not just about serving everyday cyclists, they also strive to shift the culture within the industry itself, supporting often marginalised groups to enter the sector.  

”Cycling is very white, cis-male dominated, and as a result we frequently see toxic working cultures develop,” says Hua.

”With these programmes, and also through the collaborative and deliberative way we work at OCB ourselves, we are trying to change this.”

Indeed, the staff responsible for developing their access programme are all trans and non-binary identifying, while the rest of their employee base includes wide representation of many different racial and ethnic identities.

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One such programme is Gear Up, a free 13-week course that equips youth ages 15 – 30 with the skills, certification and employer connections necessary to work as a bike mechanic, and working with YWCA Metro Vancouver, OCB delivers these courses year round. 

However, this programme, while providing a foot in the door for many marginalised groups, is just one cog in the wheel required to transform the cycling industry. 

“Gaining mechanical skills isn’t like riding a bicycle, you have to use it or lose it. New mechanics start in entry-level roles, but because of the seasonal nature of bike shops, there are generally less long-term opportunities. A way to get around that is to be friends with other cyclists interested in mechanics. You ride bikes, so you talk bikes, and then you fix bikes... But when you’re socially excluded, where do you go to get experience? That’s why mechanical training and access programming made by and for equity-deserving groups is essential to growing the cycling community and industry. That's what we do here.”
Head of Access
Our Community Bikes

Despite the growing numbers of cyclists in Vancouver, and expanding customer base, it is not always smooth sailing for the non-profit, and securing finance while operating in a city with some of the highest rent prices in the world is a constant challenge. 

“We find funding through private donations and grants which we apply for, but this is often a complex and highly competitive process, for which we depend heavily on our board of directors who have experience in this field,” reflects Hua.

To confront this, OCB has found itself collaborating with other similar nonprofits in Vancouver including Kickstand and Bike Kitchen, which also deliver community and advocacy initiatives. 

Pedalling around Vancouver, one can see how cycling here outwardly presents an exclusionary elitism which many may be reluctant to penetrate. On a summer’s evening, large groups of white men in lycra, riding $8,000 bikes, cruise the streets, and as in most North American bike shops I have visited, a non-male identifying mechanic is a rare sight. 

There is real potential for change, however, attending events coordinated by OCB- as well as their peer organisations- the overwhelming role of volunteers and low-waged labour is evident. In a city like Vancouver, where the cost of living is squeezing out both OCB’s customers and its staff, this may not be sustainable. 

Thus, as local authorities look to expand active travel and propel a culture shift in urban mobility, it is not simply cycling infrastructure they need to consider. 

“In North America, cycling may be becoming less marginalised, but it is far from normalised for many communities,” warns Hua.

Working with and investing in grassroots organisations like OCB, Vancouver, and its industry partners, can continue to propel a cultural shift in cycling, encouraging long marginalised groups to join the growing volume of cyclists on the city’s roads.

If you’d like to learn more about her experiences traveling from Calgary, through Icefields Parkway and the Yellowhead Highway, you can read them here.

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