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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bikes Not Cars

Air Date: Week of

Trish Anderton of member station WBUR Boston reports on Bikes Not Bombs, a non-profit group that helps Boston area teens and others to repair salvage bikes they can then own. Part of Bikes Not Bombs’ goal is to encourage a new generation of urban cyclists.


CURWOOD: In garages and basements across North America there are millions of bicycles gathering rust and dust, as their owners have outgrown them or moved on to the latest fashion in gears or tire size. For years the Boston-based group Bikes Not Bombs has grabbed some of these unwanted bikes on their way to the scrap heap, fixed them up, and shipped them off to war-torn countries in Central America. Now the group is recycling these bikes right in their home community with an innovative after-school program. Trish Anderton of member station WBUR in Boston has our story.

(WOMAN: See where it's up? Don't get nervous. [Laughs] There's no need for speed.)

ANDERTON: Fourteen-year-old Asha McClarence has never fixed a flat before. Her teacher, Shiki Reeves, shows her how to use an air hose to fill the inner tube.

REEVES: And press it real hard and air won't escape. Then you can stick the rim out; there you go. Cool. [Air rushes out of the inner tube] Let it go. [Laughs] Now, what you gonna do with it? [Laughs]

ANDERTON: By the end of the lesson Asha has not only patched the tube and put the tire back on, but she's able to explain the process herself.

McCLARENCE: You take this.

REEVES: You gonna, what you gonna do -- yeah?

McCLARENCE: You put an air compressor on it.

REEVES: Uh huh. It's right, air compressor.

ANDERTON: One bike standover, 13-year-old Noel Ayala, has nearly finished his tire.

AYALA: I'm scraping off the rubber, so like, when I put on the patch and the glue so that it will stick better.

ANDERTON: Noel used to have a mountain bike of his own until one day he was hanging out in front of his apartment building.

AYALA: And like 6 men came over, they were like starting to look at it. And they stole it. And I never found it. I was trying to hit 'em, like, you know, trying to get rough, but I couldn't. So now it's lost.

ANDERTON: Noel's teacher Jose shows him how to put glue on the inner tube and tells him to wait 5 minutes for it to dry. But Noel's a little impatient, so he decides to speed things along.

AYALA: [Trying to pump tire] Ugh. I'm dizzy.

ANDERTON: If they come to class faithfully for 2 weeks Asha and Noel will get to keep these bikes. They'll also learn how to fix everything from the handlebars to the bottom bracket. The students pay a sliding scale fee for the glass, which Bikes Not Bombs runs on a shoestring. The bicycles are rescued from trash heaps and curbsides. Anything that can't be gotten for free is paid for with a patchwork of grant money and fundraisers. Most of the half dozen teachers are volunteers, but they take their work seriously.

NORMANDIA: We're going to drop an actual egg in this demonstration. And what's gonna to happen, usually if I just take an egg and toss it on the sidewalk...

ANDERTON: On the first day of class instructor Paul Normandia takes the students outside to demonstrate the importance of wearing helmets.

NORMANDIA: And hold it up over your head. [An egg splats] Whoa. Okay.

WOMAN: That is your head!

NORMANDIA: Surprise, surprise, your head is cracked.

ANDERTON: Paul holds up a second egg packed in foam rubber and styrofoam.

NORMANDIA: The same head. [Drops it] Who wants to open it?

WOMAN: Oh my God.

WOMAN 2: Is it cracked?

WOMAN: No, it isn't.

WOMAN 3: It didn't crack! [Applause all around]

ANDERTON: Afterward the students troop inside to be fitted with their own helmets. Over the next 2 weeks they'll go out on bikes several times to learn how to ride in Boston's legendary traffic. It's all part of a plan to create a new generation of urban cyclists.

NORMANDIA: After they'll all fitted on we'll put our names inside, okay, so that you can keep them...

ANDERTON: When Karl Kurtz founded Bikes Not Bombs in 1984, it was a loose bunch of volunteers that fixed up abandoned bicycles and sent them to Nicaragua. Over the years the shipping operation began to run itself and the group turned its attention to its own city of Boston. Three years ago they started running youth programs from a former industrial space near a housing project. Bikes Not Bombs draws many of its students from this neighborhood where Hispanic and African stores rub elbows with Irish pubs. Carl Kurtz says bike mechanics of part of what students learn at Bikes Not Bombs, but so are language skills, arithmetic, and problem solving.

KURTZ: The bicycle is sort of the carrot that draws them in here. And we use the bicycle as a way of teaching higher order thinking skills that help all of us through life.

ANDERTON: One way the program uses bikes to teach bigger lessons is a race pitting bicycles against other kinds of transportation.

WOMAN: Okay. On your mark! Get set! [Laughter] Get ready! Go! [Laughs]

ANDERTON: Two teams bicycle into the middle of Boston, while another team take the subway and another drives. Whoever gets back to the bike center first wins. On this particular Wednesday the bicycle teams come panting in first and second. The subway team arrives a few minutes later. And a good half hour after that the car team limps home. They couldn't find any parking downtown. Head teacher Mira Brown gets the students to talk about the quality of their experience.

BROWN: So is anybody relaxed right now?

(Several voices: "Yeah." "I am." "I've been relaxed." "I'm relaxed." "Me, too.")

BROWN: Did you make any new friends on the ride down, anybody?

GIRL: I did. A two-year-old.

BROWN: A two-year-old.

BOY: I did. A motorcycle guy. I said, "Nice bike," and he said, "Thanks."

BOY 2: And a little kid.

ANDERTON: Then instructor Arthur Grupee helps them tackle the larger issues.

GRUPEE: All right, we're going to try and discuss, like, exactly what it means to be on a train, on a car, and on the bike, all right? And so we all can like collectively estimate how much it costs per year for like to purchase one, the maintenance, and everything.

ANDERTON: The students make a chart comparing the costs of each way to get downtown. They also talk about the environmental impact of each kind of transportation. In the process they wrestle with the kind of word problems they dread running into on math tests.

WOMAN: Lets say it gets 21 miles per gallon and he went 7 miles. How may gallons he use, anybody know?

GIRL: One third?

WOMAN: One third.

ANDERTON: The discussion is lively, but it comes to an abrupt end when the students realize it's cutting into their workshop time. After all, it's the bicycles that are the carrots here. Fourteen-year-old Gabrielle Regis is pretty close to finishing his shiny silver Gary Thomas bike. Peering out from under the ever-present cap that hides his eyes, Gabrielle is satisfied with his work.

REGIS: I fixed the brakes, the rings, the hubs, and the chain. It looks nice.

ANDERTON: For Living on Earth, I'm Trish Anderton in Boston.



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