Chris Shirley is determined to teach me how to ride a bike. A friendly Davenport sophomore who sports a black turtleneck over a pair of tight-fitting women’s jeans and a blue fanny pack in place of a belt, Shirley is one of the cofounders of the New Haven Bike Collective. The group, which is currently thinking of changing its name to Cyclismo, began last fall, with the aim of providing free bikes and bike repair training to local residents. Though the Collective has yet to move beyond holding organizational meetings, writing grant proposals, and securing a storage space, Shirley tells me that they hope to get the program in full gear by spring. I, who spent a bikeless childhood indoors, will be their first trainee.
The collective has set up shop in the heart of Fair Haven, where the median income of $10,084 is $20,000 short of the Connecticut state average. “We’re trying to capture an audience that’s not being serviced by high-end bike shops like Devil’s Gear,” Shirley says, “and empower them to learn new skills they can take home.” shirley hopes to increase the number of New Haven residents who bike to work. But once these new bikers hit the streets, they’ll face new difficulties: New Haven only has two miles of bike lanes, many of which end abruptly. Elsewhere in the Elm City, cyclists have to share busy, narrow roads with cars. For years, cycling advocacy groups like ElmCityCycling have cited the need for more bike racks, bike lanes, and increased rights for cyclists injured in car-bike collisions, but the local government has only recently started to listen.
In 2003 , the New Haven Mayor’s Office published a “Share the Streets” report that recommended adding the much-needed racks and lanes, as well as slowing down motor traffic by installing speed bumps and roundabouts to make roads safer for those on two wheels. So far, progress has been slow. Though a lone bike lane has been added to Orange Street and twenty bike racks have been sprinkled throughout the city, a recent New Haven Advocate article notes that City Hall officials are still unwilling to convert coveted on-street parking spots to bike lanes. Unimproved streets like Whitney Avenue still pose a danger to cyclists, including the bikers Shirley and his cohorts want to introduce to already congested roads. Shirley lists the many hurdles facing people who want to bike to work: “You have to be taught how to ride, have the energy to ride everyday, and live close enough to make the commute.” But if all three conditions are met—say, you’re a Fair Haven resident who works in the area and wants the exercise—riding a bike will help to reduce air pollution in a neighborhood still plagued by former coal plant emissions and also reduce the cost of daily transportation. “We work to undercut the financial burden,” Shirley explains. “Cars can cost thousands of dollars a year to maintain, whereas bikes are much cheaper. And if you don’t have the money to buy a new bike or pay a hundred dollars for a tune-up, you can come to us instead.”
In addition to its environmental and monetary benefits, the Collective’s “earna- bike” program will help the Fair Haven community by doubling as a mentor program. Shirley hopes to recruit youngsters from nearby schools and YMCA centers for a weekly after-school workshop, during which Collective members will work one-on-one with city youth, teaching them vocational skills so that can earn newly repaired used bikes. Shirley thought up the idea for the Bike Collective over a year ago. “I was at an activists’ conference in DC called ‘Power Shift,’ and one kid told us that he had a trailer full of bikes and didn’t know what to do with them,” he says. The bikes in question turned out to be unsalvageable, but Shirley and Collective co-founder Colin Bennett, a graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University, decided that New Haven could use a system for distributing free bikes. They began by collecting bikes from Freecycle. org, an online group that connects used bike owners with the bikeless, but it was fellow Collective member Paul Hammer who stumbled upon the real motherlode of free bikes: Yale. At the end of every spring term, Hammer discovered, a Yale Security team confiscates all bicycles left on student bike racks, shepherding them to the basement of the Payne Whitney gym. If still unclaimed after six months, the bikes become public property. When the group received permission from Yale Security to take the bikes, the Collective was born.
Over this past winter, the collective expanded to a core group of around twenty people, most of them Yale and Southern students mixed with a few bike activists from ElmCityCycling. Today, the Collective houses over 150 secondhand bikes in the basement of a red brick Fair Haven building donated by a local businessman. Shirley shows me the subterranean storehouse one Sunday afternoon. The room is dim and dusty, and an enormous rat paws a woodpile bordering a long string of bikes. Shirley hopes to repair bikes in the outdoor parking lot once the weather improves. Working outdoors will be the Collecive’s main advertising strategy, hopefully attracting local residents who happen to pass by on the sidewalk. But for now, the bikes are still in storage. Slips of paper have been stapled to all the handlebars—a “P” means a part is missing, most often a brake or a front wheel. A “Ch” means the chain isn’t working smoothly, and the most common label is “RU,” for rust.
Eventually, Shirley hopes to register the bikes in a computer database: “Say you come in and you’ve never fixed a bike before, and today you can work for four hours. We’ll plug in those stats to the database and match you up with a bike that meets your skill levels and time commitment.” He stresses that the group will be working on a system of sweat equity. “We have to get the message right. There’s a spectrum of free stuff, and this is not a handout. If you want a bike, you’ll have to help out the Collective first.” in order to fill the collective’s coffers, the group will also repair bikes to sell to people who don’t have time to fix their own, in the process training novice repairmen to re-inflate tires, fix brakes, and replace chains. After trainees have learned basic skills on the model bikes, they will be able to tackle their own bikes with the help of Collective volunteers. For those like me, who don’t know how to ride, free lessons will be provided once a bike has been repaired.
Back in the basement, I begin by checking out a glittery purple Taboo. The chain is rusting off, and when I swing my legs over the seat, my feet barely touch the ground. No good. Next, I try a child-sized Huffy with a white wicker basket and a half-deflated front tire. I sit down hopefully and put my feet on the pedals, but my legs are too cramped, so I exchange it for a brown and yellow Roadmaster Classic. This bike is practical, lightweight, and not too tall. Its only defect is a pair of semi-faulty brakes. Shirley and I haul it out to the parking lot.
Once outside, I climb on while Shirley grips the handlebars and starts running backwards. The first time, I pedal for ten seconds before steering too far left and running over Shirley’s foot. I remount and crush his right foot instead. “You have to find your center of balance,” Shirley tells me patiently. My third time on the bike, I pedal faster, and, gaining confidence, turn my head to grin at Shirley. Then comes the chain-link fence. Picking myself off the blacktop, I stare at the frame lying forlornly on the concrete. Serves me right for asking for a free handout.
Mai Wang is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.