Community Cycles

Meeting the Bristol Bike Project

It’s around 10 in the morning and the workshop at the Bristol Bike Project is being jolted into life. Cups of tea are being prepared, tools are being laid out and a team of volunteers have assembled, ready to help out for the day.

I’m here to observe the Earn-a-Bike session. It’s an initiative which emerged in order to help those facing social marginalisation build their own bikes. With the help of volunteer mechanics, vulnerable individuals including asylum seekers, refugees and those experiencing long-term unemployment are able to refurbish an old bike, and get regular maintenance support from the project.

Aside from being a regular bike shop which offers repairs and second-hand bikes for sale, community-focused work such as this has always been central to what the Bristol Bike Project does, as co-director Henry Godfrey explains:

It was created by James Lucas and Colin Fern. James was volunteering in the [Bristol Refugee Rights] Welcome Centre at the time and realised the need for refugees to have bicycles. So he came up with the idea of having a project where volunteers could repair bicycles and provide them to refugees.

For isolated people surviving on minimal incomes who face daily restrictions in where they can go and what they can do, Henry feels that bikes offer a whole range of benefits, including greater freedom, independence and a way to manage stress:

Giving [refugees and asylum seekers] the opportunity to have a bike means they can get moving, they can access social events, church or mosque, doctor’s appointments, language classes, all these kinds of things, so it really opens up their world.

This emphasis on autonomy is reflected in the way the Bike Project organises itself: it has been a workers’ co-operative since its founding, largely self-funding and built around a flat structure. And although it is slightly isolated from the rest of the building, Henry feels that the project works in synergy with it: “Hamilton House has that autonomous feel to it, it’s about people really doing their own thing. You have a lot of freelancers, a lot of independent, creative people, so hopefully what we do ties in with that”.

The project is also conscious of the fact that the field of bike mechanics tends to be heavily male-dominated. As such, they run a weekly Women and Trans night, which is designed to be a space where women and trans people “can work on bikes without having men taking charge, taking tools out of their hands, mansplaining things. It’s a really popular session and it’s quite sociable as well.”

Having already achieved substantial community impact around its Stokes Croft/St Paul’s base, the Bike Project recently expanded into South Bristol:

We’ve just started working with a scheme for Bristol City Council called the Bristol Family Cycling Centre. It’s in Hengrove Leisure Centre. Reused shipping containers have been repurposed into a fully kitted out workshop space and we’re wanting to offer similar services like earn-a-bike and our workshops with young people in Hengrove, which is a community which hasn’t really seen much cycling infrastructure or schemes to encourage cycling.

All of this points towards the Bike Project’s continued commitment to cycling as both a means to social change and an end in itself, leading to environmental sustainability, greater connectivity for isolated individuals, and healthier communities.

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