Initially conceived of and held 10 years ago in New Orleans by Plan B volunteers to build a network of community and support between bike projects in different cities and regions around the world, the conference has come a long way from its meager beginnings.
Over the course of this year’s five-day conference, attendees from bike projects all over North America and as far away as Vienna, Austria and Adelaide, Australia will stay with volunteer housing providers and participate in a slew of workshops and “Only in New Orleans”-style social events.
Now to fully get an idea of what a community bike project conference might consist of, one must first get an idea of what a “community bike project” might be.
The way they have been described at the League of American Bicyclists’ National Bike Summit in Washington D.C. is: if the advocacy groups (such as Bike Easy) are fighting the policy battle, then the community bike projects are the boots on the ground doing the hands-on work.
Plan B co-director and Bike!Bike! 2013 co-organizer, Victor Pizarro, elaborates:
“Community bike projects can take on a lot of different forms. They can be organized in a lot of different ways. They can have different structures. But, basically, they all have the same mission of utilizing the bicycle as a tool for social justice whether the focus is a kid’s shop or an earn-a-bike program.
Plan B’s focus is teaching classes and having the open workshop available because there are so many people in New Orleans for whom bikes are their only or primary means of transportation and we have a huge working class. We want to give them the skills and tools to maintain their own transportation.
That’s massive. Think about owning a car. Part of the built-in expense is that you’re constantly paying someone else to fix it.
Same thing goes for a bike but on a smaller scale. If you’re living close to the poverty line or if you’re an enthusiast, it can make a huge difference being able to make changes to your own bike. We want to impact people’s lives in a way that gives them the education.
That’s a tool toward social justice. That’s an equalizer. That’s why we exist.
And, part of our entire push is to replicate what we do, in whatever form is most applicable, in communities that need it.”
With those ideas in mind, nearly a decade ago, Plan B volunteers decided to hold a conference to facilitate, or “cross-pollinate” as Pizarro puts it, the sharing of experiences and ideas through socialization and network building.
At the time, if a group wanted to start a bike project in their particular community, due to lack of institutional knowledge it would have to start from scratch. Plan B thought that by bringing the community of community bike projects together, they could provide new projects in new communities with valuable resources and support to help keep them from having to reinvent the proverbial wheel.
The year was 2004 and the conference was called Bike!Bike!.
Only around 65 attendees from 10-15 organizations, including one group that biked all the way from Colorado, participated in that first set workshops held over two days at the Green Project with an after party. It was considered a success, however, so they planned another for later that year hosted by a community bike project in Tucson.
Then they planned another for the following year, and then another, and then another.
With each successive year, as Bike!Bike! has been hosted by community bike projects from San Francisco (2008) to Toronto (2010), from San Marcos (2011) to Vancouver (2012), it has grown. In turn, Plan B and other community bike projects have grown.
Six years ago the Salt Lake City Community Bike Shop created a listserv called The Think Tank and hosted it on www.bikecollectives.org so that all community bike projects affiliated with the Bike!Bike! could continue to communicate and archive ideas throughout the year in between conferences. It has since grown to the point that the site is now hosted by the Alliance for Biking & Walking.
Plan B itself is now a part of the Alliance for Biking & Walking and has helped or is continuing to help community bike projects in Jackson, MS and Mobile, AL get off the ground.
About two years ago Plan B was approached directly by the director of Bike Walk Mississippi to assist in getting Jackson’s community bike project up and running.
Through technical, logistical, and moral support including a couple trips to help Jackson set up its shop using the best, most functional and cost effective layout, tools and supplies for their particular space and needs, Jackson’s community bike project is rolling right along. “That’s the stuff we’ve learned, “ says Pizarro, “That’s our knowledge.”
Around the same time community members in Mobile really wanted to start a bike project as well. So, in addition to the same types of support given to Jackson, volunteers from Plan B have actually trained Mobile’s mechanics.
Another significant way that Plan B is supported by and continues to support regional community bike projects is through the redistribution of donated bikes it receives from Working Bikes in Chicago every so often. Some of the bikes get used in Plan B’s build a bike class, some get sold to raise funds, but the others are donated to bike projects such as those in Jackson or Mobile.
“So, there’s been a shift over they past three or for years,” says Pizarro.
“[Community bike shops] were more on the fringe. It used to be a thing that you had to be ‘in the know’ to know where the community bike space was. But now it’s a bit more ubiquitous.
You can now land in another town and be confident there’s going to be a space like that, or two, or in some towns there are ten.
I’ve got to find the one that suits me. I want to get in there and wrench on bikes and help people have access to bikes, etc.
That’s what Bike!Bike! is about. It’s like a reunion, especially for the people who have worked on it a really long time and believe in it and see the cultural changes that are occurring (i.e. more bike use).”
Looking back, it seems as if the original visionaries were right. Based on the schedule, Bike!Bike! 2013 shows no signs of shifting into the “granny-gear” and promises to build on the success of the past decade.
Nearly 30 volunteers and 60 housing providers are poised to host more than 200 international conferees for the conference, which has been expanded by a day for this year.
There are going to be nearly 50 workshops held from Thursday through Saturday during the day on topics ranging from the more community related, such as racial equity and social justice, to the more technical related, such as organizing a shop and mechanical skills, and everything in between.
By nature, community bike shop mechanics might have to work on any type of bike under the sun. They need to learn about a lot of things that might not necessarily come up at a for-profit bike shop – old Sturmey-Archer internal three-speed hubs, for example. There will be a workshop on those.
Pizarro himself, along with a few others, will be conducting a workshop on fostering collaborative relationships between bike projects such as the one between Chicago, New Orleans, Jackson, and Mobile and how they can be beneficial – how they work for recycling and education; how they get more mikes on the road in the hands of people who need them.
“We’re about the cooperation of making it all work. It’s not a for-profit business. It’s not a completion. The more the merrier,” says Pizarro.
“The more the merrier.” Spoken like a true New Orleanian.
And, it would certainly not be a New Orleans-borne conference, if it was all work and no play (or food for that matter). Organizers actually moved the conference from the originally planned weekend so that Family Ties Second Line would be incorporated into the schedule of events after the closing meeting on Sunday morning and breakfast and lunch will be provided each day except Saturday when there will be a shrimp and vegetable boil prior to Bike!Bike!’s 10th Birthday Party.
Leading up to the Sunday second line, Bike!Bike! 2013 has a jam-backed schedule of events beginning with Book!Book! on Wednesday evening hosted by NOLA Alleycats.
The following evening, NOLA Social Ride hosts the Bike!Bike! Tenth Anniversary Edition of its beloved Happy Thursday Ride.
Friday night, Booty!Booty! goes down at Siberia featuring the brass-shakin’ feats and booty-shakin’ beats of the Hot 8 Brass Band, Katey Red, and Cheeky Blakk starting at 10 pm.
Saturday Night is the coup de gras, Bike!Bike!’s 10th Birthday Party and moving fundraiser sponsored by New Belgium Brewing and Old New Orleans Rum featuring the Panorama Jazz Band, Mardi Gras Indians, and DJs from 9 pm – 1 am a location to be revealed.
The conference wraps with its traditional closing meeting, where the next year’s conference location shall be determined, followed by the Family Ties parade through the 8th Ward.
In order to attend the Friday or Saturday night events, would-be participants must be registered as a Bike!Bike! 2013 conferee, or as a housing provider, or as a volunteer. It is free to register. Though, a suggested donation of $50-$100 dollars is encouraged.
Additionally, Pizarro says that Bike!Bike! 2013 is still in need of housing providers.
To register or volunteer, readers may visit www.bikebike.org and follow the instructions on the home page.
Matt Hinson writes about the cycling community in New Orleans for NolaVie.