Boston Square Community Bikes thrives through COVID-19

Since 2009, Boston Square Community Bikes has offered the Oakdale Neighborhood a unique, free, do-it-yourself workshop space alongside a low- to no-cost recycled bicycle shop. Funded by Oakdale Neighbors, the area community development organization, Boston Square Community Bikes has recognized the importance of bicycles as a vital means of transportation and has worked to foster the knowledge customers need to do important bicycle maintenance jobs themselves.

At the shop, volunteer mechanics guide patrons through repair projects step-by-step, and provide access to the tools and space needed for customers to make their own repairs for free, with needed parts being exchanged for suggested donations. This innovative, place-based program emphasizes accessibility by putting riders on bikes and giving them the tools and knowledge to keep those bikes rolling. 

Located in the heart of the Oakdale Neighborhood and centered on a philosophy of knowledge and skill sharing, the accessibility of this program is perhaps most tangibly reflected in the ultra low price point of its offerings. Thanks to the abundance of used and recycled parts, customers are often able to arrive with a broken bicycle and leave with new knowledge and a working bike for the cost of their time alone or a few spare dollars. When used or donated parts aren’t available, new parts are offered at the lowest markup possible and are explicitly selected for affordability. 

Fixed up bikes are offered for equally low prices. Many of their refurbished bikes start as low as $35 for adult bikes and $15 for youth bikes. Project bikes — donated or recycled bikes which need work — are also available at an even lower price point. This means that if a customer is willing to spend the time fixing up a project bike, they can leave with reliable transportation for even less than the cheapest bike available. Beyond that, all payments made are donations, made on a sliding, self-reported, income-based scale. 

Unlike other bike shops, Boston Square Community Bikes is in a unique position as a nonprofit, and because its funding is largely secured through the Oakdale Neighbors, prices are mainly set by a pay-what-you-can mentality. In short, payments are negotiable, set by the needs and resources of the customer, and are designed to put people on safe, working bikes. To further eliminate any possible barrier to access that cost might pause, a work-trade program is offered, in which those without means can volunteer in the shop and earn themselves the bike they need. Jo Dull, program manager, says that this work-trade is seldom used because prices are so low, and estimated only about six work trade workers in a typical season. However, this has remained a valuable tool for those in need who are still looking to contribute. 

Most recently, like all Michigan businesses, the outbreak of COVID-19 forced Boston Square Community Bikes to shut down operations in March and April of 2020. After April, as shutdown requirements began to relax, the bike program began exclusively offering simple repair services, and eventually were able to reopen the shop in a limited capacity. Before the end of the season, Jo Dull and their team of volunteers had even added an outdoor DIY space conforming to safety standards. This infrastructure and new planning is what allowed Boston Square Community Bikes to reopen this season on April 1, as planned. “If any positive came out of COVID, it’s that we had to be more organized with our time,” says Dull.

As a result of this new focus on organization and safety this year, instead of operating a donation-based nonprofit bike shop, a volunteer mechanic training program, a free guided DIY bike repair shop, and a separate volunteer-driven bicycle repair service simultaneously, operations are segmented but are still offering full services. Changes to their operational structure come as a direct result of COVID-19 and reflects both an effort to keep people safe and their time better organized.

“These changes are likely to stay, even after COVID,” says Dull. Now the free DIY repair shop is open on Wednesday and Thursday 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., and their sales and services are offered Friday and Saturday 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Volunteer orientations and training are offered on Tuesdays, as needed. 

With operations open, people are once again welcome to visit Boston Square Community Bikes, provided they follow social distancing and mask guidelines, and stick to the new schedule. And while the program does target the Boston Square community, it’s reach is by no means limited or selective. “We’ve had people drive up from Sparta,” says Dull. 

Dan Hickey, now a part time bike mechanic and educator with the program, was introduced to the shop while looking for a place to buy new tubes for his bike in his neighborhood. Since then, the knowledge he learned while in the shop has helped him become a volunteer, and now, he’s the only other official employee of the program.

Hickey says, “It’s been hugely valuable just to have this space and the tools to learn.” Sharing the knowledge he’s gained at Boston Square Community Bikes has motivated Hickey to get involved. “I wanted to volunteer to offer access to the in-depth knowledge I gained. For me, it’s about the freedom of knowledge and skill sharing,” Hickey adds. 

Thanks to the program, there’s a place for bikes of all conditions, where they can be fixed by customers or donated for tax deductions. And more importantly, there’s a place where riders of all skill levels can learn more about safety and the value of regular maintenance.

Walk-up appointments during operating hours are welcome, but those interested in volunteering should reach out by email or through Facebook. Riders in the neighborhood are also welcome to utilize their permanent outdoor air pump and tools for quick tune-ups at any time. 

Photos by Isabel Media Studios
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