Smiley Movement logo

'The bike saved me': cycling project for vulnerable people under threat

Words by Smiley Team

We noticed people were walking three hours to come to us, to see friends, to go to college, to do voluntary work,” says James Lucas, co-founder of the Bristol Bike Project. “It can take it out of you if you are doing that every day. If you are used to just having money for a bus, or you have a car or are used to having your own bike, you can take that mobility for granted.”

The not-for-profit cooperative’s Earn-a-Bike programme has been repairing abandoned or unwanted bicycles for the most vulnerable members of society for 10 years. Now, though, the project faces an existential threat. The owner of the 1970s office block Hamilton House in Stokes Cross, where it has been based since the beginning, are looking to redevelop the space.

“It’s generally people with long-term physical or mental health issues, people who are long-term unemployed, it can be people in recovery programmes, people who are homeless and living in sheltered housing,” says community coordinator Krysia Williams. “There is an endless number of reasons why people might come to us. We take it on trust whether people think they are eligible for our programmes.”

Vicky was referred to the Bristol Bike Project through one of 50 local organisations. She moved to Bristol this year and says the project helped her find a new network of friends after years of social isolation, struggling with PTSD and living in sheltered housing for recovering drug users.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to the Recovery Toolkit [a programme for people with experience of domestic abuse] without it,” she says. “There wasn’t a bus [that went] there. Cycling there was just great mental and physical health exercise. The bike was the one thing that saved me.

“For the first time in many years I wanted to be around people. The bike is my only means of getting around. My life has improved so much for the better. I used to wake up and think, ‘oh my god I can’t believe I’m conscious again’. I never thought I could have the feeling that I do now.”

The work is made possible by donations from the public. The project receives more than 100 bikes a month, many of which have sat unused in sheds or garages for years. Others come from places such as train stations and student accommodation that send abandoned bikes to the project. Profits from a workshop that services and repairs bikes for the public subsidise the community work.

Rather than simply being given a fully repaired machine, “earn-a-bikers” attend a three-hour session to refurbish a donated bike and help carry out final maintenance checks – the idea being that learning to look after a bike is more empowering than simply being given one.

If recipients subsequently encounter issues that are more than they can deal with, they can return to the workshop to carry out any subsequent maintenance as part of the project’s DIT (do it together) ethos. Recovering alcoholic Mark describes it as a “lifetime guarantee”. “This is the only transport that I have,” says Mohammed, an Algerian asylum seeker. “I need it to go to college and improve my English. I can’t get anywhere without it.”

Co-founder Lucas says he often hears people who are struggling with drug addiction say that riding a bike helps them avoid temptation: “They are able to cycle past the places where they would normally stop and get sucked into a world that they don’t want to be in any more. Having a bike is your vehicle for getting out of that place.”

Williams says bikes have become even more crucial to the city’s asylum seekers since the location where they have to sign in was moved from the city centre to a location eight miles away: “We were noticing people were either struggling to afford the bus – which takes up most of the allowance [they] receive from the government – or they were walking the 16 miles. Others were missing appointments … [which] jeopardises their asylum claim. A bicycle is a quick, amazing easy solution.”

Esam is a Kurdish asylum seeker from Iraq who has been living in Bristol since 2007 while he awaits a decision on whether he can remain. “Bristol Bike Project has become like a village for me,” he says, “a society. I’ve been adopted.”

Abdul says his three daughters have all received bikes that they ride for eight miles a day to school and back, and to visit family and friends. “We don’t look at these bikes as used bikes,” he says. “I don’t think that’s crossed the girls’ minds. The bike does its job and we appreciate it.”

But the Bristol Bike Project fears its work is under threat and says it has been operating with just a month’s notice to vacate for two yearsHamilton House owner Connolly & Callaghan has been seeking planning permission since 2017 to put apartments into some of the space used by arts and community ventures in the three-building complex.

The owners say their apartment proposal was conceived “to save the community uses of Hamilton House” after years of precarious finances. While the flats are envisioned for upper parts of Building C, the ground floor housing the Bristol Bike Project is also to be revamped, for commercial use. In early 2018, the bike project was among tenants given notice.

Since then, says a Connolly and Callaghan spokesman, the owners have continued to house the bike project: “C&C admires the work of the Bristol Bike Project – and has provided them with space at very low rent for some 10 years. Indeed, C&C has supported them for some 18 months longer than expected” and recently agreed to hold off work on the space until 31 January.

While the apartment scheme has so far failed to win planning approval (in July it was again rejected by Bristol city council), other renovations are going ahead. That January date looks like the last reprieve for the bike project at Hamilton House.

“It’s been a long time to have that constant threat over you in your head,” says Williams. “We’ve had to put a lot of staff and volunteer energy into preparing for it. I think us staying in this area is going to be nigh-on impossible.”

However, the team remain determined to find ways to grow and continue to serve the community. “It’s a bike project but it’s really a people project,” says Williams. “With people’s support we will find somewhere. We will be paying a lot more than we do here but maybe we can reach out to new communities as well. If we can do that without losing the people we are already working with then great.”

Member and workshop volunteer Debbie says the project runs on the willpower of its volunteers and workers. “People care about it. When you’ve got the power of people you can surmount a lot more problems than if you are just being paid to do a job.”


Original article by Alexander Turner - Source Global Citizen

Photo on Freepik

To find out more about the Bristol Bike Project and ways to get involved, go to their website.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

You might also like…