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The Imperative of Repair: Fixing Bikes - for Free

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Abstract

This chapter discusses how we can interrupt the cycle of consumption and disposal to reuse a relatively simple and ubiquitous item – the bicycle. We compare two projects that are non-commercial, community-based and involve volunteers who recycle, redistribute and assist with the repair of bicycles. The first is a project that repairs donated bikes and gives them to asylum seekers and refugees who have moved into an urban area. The repair of lives broken by the disruption of seeking refuge in another country are being helped with the life-enhancing mobility of a bicycle. The second, is a network of community bike workshops open to anybody, which help owners to keep their bikes on the road by teaching maintenance skills. Being able to repair their bike frees the user from having to pay and wait for a professional service to recover their velomobility. Both types of project operate at the margins of the system of capitalist production and consumption in which bicycles are originally manufactured. Both counter the tendency of advanced industrialised societies towards consuming new replacement goods rather than repairing the broken.
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Batterbury SPJ and T Dant. 2019. The imperative of repair: fixing bikes – for free. In F. Mar-
tinez and P. Laviolette (eds.). Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough: Ethnographic Responses.
New York: Berghahn. P249-266. ISBN 978−1−78920−331−8
The Imperative of Repair: Fixing Bikes for Free
Simon Batterbury1 and Tim Dant
Introduction
This chapter discusses how we can interrupt the cycle of consumption and disposal to reuse a
relatively simple and ubiquitous item the bicycle. We compare two projects that are non-
commercial, community-based and involve volunteers who recycle, redistribute and assist with
the repair of bicycles. The first is a project that repairs donated bikes and gives them to asylum
seekers and refugees who have moved into an urban area. The repair of lives broken by the
disruption of seeking refuge in another country are being helped with the life-enhancing mo-
bility of a bicycle. The second, is a network of community bike workshops open to anybody,
which help owners to keep their bikes on the road by teaching maintenance skills (Batterbury
and Vandermeersch 2016). Being able to repair their bike frees the user from having to pay
and wait for a professional service to recover their velomobility. Both types of project operate
at the margins of the system of capitalist production and consumption in which bicycles are
originally manufactured. Both counter the tendency of advanced industrialised societies to-
wards consuming new replacement goods rather than repairing the broken.
The bicycle is a cheap and uncomplicated means of transport that when in working order needs
nothing other than the application of human energy to enable the seated rider to travel much
faster over longer distances than the upright pedestrian. For more than a century this basic
machine has enabled individual people to move about their environment as and when they
wish. There has however been a significant decline in cycling as car ownership has increased
all over the world (Parkin et al. 2007). In the UK the proportion of all journeys by bicycle fell
from 37% in 1949 to 1% in 2000, despite sales of bicycles continuing to be two and a half
times that of cars (Horton et al. 2007). Whether or not to cycle for transport utility is linked to
personal identity, the roads one has to ride on and the distances to work and shops (Skinner
and Rosen 2007). There is also a suggestion that, in the US at least, cycling is an inverse marker
of social status. As Gilroy points out, a car culture can distinguish a minority group from less
fortunate groups living ‘…within the veil of scarcity defined… by the alternative transit order
of the bicycle (2001: 102).
1 Simon would like to thank the Brussels Centre for Urban Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) for a visiting
fellowship in 2015, and we thank all the participants in the projects studied in this chapter.
Simon Batterbury: Assoc Prof, University of Melbourne and formerly Chair of Political Ecology, Lancaster Uni-
versity 2017-19: Tim Dant, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Lancaster University. simonpjb@unimelb.edu.au
www.bikeworkshopsresearch.wordpress.com
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One aspect of taking responsibility is to repair and re-use the things we have. In doing so, we
learn how they are made, what materials they use and how their useful life can be extended
(Graham and Thrift 2007; Gregson et al. 2009). Bicycles, while simple machines, require
maintenance and occasional repair. Cycling is a sustainable, non-carbon generating mode of
transport. Repairing a bicycle enhances the mobility of the user, engages her or him with how
and what it is made from and how its useful life can be extended to save the energy and raw
materials needed to replace it. When someone voluntarily helps to overcome its brokenness, it
is an act of kindness and care between those with skills and the bicycle user. The material
interaction between the experienced repairer and the bicycle mediates a social relationship of
care with the user of the bike, responding to both the material disorder of the machine and the
practical disorder in the life of the cyclist.
We will explore the role of people who voluntarily undertake or assist in bike repair and re-
spond to what philosopher Hans Jonas calls the ‘imperative of responsibility’ to care both for
people and the consequences of technological progress. Jonas recognised that the costs of tech-
nological progress are not primarily felt by the individual user or consumer but as risks to the
future of humanity. The depletion of natural resources energy and raw materials along with
environmental degradation are consequences that threaten all humanity. In response to the tra-
jectory of technological innovation in the twentieth century, Jonas revised Kant’s categorical
imperative to give a new moral imperative of taking responsibility for our material lives:Act
so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life
(Jonas 1984: 11). Jonas argues that our first responsibility is to other human beings, including
those not yet born, but his ‘imperative of responsibility’ is also directed at technological pro-
gress. The development of technology cannot be reversed, and indeed we need it to manage
the environmental effects of existing technologies, but we can take responsibility for it, under-
standing its consequences, accounting for our use of it.
Two cases
The first example of taking responsibility, the ‘refugee bike project’, is based in a northern city
in the United Kingdom where both authors have been repairers and have been able to undertake
auto ethnography and participant-observation. The project repairs and maintains bikes donated
for use by asylum seekers and refugees. The second example comes from Brussels, where one
author (SB) was based in 2015, researching 'community bike workshops' (CBWs). In the work-
shops volunteers help members to repair their bikes using components recovered from bikes
broken beyond repair, discarded from local bike shops or bought in bulk. Their focus is pro-
moting vélonomie (‘becoming an autonomous cyclist); the confidence and pride in doing your
own bike maintenance, as well as cycling confidently on the urban streets. A loose network of
repair workshops also forms part of the urban non-profit sector, promoting grassroots actions
to address severe pollution and promoting sustainable transport.
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These non-commercial approaches to recycling bicycles share a number of features that we
will draw attention to; donations, socio-material networks, cross-cultural engagements, and
material practices including hand tool work and material cannibalism. Volunteers are moti-
vated by a caring ethic to provide working bicycles to those who need them, through minimal
use of new materials and consumed objects. They participate in networks that donate bicy-
cles, scavenge spare parts, work in free or cheap temporary premises, link with other supporting
networks and support those who lack resources and skills themselves.
The mechanics of the bicycle
In advanced industrialised societies we are less likely than people in the past, to make or main-
tain the things we use. Production and consumption have been separated by de-industrialisa-
tion, and manufacturing now takes place closer to raw materials or where labour is cheap. In a
global process of social stratification, those who consume are seldom those who produce. The
advancing technical sophistication of domestic objects, vehicles, and information technology
has created many everyday material goods that are less amenable to repair and maintenance.
The consumer culture driving their distribution has meant that replacement appears cheaper
than repair; it brings a new object, with the most recent technological innovations, the latest
styling and a manufacturer’s guarantee against short-term failure.
The bicycle as a machine resists this tendency. It has been around for a well over a hundred
years. Its form is of two equally sized wheels, a chain driving the rear wheel from pedals rotat-
ing a gear wheel through cranks, with the front wheel being steerable via handlebars.2 The
position of the rider in relation to the wheels and pedals is fundamentally determined by the
standard shape of the adult human body, which is why the mechanical form has remained so
consistent.3 The bicycle is a fundamentally straightforward machine; the operation of the me-
chanical components and how they relate to each other can be studied in use (although it is
easiest if the bike is suspended on a stand and not actually moving). Most of the machine is
visible and its workings available for scrutiny a very few components, such as wheel, steering
and bottom bracket bearings are hidden from view (Dant forthcoming). The bicycle is uncom-
2 The safety bicycle, that originated in a number of designs around the 1880s, was able to compete with high
wheel bikes (that were fast, but not so safe) because of John Dunlop’s invention of the pneumatic tyre. We can
easily think of ways in which the safety bicycle has developed over that one hundred and forty plus years; gears
have taken on different forms (in the hub, in the bottom bracket, with a cassette and derailleur), handlebars have
taken a variety of shapes and although the diamond frame has remained dominant, other shapes exist. Perhaps
most importantly the materials of manufacture have changed with steel alloys, aluminium and carbon fibre bring-
ing down the overall weight of many bicycles quite significantly. But as a machine, the bicycle has remained
remarkably consistent in being a two wheeled vehicle, propelled by human energy through a drivetrain linked
through a chain.
3 There are of course variations: small-wheeled bicycles, recumbent bicycles and tricycles, cargo bikes and most
recently the e-bike using battery power to supplement human energy. Nonetheless, the vast majority of bicycles
ridden take the same safety-bicycle form and are very similar in the way they work.
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plicated compared to the motor car which has gears hidden inside a gearbox, suspension un-
derneath the bodywork, brakes hidden behind or even inside the wheels, engines enclosed in
metal casing and nowadays a host of electrical and electronic controls interacting with all the
mechanical components. The bicycle is straightforward to work on and its components very
light. Replacing a gearbox in a car requires the vehicle to be jacked up high enough for the it
to be wheeled underneath and then jacked up itself (or lifted by more than one person) until it
can be attached with difficult-to-get-at bolts (Dant 2010). The bicycle’s gear cassette fits easily
within a hand and is slid onto the freewheel hub with one threaded fixing albeit one that
requires a special tool.
The simplicity, consistency of mechanical design, visibility of operations and accessibility of
components makes the bicycle a relatively easy machine to maintain and repair. It requires
little skill, few tools and minimal space or time. And yet, many bicycle riders shy away from
engaging with the workings of the machine that gets them to work, to the shops or to a day in
the countryside. Repair still has a gendered quality; men are more likely to feel they should
have a go, women much less so. But plenty of men don’t want to get their hands dirty mending
a puncture or cleaning the accumulated grease and dirt off a drive train (Dant and Bowles
2003). The machinery of bicycles does have a limited life, and cheap components last for a
shorter time than good quality ones. The most expensive components (gears, brakes, wheels
and so on) are made to be light as well as strong, but mid-priced components are adequate for
all but the aspiring racer. The cheapest, poor quality components are usually unbranded, heav-
ier and produced for new budget-priced bicycles. These look much the same as more expensive
ones, but they are harder to ride, will wear more quickly and are more difficult to adjust and to
maintain. And because the cheap unbranded componentry is often made to be sold directly to
the bicycle manufacturer, it can be difficult to replace and standard components may not fit so
easily.
The reluctance of many bike owners to maintain their bicycles, combined with the purchase of
cheap bikes, mean that many are not used once they begin to require attention. They are left in
cellars, garages and sheds and sometimes outside in a yard. The owners may buy a new bike,
or they may just find other ways to get about. They may promise themselves that they will ‘do-
up’ that bike in the shed and get it back to the condition it was when they bought it. But it is a
daunting and unappealing task, so eventually they dispose of the bike. Some bikes will be given
to friends or family members but in any local council recycling centre, you will see discarded
bicycles. In 2018, the media reported how Chinese cities were impounding thousands of aban-
doned bikes that were clogging city streets, having been supplied by bike share schemes in
excess of demand (Taylor 2018). Bicycles with visible signs of rust and with major bits missing
are thrown into skips, but some – usually the better-quality bikes will have been picked out
by the recyclers at the centre as worth something. Another way of disposing of a bike is to give
it to a recycling project. Some of these projects are commercial, acquiring bikes for free (e.g.
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through police authorities, universities, train stations) that have been abandoned, and then re-
pairing them before selling them on. Such businesses may be ‘not-for-profit but use the in-
come to pay workers and cover expenses.4
The refugee project
City of Sanctuary is a British NGO that offers help to people fleeing violence and persecution.
They welcome and support asylum seekers and refugees who are temporarily rehoused in the
area. Asylum seekers and refugees are distributed throughout the country and throughout the
city; the policy is not to establish concentrations that might attract attention from those who do
not approve of them being supported and allowed to live in the UK. However, having the use
of a bicycle allows these precariously positioned people, who have very little money to visit
shops, to attend English classes and to visit each other. In some cases, bicycles are how their
children get to school.5
The bicycles
The project lends donated and repaired bicycles to these household groups of asylum seekers
and refugees. At the time of writing around 150 bicycles have been distributed, with more in
preparation. Bicycles are usually shared within a household of four or five people and are dif-
ficult to keep track of as they are lent between groups and sometimes taken away from the city.
The project began with bicycles donated by volunteers and friends linked to the City of Sanc-
tuary. The word circulated through voluntary and religious groups that there was a need for
more, and this has maintained a flow of bicycles into the project of different types; road bikes,
mountain bikes, hybrids, shopping bikes and children’s bikes. Early on there were a large num-
ber of single men who needed bikes and fewer single women, many of whom were inexperi-
enced riders. Later a project linked to the arrival of families led to a need for bicycles for
teenagers and young children.
The bikes being worked on were mainly between ten and twenty years old with componentry
that had been standard for the time of production. Most bikes that were donated were dirty and
had flat tyres. Many of the bikes were originally quite cheap and had not been maintained well
or at least, not recently. Bikes also came with worn brakes, frayed brake cable ends, poorly
adjusted gears, loose bearings and attachments for no longer working components (e.g. bike
lights, computers, reflectors, racks etc.). The dirt was sometimes covering up rust and some-
times was mixed with grease and oil, especially on chains and gear cogs. Some bicycles had
4 There are a variety of different arrangements for recycling unwanted bikes. Another model is Re-Cycle in the
UK and similar organisations that ship used and repaired bikes from the UK to African countries.
5 The bike project was set up to assist, and local volunteers sympathise with the plight of refugees relocated to
their communities and support the aims of the City of Sanctuary. There are similar schemes that have made what
they do public, operating in London (https://thebikeproject.co.uk/pages/about-us) Norwich
(https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-43058874) and Scotland (https://www.face-
book.com/BikesforRefugeesScotland/).
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damaged or missing essential components such as saddles, brake levers, pedals and so on. An
online spreadsheet was used to keep track of the bikes; where they were, the type of bike,
colour, frame number and notes on the work undertaken on them. Photos of the bikes were kept
in a shared file. The spreadsheet was also used to keep notes on repairs that needed doing and
expenditure on parts.
The repairers
The team of active repairers began with just a couple of people but grew a little to a core of
five with three or four others joining in or providing particular support (e.g. locating used parts)
on the periphery. The material interaction (Dant 2005) between individual repairers and their
own bicycles, meant they had self-taught to a certain level of skill and confidence, sometimes
over many years. Most had learnt techniques and procedures from family members, friends,
repair books and more recently from videos and articles on the internet much of such learning
was on a trial-and-error basis. Coming together in a group repair session to work on unfamiliar
bikes that would be used by other people, provided new opportunities for developing skills
through sharing experiences and advice. In a convivial social atmosphere, repairers asked each
other about techniques, tools and materials. Group members, would for example, discuss with
others whether a brake cable that had begun to corrode and so not move freely in its ‘outer’
sleeve could be cleaned and greased or whether it needed to be replaced. Tools, hand creams
and lubricants were shared along with techniques and informal checking of work. One member
of the group had experience of teaching bike maintenance and earning money from maintaining
and repairing bikes but the others wereamateurs’. Ages of group members varied from teens
to late sixties and this gave breadth of experience of different eras of bike engineering. Most
of the core repairers were male but one consistent repairer was a woman and a couple of other
women joined in repairing from time to time. Decisions about when to repair or when to scav-
enge useable parts and dispose of the remainder were usually made by two or three repairers.
One technology enabled another. A Facebook site was set up early on that linked the repairers
and some of the City of Sanctuary volunteers supporting asylum seekers and refugees. This
network of more than thirty people not only identified a particular need for bicycles, it also
organised donations. The Facebook site was used to arrange repair sessions where two or more
repairers got together to undertake repairs. The communication through Facebook was supple-
mented with emails, instant messaging and occasional phone calls. There was no hierarchy
amongst the project workers and no special roles although one person who had been a volunteer
in the parent support organisation tended to act as a ‘go-between with the households of asy-
lum seekers and refugees.
Social networks
There were three overlapping social networks: volunteers in the City of Sanctuary; bike repair-
ers; and asylum seekers and refugees. The networks overlapped as individuals from one group
interacted with individuals within another, but there were no occasions when the networks were
formally connected. The bicycles provided the principal link between them. City of Sanctuary
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volunteers offered donations of bikes, passed on requests for bikes or reported repairs that were
needed. Repairers sometimes visited households to deliver or repair bikes but often the bikes
moved between repairers and users via a store where users could also collect bike locks, hel-
mets and lights. A feature of this project was that the users were from overseas and many came
from cultures that did not routinely use bikes. A number of the users had to learn to ride a
bicycle for the first time and few had any experience of maintaining bikes. As the refugee
project progressed, it accessed some local authority funds to run sessions for small groups to
learn riding skills and bike maintenance.
Locations
Early repair sessions were held in a back yard where some bikes and bike parts had been col-
lected. Repairers also worked in spaces adjacent to their homes (garages, yards, cellars). The
advantage of this was that repairing bikes could be fitted around paid, domestic and other work
and personal tool sets were ready to hand. The cellar of a co-operative food shop was made
available for storing donated bikes waiting for repair and repaired bikes waiting to be collected
by users. Two members of the co-operative helped with handing over bikes and distributing
helmets, locks and lights. Later an old boat building shed, repaired by another community
group, was used for repair sessions and for storing bikes and used parts. This shed had other
uses, some of which required the removal of all the bikes, parts and tools. A second space
became available in a covered yard with a lockable cupboard and permanent bike stand but
here space, especially for storing bikes, was limited.
Material practices
The main focus was on getting bikes rideable and roadworthy and much of the repair work
undertaken in the project was routine and mundane; mending punctures, replacing brake shoes,
adjusting brakes, adjusting gears, lubricating moving parts and removing redundant fittings.
Tyres and tubes were often a source of problems because where a bike had been left resting on
flat tyres, the tyre walls were often damaged and the inner tubes were perishing. Although inner
tubes could be repaired and tyres pumped up, worn tyres and tubes that were vulnerable to
puncture meant that they failed soon after. Replacing spokes, truing wheels, repacking bearings
were tasks that came up occasionally but were not routine.
The repairers tended to use their own tools at home and bring them to joint sessions. Many
bike tools are specific (e.g. cone spanners, removal tools for cranks, freewheels, cassettes,
chain links) and using a bike stand makes working on a bike much easier. As the project pro-
gressed a bike stand and various tools, including specialist bike tools, were donated. Early in
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the project components such as inner tubes, spokes and brake pads were purchased as they
were needed. The parent project had some funding and was able to reimburse expenditure on
spare parts and on helmets, lights and locks for the riders. As the repair project developed it
built up a stock of recycled components from donated bikes that were no longer useable;
brakes, cranks, chainsets, handlebars, saddles and seatposts, cables, nuts, bolts, pedals and so
forth. These scavenged items were stored in plastic boxes so they could be used on other bikes.
The discarded frames rusty beyond use, bent or broken – were taken to the recycling centre
as were any discarded metal components.
Community bike workshops in Brussels
The collective repair of bicycles has seen a significant upsurge in western countries since the
1990s, when a new phenomenon, the ‘community bike workshop’, emerged. CBWs are a self-
help alternative to bike shops. Their origins included the Bikes not Bombs movement in
1970s USA, and various community ventures in Europe that had a strong social support focus
or an activist basis (Carlsson 2007). They are ‘do it yourself’ responses, a form of ‘urban com-
mons’ where people come to repair their bikes, source second-hand and scavenged parts, and
learn maintenance skills (Nixon and Schwanen 2018). Almost all are not-for-profits relying on
volunteers to assist the visitors to learn repair skills, though a few have paid staff, and they are
based in cheap or free premises. All try to contribute to sustainable transport through the trans-
mission of bike repair skills, although they have diverse political leanings. In France, this type
of skill acquisition is termed vélonomie, or the creation of a self-sufficient or autonomous bi-
cycle citizen capable of riding safely and keeping their own bike maintained. Workshops are
generally open to all, many having a fee structure (perhaps 10-20 euros a year membership or
pay-per-visit). Workshops are demand sideoperations increasing demand for cheap and
low-carbon emitting transportation regardless of the participantssocial status or identity, ra-
ther than 'supplying' new urban cycle lanes and infrastructure. They are therefore outside the
state, or sometimes against the state.
Interviews were conducted in Brussels, Belgium in community bike workshops and among
transport organisations for ten weeks in 2014-2015, posing questions about their mission, par-
ticipation, premises, and links to mainstream organisations (Batterbury and Vandermeersch
2016). Simon Batterbury researched and participated in workshops, as an outsider but as part
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of the first academic exploration of the operation and socioeconomic contributions of commu-
nity bike workshops worldwide.6 Brussels had 13 workshops operating in 2015 one closed
but the number had expanded to 19 by 2018. Workshops are not only a site for repair, but they
also house discussion and networking around cycling and bicycle use. The city's bike enthusi-
asts fight against pervasive automobility, in a city where cycling forms only 4% of the daily
traffic.
Brussels’s economic success coexists with social polarisation (Oosterlynck 2012). Some neigh-
bourhoods and households suffer a considerable level of disadvantage. The city is also a refuge
for many asylum seekers and immigrants without legal status, who frequent bike workshops.
Aside from skilled and often temporary expatriate workers, the city has substantial populations
of Italians, Spanish, Turkish, Moroccans and Congolese, some being descendants of guest
workers in manufacturing who came to Belgium in earlier decades. Bikes are an affordable
form of transport for many individuals across society.
Bikes and parts
In Brussels, bike workshops are relatively popular. Thestock’ bike circulating in the city is a
functional commuter bike, quite heavy and usually with gears to help with hilly terrain. Some
bikes were sourced from the local councils or donated by people in the vicinity, some from the
transient international population of Brussels. A particular feature was that several bike shops
were on good terms with the workshops and offered them crashed bikes, part-worn tyres, and
other components that they did not need. But there were occasionally shortages of spare parts
in workshops. New items like brake cables were purchased from the (usually limited) work-
shop funds. Used bikes were sometimes broken down and the parts classified and sorted into
receptacles. This is an essential feature of a workshop where members of the public are present
during repair sessions, and there is a high turnover of parts and a potential for confusion. Clas-
sification of parts certainly aids repair work although some workshops were neater than others.
Another reason to strip down and classify parts is because the workshops often have uncertain
tenure in their premises and could be forced to move. Tools stayed in the workshop and were
sourced secondhand, occasionally new, and sometimes from the numerous small community
grants available in the city, which has governance devolved down to 19 arondissements.
6 www.bikeworkshopsresearch.wordpress.com
258
The repairers
Workshops tend to be staffed by people who are largely cycling enthusiasts and community
development practitioners similar to the ‘refugee project in the UK. They, and the workshop
customers and their bikes, are all 'participants' in the unique social field/task group of the work-
shop, which combines camaraderie with practical actions and pedagogy. As one organiser says
of their workshop, “it’s a tiny village in the middle of the city(c’est un tout petit village au
milieu d’une ville). Because most workshop volunteers make their living in paid work or are
students, hours of operation can be limited, often to evenings and weekends.
Even in the world of volunteer-run community enterprises, a desire to tinker around with bikes
must be accompanied by basic management skills to connect the workshop to utilities, manage
keys, pay bills, order a few new spare parts at bulk prices, check that rosters have volunteers
(without which the workshop cannot open) and complete annual accounts if they are registered
as nonprofit organisations. This falls to the major workshop organisers (les responsables d’at-
eliers) and requires innovation on the job, since few have prior administrative experience (just
one had this training). There were also two semi-professionalised workshops with paid staff,
one with a subsidy from a university and both had 'stand fees' and higher costs for parts (Van-
dermeersch 2015). Volunteers, largely but not exclusively male, are key for directing citizen
and community engagement and the division of essential tasks like stripping down bikes to
create a stock of parts. Four workshops had written rules to which volunteers must adhere when
on the premises, concerning the handling of tools and dealing with clients. Formalised internal
policies are more common in North American bike workshops.
Among the 44 mechanics known to be volunteering in the 13 workshops in mid-2015, only one
was a paid bike shop mechanic beyond his workshop participation and five in total had full
training in bike repair. Some learned their mechanical skills in Points Vélos (repair stations in
the major train stations, run by the Belgian NGO, CyCLO). Some volunteers work across more
than one workshop. Even when they are worn thin, interviewees expressed a passion for being
a part of the workshop project; “I love working here: I’m in love with this workshop”, one said
(j’adore faire ça ici, cet atelier, je suis amoureux de cet atelier).
Those mechanics who regard the bike as an education tool operate rather like teachers. They
are patient with the customers, showing them how to do mechanical tasks, but they also expect
punctuality and confidence among the other volunteers. The idea is to teach, not to take over.
This skill is hard-won and one training exercise we heard about tied the volunteer mechanics'
259
hands lightly behind their backs, to force them to explain maintenance to customers, rather than
taking it over. In the community sector the skills and knowledge of those moved to participate
can be variable. Professionalism can be uneven among volunteers sticking with a tricky repair
(like assisting with rebuilding a wheel) or seeing a repair task through to completion can be
demanding. Brussels has a long tradition of countercultural protest and alternative politics
urban radicals congregate in bike workshops – particularly those opposing car culture. Because
of this image, and despite the diversity of reasons why workshop users visit them, members of
the public without much knowledge of transport politics may consider a workshop to be an
unwelcoming space. Social media can reinforce, or dispel, a radical image.
Very few women in Belgium are trained bike mechanics and Brussels is no exception. Women
are present in bike shops and Belgium's many competitive cycle teams, but workshops are not
equally staffed or patronised. There were three women mechanics in Brussels among 44 sur-
veyed by Inès Vandermeersch (2015). These three felt welcomed in their workshops, develop-
ing mechanical skills among a male-dominated fraternity. Among the workshop clients,
women are a minority too.7
Social networks
There was talk in Brussels of ‘scaling up’ and federating workshop activity. A broader coa-
lition of organisations aiming to get more people mechanically competent and onto bikes would
seem sensible. Workshop organisers are already active in broader pro-cycling initiatives. These
include the monthly Critical Mass rides (Masse Critique or Vélorution), the Clean Air BXL
anti-air pollution campaign,8 and Cyclehack BXL which is part of a global movement to enable
grassroots design solutions for problems facing urban cyclists.9 Bike workshops are seen as
practical spaces for addressing social problems too. They partner other community-minded
individuals and organisations. Nurturing key local contacts strengthens the capacity of each
workshop to temper disagreements stemming from sociocultural and age differences among
participants and users. In terms of wider links, the Cycloperativa workshop, in an Arab neigh-
bourhood, best illustrates the importance of developing and maintaining good relations with
7 32% of workshops visitors were women in a 2013 survey in French-speaking Belgium outside Brussels, where
there around 25 workshops, and this figure was 40% across French workshops in 2017 (Meixner 2017: 10).
8 http://www.cleanairbxl.be
9 http://CyclehackBXL.be
260
the community and its own social organisations.10 While the mechanics enjoy their participa-
tion in the workshop, it has a particular aim to actfor and with” (pour et avec) local people.11
Locations
As community-based nonprofits, true community workshops have very little money for prem-
ises. A few workshops globally, such as Working Bikes in Chicago and the Bicycle Kitchen/Bi-
cicocina in Los Angeles, own their building, but this is rare. Across Europe, workshops find
space in squatted or borrowed premises, in buildings awaiting planning permits for redevelop-
ment, or in spaces offered or subsidised by local or regional government. If there are genuine
commercial rents to meet, this means earning enough revenue to cover these costs, and the only
place to do this is through refurbishing and selling bikes, or charging for services. This can
conflict with the ‘repairmission of serving the local population in a particular neighbourhood
if that population is very low income.
Brussels workshops have major difficulties in securing premises on anything other than pre-
carious terms. Several, like Cycloperativa in Annessens, have an attachment to places (the
quartier) and people. However they were forced to move in 2015 and again in 2017. The stock
of tools, bikes, and work benches and stands were relocated each time by volunteers with cargo
bikes, first to a derelict shop and later to a unit with a local government subsidy. Such reloca-
tions are seen as part of the life of a workshop that serves a community while keeping costs
very low. One mechanic said thatto begin, and to maintain continuity, you must have a work-
shop, a place to work, in the neighbourhood. Without that it just isn’t possible”
(Vandermeersch 2015: 40). One of the most spacious workshops in Brussels is 123Velo, which
is situated on the ground floor of a squatted former government building with an intentional
community above it that supports and uses the workshop. It began as the effort of one individ-
ual in 2008 but has grown significantly over the last ten years. Its customers come from many
countries, with different racial backgrounds, and speak several languages.
A respondent whose workshop had been forced to move twice listed the negative repercussions
of working in temporary spaces: the chaos of moving, the loss of some local supporters and
visitors from the immediate locality and even some volunteers. But workshops operate very
differently from bike shops in this regard; they can get by with out-of-the way locations, and
10 http://cycloperativa.org
11 There are a number of directions in which these partnerships could expand; for example, linking with the 27
Brussels Repair Cafés (http://www.repairtogether.be, workshops to fix household items).
261
unattractive premises, as long as there is sufficient room to stage repair sessions and store a
stock of bikes and parts securely. Interviewees made it clear that to contribute to community
development and social cohesion, you must stay there, in the neighbourhood, or you lose sup-
port” (Il faut rester à la, à la mesure du quartier, aussi non on le perd). None of the workshops
sought better premises just to expand; the quest was for stability, not profile or position. Above
all, workshops want to remain accessible to the general public and in a building that makes this
possible.
Each workshop has its own feel, though there are common spatial elements across them. Aside
from stacks of junk bikes and some repaired for sale, there are working spaces and collections
of stripped down parts in tins, drawers and diverse receptacles. Tools are accessible and usually
available to visitors rather than jealously managed. The more established workshops have so-
fas, a fridge, and a place to make hot drinks. Electricity is necessary for evening activities.
Running water and some heating is desirable, but a full set of utilities is not required for the
limited opening hours that some workshops maintain. Several are wired for sound and internet.
Discussion
The two types of projects discussed in this chapter have key differences. In the refugee project
the bikes were repaired by volunteers and were effectively owned by the project. In the com-
munity bike workshops in contrast, the bikes were owned by individuals who undertook their
repair with the help of volunteers. Social interaction differed between repairers and users.
Nonetheless there were similarities between the projects.
Premises Appropriate buildings and their accessibility haunt the voluntary sector and bike
workshop activity in particular. Repair is materially located somewhere – while it can happen
in private locations this is isolating, and in Brussels, almost impossible in a city of small living
spaces and apartments. The workshops are a social space sometimes with luxuries like arm-
chairs and stereos. In both projects everything had to be moved from place to place when one
premises had to be exchanged for another. Also, access to water, light, heat and electricity were
limited and sometimes absent.
Social networks Communication and socialisation during the shared practice of repair lead
to new social bonds, friendship and mutual respect, as people get to know each other. In the
contexts we have described there were few skilled and trained individuals, so technique is
262
learned, and certainly improved, not through formal training or instruction but on the job, in
what Paul Richards (2010) calls the task group’. The task group is the loose network of vol-
unteers bringing their accumulated repair skills to the workshop and then sharing and develop-
ing them as a group, around repair. Once established, the network of repairers developed into
a new social group with its own shared interests and means of communication that then con-
nected with other groups and activities (bicycle users, other volunteer organisations, political
interests, leisure interests and so on) through the medium of the bicycle. Connections with
outside groups are sustained by the efforts of individuals and there are stratifications within the
repair group if decision-making is taken by aninner’ group rather than the occasional volun-
teers. And, of course, there can be occasional unpleasant behaviour, such as sexism, which
contradicts the shared ethos of helping others through bicycles.
Value A common feature of both projects was the absence of commercial valuation of the
work and the artefacts. Neither the work nor the material of the bicycle is paid for; exchange
of things and human effort is free’, in the monetary sense. While spare parts werescavenged
wherever possible from bikes deemed unrepairable and available for cannibalisation, some
parts do have to be purchased from ordinary outlets. The repairers in the refugee project used
contacts to get discounts from local shops and consumer skills in purchasing parts on-line for
the best price. The community bike workshops collaborated in acquiring and sharing some
spare parts. In the refugee project, a small number of donated bicycles were sold on the second-
hand market when it was agreed by the team (with the consent of the previous owner) that the
bike was not suitable for use by refugees or asylum seekers. The money made from these trans-
actions was recycled into the purchase of spare parts (e.g. brake shoes, cables, inner tubes).
The repairers were keenly aware that selling bicycles was a deviation from the core aims and
values of their group. Hence, the social activity and the material exchange of this type of repair
activity largely took place outside the circuits of the conventional capitalist economy. The work
and the material performance of the repaired bicycle is valued by individuals in terms of pleas-
ure in riding and in being able to use the bicycle for transport. This valuation is expressed back
into the repair network in terms of thanks and appreciation.
Skills The repairers in both projects enjoyed the deployment of their repair skills; demon-
strating know-how and applying it to achieverideability was a satisfaction in itself. The ma-
terial interaction the meaningful interaction between the repairer and the material stuff of the
bicycle, tools and components provides this satisfaction and pleasure to varying degrees. But,
263
the social interaction in both projects enhanced the experience of volunteers as well as their
skills and capacity, working together, sharing skills and techniques, demonstrating, discussing
and comparing enhanced learning, and getting pleasure from the experience (Richards 2010).
In the refugee project the amateurs enjoyed coming together in repair sessions and the commu-
nity bike workshops brought novices and experienced volunteers together. Coming across dif-
ficult or unusual repairs provided a challenge and an opportunity for sharing skills. For exam-
ple, in the refugee project a bike with a missing seatpost had been damaged by a previous
owner trying to insert one of the wrong size. A collaborative effort by three repairers using
different techniques and ‘bricolage’ with adapted tools succeeded in reshaping the downtube
enough to enable a correct sized seatpost and collar to be fitted.
Conclusions
Our autoethnography and participant-observation of bicycle repair reveals some new, and some
well-worn insights about social engagement with technology. While technology involves arte-
facts (tools, machines, and processes), it also involves technique – “knowing how to do some-
thing” (Richards 2010: 1). This is knowledge of a process or thing, applied in practice rather
than as abstract or systematic knowledge. None of the repairers we encountered had been for-
mally taught how to undertake repair work on bicycles, except for a tiny number of trained
mechanics volunteering their time in Brussels. Rather, individuals were self-taught through
pragmatic interaction and experimentation with bicycles that needed attention (Dant 2008). In
Belgium, the workshop volunteers promote vélonomie, while also socialising among, and on,
a bicycle as an artefact participating in festivals, operating drop-in sessions, mobile fixing
workshops, and fundraisers. The volunteers aim to enlarge the social field, to grow the number
of bike riders through gaining skills and enthusiasm, thereby creating a cleaner and less pol-
luted city. The bicycle also has symbolic value; one wedding took place on bikes and there is
participation in Critical Mass, selling posters and t-shirts, and occasional media work. The
intention of repair differs in the refugee project and is lower-key; there is (as yet) little training
of ‘users(or riders) in bike repair. But for the participants, there is the same sharing and learn-
ing of skills a similar relation between user and artefact.
264
What was characteristic of the repair work undertaken in both the refugee project and the com-
munity bike workshops was the imperative of responsibility’. Accounting for our material
lives and taking responsibility for the things we possess and use, is part of Jonas’s revision of
Kant’s categorical imperative to give a new moral injunction that underlies being human. All
the repairers we talked with or worked with were motivated not by financial reward but by a
feeling of responsibility towards those who were less fortunate than themselves, perhaps
through being displaced from their home country, perhaps through poverty or social exclusion.
The work of repair enabled the repairers to help sustain those other lives through a technology,
the bicycle, that itself is a mechanised, sustainable means of transport.
265
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... They are, therefore, agents in the circular economy. Some secondhand bikes may be sold to support the workshop (to meet its ongoing costs and pay for oftenprecarious premises), but their ethos is largely not-for-profit (Batterbury and Dant 2019). Workshops exist in the liminal space of the alternative economy: they vary from highly organized and rule-driven, to cooperatively managed along consensus or anarchist principles (Batterbury and Dant 2019). ...
... Some secondhand bikes may be sold to support the workshop (to meet its ongoing costs and pay for oftenprecarious premises), but their ethos is largely not-for-profit (Batterbury and Dant 2019). Workshops exist in the liminal space of the alternative economy: they vary from highly organized and rule-driven, to cooperatively managed along consensus or anarchist principles (Batterbury and Dant 2019). In some countries, particularly in France, workshops have become a social movement, with structure and collective purpose. ...
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... Bicycles require regular maintenance and occasional repair, which not only enhances the mobility of the user, but also (re-)engages them with its materiality and utility, reinforcing the practice of cycling. Beyond the direct material impact, repair counters the tendency of advanced industrialised societies towards consuming new replacement goods rather than repairing the broken (Batterbury and Dant 2019). Whilst this applies to many consumer goods, the bicycle is a good which makes apparent how consumption practices cannot be restricted to market exchange but has to be viewed in the context of various spheres of everyday life (Warde 2005): In 2018, in England, cycling accounted for only 1.7% of all trips (numbers are lower for Scotland and Northern Ireland), a figure that has hardly changed for at least 17 years (Cycling UK 2019). ...
... Repair and maintenance initiatives can fill this gap. They do not only keep goods alive, but build user skills, knowledge and confidence, contributing towards the accounting for our material lives and taking responsibility for the things we possess and use (Batterbury and Dant 2019). In this way, they serve a double purpose for sustainability: they are of social benefit as they support people in connecting deeper with the goods they own, as well as being environmentally advantageous, extending the lifetime of goods and saving energy and raw materials needed to replace them. ...
... For example, in the city of Melbourne we are aware that organizations such as Cultivating Community (see Cultivating Community 2021) which provide and support community gardens in public housing estates pivoted to providing fresh food packs to residents during the pandemic (Christensen and Buckley 2020). Similarly, programs such as the bicycle shed at CERES, a communityenvironment park in Melbourne (The Bike Shed 2021), offered affordable recycled bicycles and prior to the COVID-induced lockdowns provided opportunities for people to learn skills in fixing and maintaining bicycles which has the potential to reduce consumption (Batterbury and Dant 2019). As identified in practice theory, access to materials and infrastructure is critical for the take up and continuation of social practices (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012). ...
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