Back Alley Bikes: Spreading the Wealth of Two Wheels

Posted 11/13/13 by Jason Fiedler in Trail Use

Photo © Back Alley Bikes

When we asked the people of Michigan to tell us about some of the under-heralded champions doing great work to promote biking in the state, many of them passionately sang the praises of Detroit's Back Alley Bikes.

Back Alley Bikes is Detroit's longest running earn-a-bike program for young people, which not only helps kids access wheels for transportation and fun but also teaches them life and career skills and provides a critical space for socializing and support. In short, Back Alley Bikes is inspirational and vital.

As part of RTC's Michigan month all this November, we asked Back Alley Bikes program director, Jason Fiedler, to tell us a little about their work, and what the simple act of riding a bike means to young people in Detroit.

Back Alley Bikes takes in wayward bicycles looking for a home. We then use these bikes to teach young people aged 10 to 17 how to understand and repair bikes. We get kids off the streets and working with their hands in our workshop. Once they build a bike, we do our best to get them out and riding as often as possible.

Bike shops like ours are important for Detroit, and cities around the world, for a number of reasons.

Not only does bike riding have physical health benefits, but also mental health benefits. In a world where cyber bullying is a real problem, we provide a space where kids interact with each other, and where we all

Photo © Back Alley Bikes

have worth. In 2013, we had more than 30 young people ride with us in the summer for a total of more than 600 miles.

For most of our young people, a bike is their only chance for an independent means of mobility. Our city has poor public transportation, so for people without a driver's license, a bike is the answer. Without a means of transportation, young people are trapped in their neighborhoods and often isolated inside the house. A vibrant neighborhood has young people outside as part of the community. In 2012 alone, our programs got more than 500 young Detroiters onto bikes.

Each year we hire a small number of young people that we train to be bike mechanics. Over the past few years we have provided a number of people with their first job, from which they then went on to get other jobs at bike shops in the area. Riding is an activity with many benefits for society, including the jobs it takes to sustain such a community. We provide jobs and training for at least four high school-aged kids each year.

By repairing used bicycles we expose young people to the concept of reuse. By teaching bicycle mechanics we challenge them to oppose the idea of a disposable culture: Don't ditch it, fix it! Each year we keep about 1,000 bicycles out of landfills.

Back Alley Bikes also provides a mechanics class for adults to increase the mechanical knowledge in our community. For the most part, broken bikes are bikes not being ridden. By giving cyclists mechanical knowledge, we empower them to keep their ride going. Many folks are confident going on longer rides, or even touring, knowing they can fix their bike themselves.

Not everyone desires to be a bike mechanic, though. So in 2008 we opened a retail shop called The Hub of Detroit. The Hub provides retail service in a neighborhood that was previously without a single bike shop. Since 2008, we've seen more and more bike shops open up. As we've seen, broken bikes aren't going to be ridden, so having a bike shop in the neighborhood means more people riding more often.

In the five years I've been involved with bike education here in Detroit, I've seen empty buildings turn into bike shops and empty streets turn into places for bicycles. These are places where people can begin to thrive.

Learn more about Back Alley Bikes, including their plans for the 2nd annual Bike The Blizzard in January 2014, at

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