A green box of a trailer attached to a purple bike rolls through a neighborhood in Camden, N.J., on a hot summer morning. It’s only 11 a.m., but the sun is already at full strength.
Akram Abed, manager for RTC’s Camden office, is the pilot of this craft, but he doesn’t act alone. He’s got a team in tow, and their mission is to fix bikes and connect with the neighborhoods throughout the city of Camden. The team opens the trailer filled with tools, sets up their bike stands and lays out fresh fruit for patrons in anticipation of their arrival. Now, they are ready to crank out repairs.
The first people to approach are typically kids, who mistake the green pop-up trailer for the ice cream man. When the repair team tells them that it’s not ice cream, but bike repairs, that are on the menu, they’re rarely disappointed.
“Their eyes get big, and they say, ‘Oh! I got a bike in my basement! I’ll be right back!’” says Jackey Melton, an intern for the Student Conservation Association and one of the organizers for the pop-up bike clinics. “It’s like we’re inviting them to come play. They come running back with their bikes: broken, twisted, rusty, whatever.”
According to Melton, grandmothers often come out with all their grandkids in tow. “They’ll have four or five broken bikes with them,” says Melton. “It’s like a broken bike is contagious!” Of course, everybody is welcome; as the repair team fixes the bikes, they are in turn treated to stories and discussion about the local neighborhoods from their patrons. It’s a win-win.
Over the course of the two years that the pop-up bike clinics have been in action, the repair team has fixed more than 600 bicycles and interacted with every pocket of the Camden community. The idea for the pop-ups came from Abed’s experiences leading community bike rides, during which he’d invite kids in the neighborhoods along the routes to join in.
“We’d invite them to join us, but most of the time, their reactions were, ‘I have a bike but it’s broken,’” says Abed. “The bikes exist, but they are out of commission.”
According to Abed, to get their bikes repaired, Camden residents have to go into Philadelphia or out to the suburbs, and those are not options for a lot of people. But thanks to the pop-up bike clinics, the repairs can be done in their own neighborhoods. And what makes the setup even better? It’s free of charge.
The program is possible because of a grant from the Campbell Soup Foundation, which has called Camden home for generations. In addition, two bike shops, Erlton Bike Shop and Danzeisen and Quigley, have contributed their support, expertise and supplies at reduced costs for the pop-up clinics.
There isn’t much that the bike-repair dream-team can’t handle, but that’s not to say that it’s always smooth sailing. In fact, sometimes the biggest barriers are unrelated to bikes. For example, some neighborhoods have large populations of non-English speaking residents, presenting a language barrier to the repair team. But Melton is quick to point out that the team—dedicated always to the community—do their best to bring all bikes into tip-top shape.
She recounts a story of one such case on a stifling summer day. Through a lot of non-verbal communication, the mechanics were able to properly identify the issues plaguing a non-English speaking gentleman’s bike, as well as fix it up and show him how to do simple repairs. When his bike was fixed, he rode away—but then came back shortly after with a huge bottle of ginger ale for the pop-up crew.
“He really appreciated what we had done for him,” Melton says. “Even though we couldn’t really speak that well to each other, he was like, ‘You did something great for me, and I want to do something nice for you.’”
The pop-up bike clinics are engaging the community in a fun and practical way, and the impact goes beyond a simple bike tune-up. Abed always returns to each neighborhood a few days later and leads a bike ride around the area—along local streets and a nearby trail. It’s a way for people to try out their newly repaired bikes and see their own neighborhood in a new way. It is a way to discover what is in their backyard, Abed explains.
And after a ride on a trail, he’s often told by his participants that before the ride, they had no idea where the trail went or “how cool the trail is.”
“Riders are pleased with how safe it is on the trails, and how it feels like they’ve escaped the city, despite being only blocks away from their homes,” says Abed.
Indeed, for many members of the community, the pop-up clinics are less about fixing a bike, and more about changing the way that they perceive mobility. Paired with community rides, the pop-up clinics transform bicycles from toys to tools, offering a new independence and a lens through which to explore their community. And what’s the best part of the pop-up clinics for the repair team?
For volunteer mechanic Will Wooden, it’s the interactions with the clinics’ youngest clientele that are the true highlight. “Working with the kids is cool for me,” Wooden affirms. “They’re saying thank you; they are riding their bikes around. It feels good, you know?”
Juan Rodgers, another volunteer mechanic, says that learning new skills, the kids, and the love of bike riding are the three reasons that keep him coming back week after week. His basic understanding of bike maintenance has been transformed into a much higher level of expertise, and he’s able to transfer his knowledge to others immediately, putting the tools into the hands of those in the neighborhood.
And for Melton, the biggest payoff is being part of something greater than herself. “You become a really important part of the community,” she explains. “You might fix somebody’s bike one weekend…and see them on the other side of town the next weekend, riding their bike. They recognize you, and say, ‘Hey! You got me rolling again!’ It puts a smile on your face.”
She continues, “In the process of rebuilding that bike, you’re rebuilding the community. You’re bringing people together; you’re teaching them new skills. It really feels like we’re making these neighborhoods better places just by showing people that they can do this themselves; they can find a way to get around. And that’s really empowering.”