Spreading goodwill, spoke by spoke
Last year, Lorne Applebaum GS saw a flyer on campus for a bike co-op that led him to a tiny room in the basement of Forbes College. One year later, Applebaum is a volunteer with the co-op, since renamed Cyclab, which has become a spot for students and community members to share their knowledge of and enthusiasm for the bicycle.
Cyclab, located at 130 University Place, is a do-it-yourself community repair shop. “It’s a place where everyone has access to the tools, the space and the knowledge that’s necessary for bicycle repair, whether someone’s never held a wrench, or that person is a total expert and knows everything,” explained Sean Gleason ’09, who oversees Cyclab.
Gleason was involved in the bike co-op and the U-Bikes program as an undergraduate, and after graduating he was hired by the University to lead the expansion of both programs. “My goal here is to get them set up and organized and systematized enough to the point where anyone else can come in and keep them going,” he said.
The partnership with U-Bikes was the primary reason Cyclab was able to grow. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” he explained. “Without U-Bikes, there wouldn’t be enough clout in the bicycle programs for us to get such a beautiful space and enough funding. U-Bikes needs the Cyclab because when it’s time to repair or refurbish the bikes, it’s the Cyclab’s staff that puts in the time to do that.”
Cyclab is entirely staffed by volunteers. Most of the staff are University undergraduates and graduate students, but some members of the local community volunteer as well. Every Wednesday evening and Sunday afternoon, at least two volunteers are on hand to help people acquire the skills they need to repair their bicycles.
“It’s about interacting on a level where everyone’s willing to assist anyone else, and people shouldn’t be coming in with any inhibitions or be too nervous to try something out,” Gleason explained. “It’s this amazing space where you’re having fun working stuff out, and for a lot of people, the action of doing that is like brain exercise and meditation combined.”
Most volunteer mechanics learned on the job. “A lot of people are currently intimidated by the idea that they need to know everything about how to fix a bike,” Applebaum said. “But if they spend one day, they’ll know the basics and pick up more as they spend more time on it.”
In addition to offering bike repair services, the group plans to host repair workshops, group rides and bike parties.
Will Fisher ’10, co-founder of U-Bikes, explained that promoting sustainability is an important component of both programs, which are partly funded by a grant from the High Meadows Foundation through the University’s Office of Sustainability. “We want students to get to know bicycling so that, when they go home, they’ll decide to bike to their friend’s house a mile away instead of driving that distance,” he said.
Gleason also wants to connect with groups that usually aren’t the focus of sustainability programs. “I think one of those communities is the people who live in town, who are mostly Hispanic, many of whom utilize the bicycle for completely utilitarian purposes,” he explained, “not because they’re some sort of anarcho-hippie-dreamer like me who says the bicycle can save the world, but because the bike’s what they have to get them to their job.”
To reach out, Gleason said he plans to host basic maintenance, repair and safety workshops in both Spanish and English.
Volunteers said the co-op is a way for different groups to connect through a shared interest. “Our goal is to be not just an asset to the University, but to the larger Princeton community,” Kevin Loutherback GS said.
“We have the tools, we have the space, we have the knowledge. Let’s open it up and create a place where anyone can come,” Gleason said. “The idea is just reaching out and getting the knowledge and practices out there.”