The Bicycle Commons is a not-for-profit (NFP) initiative that grew out of a volunteer-based pilot project for St. James Town and Regent Park youth in 2010. During the course of the pilot, the founding volunteers became increasingly aware of the limited capacity of NFP cycling and community organizations to accommodate the overwhelming demand for programming. They also became increasingly aware of the economic and geographical obstacles that often make it difficult to access NFP cycling organizations.
The Bicycle Commons was formed at the end of 2010 with a mandate to build greater capacity in the cycling community, to facilitate community educational programs and to develop community outreach with participating organizations allowing them to leverage their combined resources. The focus is on bicycles since they are one of the best engagement tools imaginable helping transcend age, gender, cultural and economic differences.
Tamara Wise was introduced to The Bicycle Commons through a collaborative initiative with BikeSauce, where she has been a member/volunteer for the last couple of years. “The Commons and ‘Sauce have a very close relationship, with the founders of The Bicycle Commons providing startup resources for ‘Sauce, and in return sharing a well-trained volunteer base. After I began wrenching at their community bicycle clinics this spring, I realized that the Commons was a great fit for me and recently stepped into the role of Volunteer Coordinator,” she explains.
Although the outreach tends to be geared toward youth, and in particular disadvantaged or underprivileged youth, Wise admits, “The Bicycle Commons defines youth very broadly, but generally focuses on those between twelve and twenty-eight.” She also mentions that their intake process is only limited to name, age and reliable emergency contact information, as they regard any form of means-testing to be an additional psychological barrier for those already dealing with disparity.
The group is constantly expanding their capacity to provide free expertise and flexible equipment packages to other organizations that wish to conduct cycling education programs, bicycle clinics and host related events. Two recent examples include providing tools to allow Charlie’s Freewheels to expand their summer youth programs in Regent Park as well as providing a broader support package for Pathways to Education / Unison to establish youth bicycle programs in the Lawrence Heights and Neptune communities.
“Perhaps my personal highlight of this year is our ability to commit ongoing sponsorship to the Harm Reduction Outreach Program at the Queen West Community Health Centre by providing new bicycles, trailers, equipment, clothing and maintenance capability,” Wise divulges.
The Bicycle Commons currently has private funding in place, with an agreement goal of sustainable operation within two years. “We have avoided applying for grants, preferring to build sustainable partnerships rather than become enmeshed in the same cycle of dependency we council our youth to avoid. Obviously, this policy causes some challenges and requires creative solutions to maintain programming,” Wise points out.
At present, they're focusing a lot of energy on developing a sustainable social enterprise model. Recently, they accepted an offer from Orontas to globally distribute their line of environmentally sensitive Bike Care products to not-for-profits. Community-based not-for-profits are often precluded from traditional distribution channels, and generally make smaller individual orders than commercial enterprises. By sourcing and distributing ethically produced products to NFPs the organization hopes to increase their access and build a sustainable economic foundation for their collaborative community programs.
In terms of partnerships, one of the greatest to date has been with Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). Wise explains, “We are the beneficiary of a very close relationship with Mountain Equipment Co-op, with whom we develop and share educational and outreach programming. MEC staff provide many of our core volunteers and generously share their expertise in sustainable practices.” Some of the many other organizations with whom they collaborate are BikeSauce, ThinkFirst, My First Wheels, Community Bicycle Network, Toronto Cyclists Union, Recipe for Community, Tower Renewal, Toronto Community Foundation, and the Learning Enrichment Foundation’s Bicycle Assembly & Maintenance (BAM) program.
“Our plan is to focus our resources on community outreach initiatives such as our free community bicycle clinics through this summer. These outreach programs allow us to build stronger partnerships and with experience, define the next stage of our programming. We are members of ING’s Network Orange and use their social innovation space for conferences as well as staff and volunteer training,” Wise advises. “Our community programs and clinics are operated without cost to participants. We underwrote the entire cost of our recent spring semester BAM pilot at the Toronto District School Board’s Alpha Alternative Secondary,” she proudly confirms. Wise mentioned they also receive tremendous support from community centres in their targeted neighbourhoods.
Volunteer members of The Bicycle Commons come from all parts of the city and are often involved with community groups in their own neighbourhoods. Once onboard they are expected to initiate and lead programming in the communities they know best. They will have the privilege of learning from youth and seeing the results of growing confidence as new skills develop. The organization also encourages youth participants to re-engage by volunteering to hone and teach their newfound knowledge. Depending on the program, there are often qualified educators available for assistance and advice. The staff and many of the volunteers come from teaching and social work backgrounds, in addition to maintaining a passion for cycling. They are presently run and staffed exclusively by volunteers, with educators and mechanics sometimes receiving honorariums.
Recently The Bicycle Commons was given a seat on the Toronto Cycling Advisory Committee (TCAC), which has been spearheaded by Councillor Mike Layton. Committee members come from a cross-section of Toronto's cycling organizations, such as the Toronto Cyclist Union, Culturelink and University of Toronto’s Bikechain. TCAC will meet several times a year to discuss collective data and opinions gathered through working on cycling's front line. Councilor Layton can then present this information at City Council meetings, and hopefully affect the decisions Council makes in regards to cycling in Toronto.