Community Bikes: DIY Skills, Tools and Community Empowerment

By Community Bikes Founders Sammy Nasr and Portia Sinnott, Sonoma County, CA.

In the year 2003, a group of us who had been meeting to support each other in lowering our transportation footprints opened Community Bikes in Santa Rosa, California. We wanted to promote bicycles as the preferred choice of transportation and lessen the need for fossil-fueled cars.

We started by forming a 501(c)(3) non-profit. From there, we gathered bicycles and parts through word of mouth. There was, and is, a glut of used bicycles; all we have to do is ask. Most come from individuals interested in finding good homes for previously treasured belongings; few are interested in tax deductions. Others come through police departments, cities, bus companies, and more. 

The early days of Community Bikes. This bike wagon is made of 6 bike frames welded together.

We managed to find a fairly large decent space for the shop, and as word spread, along came bicycle enthusiasts and other volunteers, some who had been, or are still are, professional bike mechanics. We were lucky that some were retired and had the time and skills to volunteer. Several brought tools while others built shelves and bins for parts. It was an organic process. Soon we had refurbished bicycles and parts to sell at low cost to pay our overhead. We successfully advertised on Craigslist and less successfully via local outlets, though media stories did get us some great coverage. 

At first, we accepted any bike, but as they filled up our space we had to become more discerning. Think about it – it takes just as long to fix a junky bike as a quality bike, which performs better and lasts longer. Working with local agencies, every year we give hundreds of bikes to low income and unsheltered people and individuals impacted by the wildfires that had engulfed our region. Some were sent via Bicycles For Humanity to communities in less-industrialized countries. Later we questioned how “green” it was to ship bikes all over the world, and decided to stick to using them locally. 

Community Bikes volunteers deliver a donation of bikes to be given away at a local school event.

Volunteers of all ages and skill levels played the biggest role in our growth and popularity. As a non-profit, the atmosphere at Community Bikes is fun and relaxed. With that said, managing volunteers can be challenging, for example, in the case of court-appointed volunteers who often just want to put in their service hours and never come back. Personality conflicts are another challenge that usually either work out over time, or someone leaves.

We spread the drive-less / bike-more concept by participating in local festivals, college events and bike rodeos, and also by networking with other bike shops. Over the years we have held a variety of repair classes, fun bike events and other happenings including all age live music performances organized by young volunteers. Working closely with the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and the Santa Rosa Cycling Club as well as a very long list of local environmental and social service groups, our impact is substantive. 

Community Bikes Shop Manager Michael Teller teaching campers about bikes at Earth Kid’s Camp, Laguna Farms, Sebastopol, CA.

Early on we found it important for the sake of continuity and reliability to hire a shop manager. As the shop has grown in popularity, we have hired mechanics to keep up with the demand.

We are currently unsure about the future management. We tried to envision a ‘worker-operated’ structure but our very competent staff has little desire to be the visionary driving force that we, the aging founders are. Ideally, a strong and active Board of Directors can help. Recruiting local activists as advisors will bring more direction. There is always room to reach more people, especially women and underserved communities.

As it stands now, seventeen years later, the shop runs itself with regular staff and hours. COVID-19 has been a challenge and we are very strictly following restrictions. We are never short of donated bicycles as well as people looking to buy a reasonably priced bike. Other than Craigslist, we do not advertise, yet we continue to be financially stable. Community Bikes has become an institution in our community: well known, appreciated and respected. We are very thankful for all the support we have received.

We believe every medium-sized community should have a community bike reuse and repair center like Community Bikes. If you are interested in resources for starting a not-for-profit bike shop in your community please carefully mine our websites and then contact our Executive Director, Portia Sinnott.

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