“We noticed people were walking three hours to come to us, to see friends, to go to college, to do voluntary work,” says James Lucas, co-founder of the Bristol Bike Project. “It can take it out of you if you are doing that every day. If you are used to just having money for a bus, or you have a car or are used to having your own bike, you can take that mobility for granted.”
The not-for-profit cooperative’s Earn-a-Bike programme has been repairing abandoned or unwanted bicycles for the most vulnerable members of society for 10 years. Now, though, the project faces an existential threat. The owner of the 1970s office block Hamilton House in Stokes Cross, where it has been based since the beginning, has issued it with notice.
Left: Vicky, who credits the bike project with helping her turn her life around
“It’s generally people with long-term physical or mental health issues, people who are long-term unemployed, it can be people in recovery programmes, people who are homeless and living in sheltered housing,” says community coordinator Krysia Williams. “There is an endless number of reasons why people might come to us. We take it on trust whether people think they are eligible for our programmes.”
Vicky was referred to the Bristol Bike Project through one of 50 local organisations. She moved to Bristol this year and says the project helped her find a new network of friends after years of social isolation, struggling with PTSD and living in sheltered housing for recovering drug users.
“I wouldn’t have been able to go to the Recovery Toolkit [a programme for people with experience of domestic abuse] without it,” she says. “There wasn’t a bus [that went] there. Cycling there was just great mental and physical health exercise. The bike was the one thing that saved me.
The project teaches bike maintenance skills as a way of empowering participants
“For the first time in many years I wanted to be around people. The bike is my only means of getting around. My life has improved so much for the better. I used to wake up and think, ‘oh my god I can’t believe I’m conscious again’. I never thought I could have the feeling that I do now.”
The work is made possible by donations from the public. The project receives more than 100 bikes a month, many of which have sat unused in sheds or garages for years. Others come from places such as train stations and student accommodation that send abandoned bikes to the project. Profits from a workshop that services and repairs bikes for the public subsidise the community work.
Left: Esam, a Kurdish asylum seeker who has lived in Bristol since 2007
Rather than simply being given a fully repaired machine, “earn-a-bikers” attend a three-hour session to refurbish a donated bike and help carry out final maintenance checks – the idea being that learning to look after a bike is more empowering than simply being given one.
If recipients subsequently encounter issues that are more than they can deal with, they can return to the workshop to carry out any subsequent maintenance as part of the project’s DIT (do it together) ethos. Recovering alcoholic Lee describes it as a “lifetime guarantee”. “This is the only transport that I have,” says Mohammed, an Algerian asylum seeker. “I need it to go to college and improve my English. I can’t get anywhere without it.”
Co-founder Lucas says he often hears people who are struggling with drug addiction say that riding a bike helps them avoid temptation: “They are able to cycle past the places where they would normally stop and get sucked into a world that they don’t want to be in any more. Having a bike is your vehicle for getting out of that place.”
Parents say their children use the bikes given to them by the project every day
Williams says bikes have become even more crucial to the city’s asylum seekers since the location where they have to sign in was moved from the city centre to a location eight miles away: “We were noticing people were either struggling to afford the bus – which takes up most of the allowance [they] receive from the government – or they were walking the 16 miles. Others were missing appointments … [which] jeopardises their asylum claim. A bicycle is a quick, amazing easy solution.”
Esam is a Kurdish asylum seeker from Iraq who has been living in Bristol since 2007 while he awaits a decision on whether he can remain. “Bristol Bike Project has become like a village for me,” he says, “a society. I’ve been adopted.”
Abdul says his three daughters have all received bikes that they ride for eight miles a day to school and back, and to visit family and friends. “We don’t look at these bikes as used bikes,” he says. “I don’t think that’s crossed the girls’ minds. The bike does its job and we appreciate it.”
Both Lee (left), a recovering alcoholic, and Soad Soad, a refugee originally from Kuwait, have expressed their gratitude to the project
But the Bristol Bike Project fears its work is under threat and says it has been operating with just a month’s notice to vacate for two years. Hamilton House owner Connolly & Callaghan has been seeking planning permission since 2017 to change the use of the building. In December 2018 the social enterprise Coexist, which had managed the tenancies of Hamilton House for a decade, was evicted along with hundreds of artists and community ventures.
Connolly & Callaghan has tried repeatedly to get permission to turn part of the building into apartments, but in July the proposals were once again rejected by Bristol city council. The developer now says it is planning “further improvements”, but the building’s remaining tenants do not know what the long-term future holds.
“It’s a long time to have that constant threat over you in your head,” says Williams. “We’ve had to put a lot of staff and volunteer energy into preparing for it. I think us staying in this area is going to be nigh-on impossible.”
A mural near the project
However, the team remain determined to find ways to grow and continue to serve the community. “It’s a bike project but it’s really a people project,” says Williams. “With people’s support we will find somewhere. We will be paying a lot more than we do here but maybe we can reach out to new communities as well. If we can do that without losing the people we are already working with then great.”
Member and workshop volunteer Debbie says the project runs on the willpower of its volunteers and workers. “People care about it. When you’ve got the power of people you can surmount a lot more problems than if you are just being paid to do a job.”