Brooklyn's Bamboo Bikes
A community of people came together last year united by a common goal: to see if we could build our own bicycles out of bamboo. Different interests brought us together: the engineer and mastermind with a penchant for building things, the long-distance cyclist with a love of plants, the founder of New York's first bike messenger co-operative, the freelance writer with a flair for marketing, and myself—knowing nothing about building bikes to begin with, but as a jewelry maker, loving the craftsmanship dynamic.
It became clear that bamboo bikes could solve two very different problems, in two very different worlds. The first is in the U.S., where our lives are saturated with material goods, but insulated from the impacts of their production. Who made your new iPhone, and how did they do it? What materials did they use, and what is the environmental toll? Few people think about these things; our society doesn't make us.
The other problem is in the developing world, especially in countries throughout Africa, where people rely on bicycles as a primary form of transportation—but where the bicycles they buy are Chinese imports modeled on bikes used for smooth-road leisure riding. We started thinking about the possibility of people building their own bikes, more suited for use on rough roads, using locally grown bamboo. Instead of supporting Chinese industry, these workers could invest their earnings into their own communities, building them from the ground up.
The Bamboo Bike Studio was born, and is thriving today in Red Hook, Brooklyn where local DIY culture is alive and well. We had our first series of lessons throughout the summer: students come for a weekend, and walk away at the end of it with a bamboo bicycle that they built themselves. Our students have ranged from experienced cabinet makers to elementary school teachers; we've taught people who love working with their hands, and others who can't believe that they are. With every bike that leaves our workshop, we see a person who has made something to be proud of, something useful that he or she worked hard to create.
At the same time, in conjunction with Columbia University's Bamboo Bike Project, bamboo bicycle prototypes have already been sent abroad to Millenium Village cities in Ghana and Kenya. The feedback has been very promising, and we plan to allocate fifty percent of profits to help our technology be taken overseas.
Justine Simon wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Justine lives in Brooklyn, where she researches and writes about issues relating to global industrial food systems. Lured to Red Hook by the promise of cheaper rents, Justine has gotten used to the lack of subway access there and now relies happily on her bamboo bike to get around.
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