Yale students who are looking to shorten their transit time between classes but are not ready to fork over hundreds of dollars to one of New Haven’s traditional bicycle shops may have a new option, thanks to Cris Shirley ’10: trading labor or a small amount of cash for a used bike from the New Haven Bike Collective.
Customers can pay for a used bike, trade in an old bike, learn how to fix their own or donate labor by fixing bikes or even helping to design the Collective’s Web site.
“Anything … you can do with us can be an exchange of labor,” Shirley said.
Shirley, a native of Raleigh, N.C., said he was inspired to start a bike collective by a similar arrangement in his hometown that he participated in as a teenager.
“It’s where I fixed up my first bike and where I made a lot of friends,” he said.
Last fall, preparation intersected with opportunity when Shirley met a Southern Connecticut State University graduate student who had access to a cache of used bikes. The two developed a plan for a bike program for the area, and held their first meeting at the New Haven Public Library last winter. The meeting, Shirley said, was attended by a few Yale students but attracted mostly SCSU students and New Haven residents.
Over the spring semester the New Haven Bike Collective grew more organized, and Shirley spent last summer as a full-time employee of the Collective at its Fair Haven headquarters. He estimated that he distributed about 70 bikes over the summer. The Collective is now in the midst of a transition to a location on Grand Avenue in New Haven, and Shirley said about four or five people are currently regular members.
As anyone who has tried to navigate mid-morning Cross Campus can attest, a larger number of cyclists than ever now compete with pedestrians for valuable sidewalk real estate on the commute to work or class. Bike racks outside William L. Harkness Hall and Oswald Memorial Laboratory are regularly full or nearly so, and parking meters near the Law School are almost always double-parked, with bikes lashed to each side.
Michael Feiner, who owns Devil’s Gear Bike Shop on Chapel Street and its satellite location on Audubon Street, noted that his business has seen a 400 percent increase in volume ever since he opened his first location eight years ago.
The increasing crowd of cyclists includes people like Avi Kupfer ’10, who said he just picked up a bike this semester because he knew he would be taking classes on Science Hill.
“It can take 15 minutes to walk from place to place on this campus,” Kupfer, who bought his bike through Craigslist, said. “It’s the single best thing I’ve ever brought to campus.”
Kupfer said he hadn’t noticed how many people are on bikes until he started riding one himself.
“It’s like an unspoken club,” he said.
Shirley agreed that there seem to be more Yalies interested in biking than ever before, and attributed the trend to diverse motivations.
“There is sort of an aesthetic about it that leads people into a really rewarding situation,” he said. “Once you get people biking … it sort of catches on. It’s understandable that groups of friends get bikes over a period of time together.”
The New Haven Bike Collective’s role on campus, Shirley said, is to provide decent bikes to entry-level cyclists who otherwise could not afford one.
“Our bikes are not fancy bikes,” Shirley said. “If we can be a more grass-roots, friendly face we’re going to be getting another audience of people.”
But that grass-roots approach can run into some snags. When the Collective first took off, Feiner allowed its members to order parts at a discount through the Devil’s Gear catalogue and gave them access to his shop’s classes on bicycle maintenance. But Feiner said he ended the sponsorship shortly thereafter because he felt the Collective was allowing people to fix bikes with no formal training, which he thought was unsafe.
“I think they have the idea really well, they just don’t have the means really well,” Feiner said. “It’s a great sign, I think, that more people are on bikes. I just want people to do it responsibly.”
Turning New Haven into a bike-friendly city — through projects such as the Collective, local institutions such as Devil’s Gear and College Street Cycles, and even the greater abundance of casual cyclists like Kupfer — is a task far from over. Shirley said he would like to see a more active stance from Yale, in addition to more bike lanes from the city. Specifically, he said having bike mechanics similar to computer assistants for each residential college could help cyclists with minor repairs on their bikes. A University-run bike shop could provide a central, free location for bike assistance and rentals, he said.
Shirley said he has cut out most of his other extracurricular activities to devote more time to the Collective.
“This has a direct impact that you can’t get out of the big activism going on around campus,” Shirley said. “This is much more empowering.”