[Excerpt] “Transportation is a civil rights issue,” Mayor Toni Harp announced at a public meeting in January 2014. “It’s an economic development issue. It’s a jobs issue.” The data agrees. A report produced by DataHaven that same year notes that “transportation is by far the most commonly reported barrier to getting a job.” Part of the problem is what the report calls “job-sprawl”: low-wage jobs gradually leaving downtown, which is fairly well-serviced by public transportation, and moving to wealthier suburbs like Hamden, which are public transportation dead zones. Over the last three decades, the proportion of residents in New Haven’s poorer neighborhoods—Fair Haven, Newhallville, and the Hill—who work outside of the city has nearly doubled, from 29 percent to 55 percent. What’s more, due to the racial makeup of these neighborhoods, the “spatial mismatch” between housing and jobs is particularly pronounced among workers of color.
That’s where bikes come in. The 2014 report found that in New Haven, more low-wage positions are accessible via bicycle than by public transportation. And compared to cars, bikes are much cheaper to purchase and maintain, especially if owners can do it themselves at a place like the co-op. According to the American Automobile Association, owning even a modest car costs, on average, seven thousand dollars a year. At the co-op, by contrast, you can purchase a used bike for a few hundred bucks.
Martin isn’t just selling bikes, though. He wants to teach people skills that they continue to use. “I think anyone who put the time in could become a pseudo bike-mechanic in a year. Which is pretty friggin’ awesome,” Martin tells me. He cites story after story of volunteers who, after working in the co-op, became so adept they could have gotten a job in a professional shop. Martin doesn’t claim any responsibility for their transformation. Rather, it’s about having the opportunity and resources to work on a range of different bikes.
That egalitarian vision breeds the co-op’s inclusivity. On one summer afternoon, the oldest mechanic was an immigrant from Mexico in his sixties. He can’t always pay the shop fee in cash, so instead, he brings new rags and WD-40 to replenish its supplies. The youngest mechanic was thirteen. I first met him after he flipped over the handlebars of his street bike onto the sidewalk in front of the co-op while trying to clear a jump made of two-by-fours. Since then, he’s taken to less death-defying pursuits: He volunteers almost every day, and when he can’t make it in, he calls Martin to let him know. (This habit comes from his mother, who says it’s good practice for when he has a job.) On another day at the co-op, I see him help a thirty-year-old man overhaul an old commuter bike.