Tommy Bensko is pumping the tire of a tiny, Disney-princess themed bicycle, as a similarly-sized girl watches. In front of him snakes a jumbled line of kids, parents and the star of the day’s show - bicycles.
Then comes the fateful announcement:
“So we only only have capacity for about 30 bikes, so if your number is over 30, we might not be able to fix your bike today, but we’ll try our best” Bensko says.
The line shifts and shuffles, as parents and kids try to figure out where they stand. Fortunately, everybody is patient, all smiles and excitement as they wait for the BikeMobile - a bicycle repair shop on wheels, organized by local nonprofit Cycles for Change, in collaboration with the Metroplitan Transportation Commission and the - Alameda County Transportation Commission - ACTC.
By the end of the day, Bensko and his team are able to fix just over 40 students’ bikes at Laurel Elementary, located near 35th Avenue and MacArthur in East Oakland.
“I wish we had something like this when I was coming up,” said Doyle Perkins, whose son, Daylon, is in first grade. “It’s good for these kids.”
The colorful van, decorated with help from nonprofits Design Action and the Eastside Arts Alliance, is quickly becoming a regular fixture at local schools and community events. Kids sign up for the Fix-a-thon and then come to school with their bikes. The BikeMobile staff and volunteers fix bikes and a station is even set up for kids to decorate, which many did on this day. According to Nora Cody, Program Director for Transform, which works with Cycles of Change, they hope to include more hands-on workshops and information in the near future. On this day she was supervising a large bike wheel set upside down, Wheel of Fortune-style, for an informational game.
The project was conceived by Bensko in the summer of 2010 when he found out about a grant for transportation alternatives. To qualify, Cycles of Change needed ACTC as a sponsor. And for every dollar they provided, a federal grant matched them with nine.
According to Bensko, the program is the first of its kind. He saw the need while working with Cycles of Change and asking kids why they don’t ride their bikes. Many of them stated that they had a flat tire or loose chain and didn’t know how to fix it. He realized that for many East Bay children, seemingly simple repairs are inaccessible.
Perkins agreed: “They need stuff like this. A lot of these kids don’t have fathers or someone who can do it for them.”
The turnout was much larger than expected, said school Principal John Stangl. He said than on an average day, no kids ride their bikes to school. This may be in part due to lack of access - there are few bike paths in this part of East Oakland and the school itself is lacking simple amenities such as a bike rack. However, Stangl said they are in the process of acquiring a bike rack and safety enclosure through ACTC funds.
Bensko said he has seen an increase in the number of children who ride their bike to school at every school, with a few school as much as tripling the number of kids who ride their bikes.
The BikeMobile team hopes to reach 220 schools during its two-year grant period and has reached 40 since its start this past January.