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Working on the bike desert, too
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LAST WEEK in this paper, Jessica Leigh Lebos’ excellent story “Return to the Food Desert?” examined the fallout from the closing of the Food Lion on MLK Jr. Boulevard.

She correctly pointed out that the Forsyth Farmers’ Market is only five blocks from the now-shuttered store, and is an excellent option for people seeking fresh, healthy foods.

The market on opening day was also an option for people seeking healthy transportation, as the Savannah Bicycle Campaign offered basic bicycle inspections and minor adjustments. Safe cycling info was also dispensed to those arriving at the market on bicycles or just strolling by and curious how they might make bikes a more integral part of their lives.

Some of the bikes we saw at the booth were in shipshape. Others had more involved stories to tell.

“This takes me everywhere I need to go,” a young man said as he rolled his bike toward our tent.

I was surprised the bike could take him anywhere at all. The handlebars were knocked so severely off-center, they resembled the tiller on a boat tacking hard to port.

When volunteer mechanic Bill Bailey lifted the bike into the repair stand, he discovered the skewed handlebars were just the beginning of this bike’s issues. The handlebars were installed upside down!

Bailey was able to correct these problems. But because he didn’t have the necessary parts on hand, he was unable to replace the left pedal, most of which was missing, or the rear brake cable, which was too short to activate the brake. The young man was grateful for the improvements he did receive, but he went away with a bicycle that most of us wouldn’t think about riding until properly repaired.

He had no choice. Paying for repairs at a bike shop simply wasn’t in his budget.

I thought about the young man when I read this quote in Lebos’ story, from Forsyth Farmers Market co–founder Teri Schell: “We’re here only four hours a week, and that doesn’t necessarily work for everybody.”

And the same goes for bicycle maintenance. Setting up a temporary station at a farmers market may allow bicycle advocates to provide minor repairs to cyclists who happen to ride (or roll) their bikes past their tent, but that doesn’t work for everyone, and in the case of our young man, offered only a partial solution.

But there is a model that will work for more people and especially those who cannot afford to have their bicycles professionally serviced. Organizations in Atlanta, Athens and elsewhere have undertaken initiatives to supply safe and reliable bicycles to people who ride by necessity.

You see these riders heading to work, wearing uniforms from their restaurant or hotel jobs. Others wear reflective vests, required at jobsites, on the way to work early in the morning or home after sundown. Sometimes you almost don’t see them, as they operate bicycles that lack lights and proper safety equipment.

Their bicycles are often not equipped to carry cargo and are ridden with heavy grocery or other bags dangling from handlebars. They are some of the most vulnerable users of our city’s streets.

The Savannah Bicycle Campaign is working on a facility and program to accept donations of unwanted or abandoned bicycles, restore them, and put them in the hands of people who need dependable transportation.

The idea transcends just having a place to fix up old bikes, however. The vision includes a space for educational programs teaching people how to maintain and safely operate bicycles. The idea is to create a place that improves not only transportation options, but also lives.

This kind of operation can’t be sustained from a tent in the park on random Saturdays. It requires a physical location close to the people it serves. It must be large enough to accommodate bicycle repair bays, bike and parts storage, and office space. And it needs to be affordable.

Do you know of such a space? Do you own such a space? If so, please contact Savannah Bicycle Campaign Executive Director Frank McIntosh at