Seattle’s south end is considered a “bicycle desert.” Residents of this region have limited access to cycling services with very few bike shops in their neighborhoods. But one shop stands alone as the community's long-time cycling partner.
Established 25 years ago in south Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, Bike Works is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making cycling more accessible and equitable through community-based outreach and youth-centered programming. The organization believes that bikes are more than a mode of transportation. They are a means for leading a healthy and environmentally friendly life.
Bike Works promotes the bicycle as a vehicle for change. The organization provides mechanic classes to youth and adults, hosts refurbished bike giveaways and riding clubs, and deploys a mobile repair unit into south Seattle neighborhoods. “We like to say we operate at the intersection of personal health, environmental health and community health,” says Elise Hirschi, development and communications specialist at Bike Works.
Ultimately, though, Bike Works is about getting bikes to people. Its brick-and-mortar shop in south Seattle is the region’s hub for bike donations. Bike Works sells or gives away more than 1,000 used, recycled and refurbished bikes each year. And, through a deal with Recology King County, the region’s provider of garbage and recycling collection, bikes that arrive at the county’s transfer stations get diverted to Bike Works to be upcycled and repurposed.
Bike Works’ staff will be the first to say that this work would not be possible without its more than 100 community partners. “It’s difficult to give bikes away if you don’t have trusted partners,” says Hirschi.
Swedish Health Services has supported the organization and its mission for the past three years donating emergency kits as auction items and sponsoring Bike Works’ annual gala fundraiser. In 2020, Swedish caregivers had the opportunity to take part in volunteer repair parties, designed to repair bikes to give away to residents in south Seattle neighborhoods.
“We’re a grassroots community-building organization that brings people into cycling and makes it a more accessible and integral part of healthy living,” says Hirschi. “Swedish’s support helps make that possible in a part of the city that truly needs it.”
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Bike Works to temporarily close its doors. Like so many nonprofit organizations, the team at Bike Works quickly reconfigured its entire business model and adapted its services to continue to meet the community’s need.
In just three weeks, the organization built and launched an online shop when in-store shopping was unsafe. Instead of in-person classes, Bike Works offered its mechanics curriculum virtually, building online resources, games, quizzes and video tutorials. The organization deployed its mobile repair unit, the BikeMobile, to safely repair bikes for little or no cost and to give away helmets to under-resourced communities.
When public health recommendations made regular summer riding camps unsafe, Bike Works organized “justice journey rides,” which are self-guided bike rides for older youth around the city that are accompanied by conversations about social justice and equity.
These changes were not easy, according to the Bike Works staff, but they did what they needed to do to continue to serve their constituents.
The Bike Works community is a blend of staff members, volunteers, cycling enthusiasts, community organizers, creative thinkers and, largely, program beneficiaries. Many took a mechanics class or received a bike as a kid and stayed involved to be part of the team. The BikeMobile is often staffed by people who learned bike mechanic skills in Bike Works programs.
This, more than anything says Hirschi, is what keeps the organization riding. “So much of what we do relies on our volunteers and older youth who experience our programs, see their value and then want to give back,” she says.