By Ulya Aligulova
The Bicycle Coalition of Maine, in partnership with the Portland Gear Hub, is about to kick off their ninth year of the Bikes for All Mainers Program. This free program provides youth and adults with affordable transportation as well as skills in basic bike maintenance and traffic awareness. Upon the completion of the six-hour class, participants receive a functional, refurbished bicycle along with a helmet and safety gear. Originally called Bikes for New Mainers, the program launched in 2014 in recognition of the growing immigrant population in Portland and their need for affordable, safe transportation. The name later changed to Bikes for All Mainers to better encompass the idea of a community, as well as to recognize that anyone – a New Mainer or anyone else seeking affordable bikes and safety education – can benefit from the program.
Bikes for All Mainers was started by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making biking and walking safer all across the state. Founded in 1992, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine works statewide to improve the safety of the roads, to advocate for better infrastructure, and to protect cyclists and walkers. Apart from organizing cycling programs and events, the coalition also works on policy on local, state, and occasionally the federal level. One of the coalition’s first efforts was to add safety information about sharing the road with cyclists to Maine’s Motorist Handbook and bike safety questions to Maine’s driver’s exam. The organization also works with cities and towns on new road design to improve safety and access for specific intersections.
“We are all about encouraging people to get outside and get on bikes in a safe way, in a way they can learn and explore the city and the state,” said Jean Sideris, the executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.
The coalition hosts the annual Great Maine Bike Swap, developed because many people are always looking to sell or buy used bikes, but Maine has only a few bicycle resale shops, Portland Gear Hub being one of them. “So, the idea was to host a big bike swap, and we (the coalition), would handle all the logistics of it,” explained Sideris. “Last year, there were over a thousand bikes that were swapped. So clearly, there’s a demand for this.” During the Bike Swap weekend, people can bring their old bikes and make them available for those who are in need of an affordable one. Bikes can be donated or sold for a price determined by the owner.
“We’re always thinking about how we can be intentional about diversity and equity,” Sideris said. “The pandemic has really allowed us the time to step back and ask ourselves whether our activities are really serving a broad range of people, and how we can improve to reach a more diverse audience. For instance, with our bike swap, we’re thinking where to hold it next time, where the immigrant populations most in need of access to bikes are.” She explained that the coalition is working to partner with additional local organizations and local groups who already serve different populations.
“In Portland and other areas of Maine, there’s a rapidly growing immigrant population and we recognized the need of these communities for affordable transportation. The program was pulled together to find a way to get bikes into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them. We wanted to find ways of making bikes more accessible to these communities. Not by simply giving bikes to people, but also making sure we pass on the skills needed to be safe and successful on a bike,” said Sideris.
A few years after the launch of Bikes for All Mainers, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine started working with the Portland Gear Hub. The Portland Gear Hub is a nonprofit outdoor gear and bicycle shop powered by Camp Ketcha, a 501(c)3 youth outdoor organization. Their mission is to get youth and adults outside by increasing affordable and reliable access to gear. They have a retail location on Washington Street in Portland where people can donate used bikes, which then either are upcycled and sold or taken apart and sold for parts. The Gear Hub has taken over the management of the Bikes for All Mainers program, with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine supporting the program financially. Additionally, the Gear Hub runs their own Bike School with different programs and classes aimed at teaching not only how to ride a bike, but also the mechanical skills required to fix one.
“What we saw with the pandemic last year was a boom of bike riding,” said Sara Ramirez, Program Manager at the Portland Gear Hub. “We see a wide variety of needs for bikes, whether that’s for exercise, transportation, or fun family activity. Due to that need, our outreach has doubled from 2019 to 2020. In 2019, we gave out 50 bikes as part of Bikes for All Mainers, and in 2020, we gave out almost 100 – and we still weren’t able to keep up with demand.” This year the Gear Hub is developing a leadership committee consisting of past participants in the program. The goal is for the leaders to help new participants in the roles of instructor, translator, or in other capacities. “I would say a large majority of participants in this program are New Mainers, so there are a lot of different language needs,” Ramirez said. “And we want to meet those needs. We want to make sure we’re educational and accessible to all, regardless of background or language.”
One past participant who signed up to be on the leadership committee is Claude Mavungu. Mavungu and his family immigrated to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2015. He signed up right away to take part in Bikes for All Mainers, but due to the length of the waiting list, he was only able to finally participate in the program five years later, in 2020. “This challenged me to be part of the leadership committee, as they clearly needed more people to help more participants,” said Mavungu. “I started to volunteer to find ways to help newcomers and help this program reach more people and succeed.” He said that when he arrived, biking was the only mode of transportation available to him at the time. “I’m an electrical engineer, so I have technical skills that can bring value to the program and help our community learn how to ride bikes with safety.”
Registration for Bikes for All Mainers this year started in March and is on a first come, first served basis. The program runs throughout the months of June to August. Anyone ages 12 and up is welcome to sign up on the Portland Gear Hub’s website (https://www.portlandgearhub.org)