Junk Bonds: Scots Project Extracts Gold From Base Metat, Tim Dawson (2012)

Original article, first published at thesundaytimes.co.uk in March 2012

Daniel Beslee is understandably happy with his new bike – a mid-range, duel-suspension mountain bike for which he paid just £65. “I came to the Bike Station on Saturday morning and joined a queue outside”, explains the 22-year-old. “There was a bit of a dash when they let us in, and I got this one. Its great – and it has got me cycling for the first time since I was a kid.”

And he is not alone – the Bike Station, which opened shop in Edinburgh a decade ago, and now has branches in Glasgow and Perth, has just recycled its 30,000th bike. Not only that, but with grant funding from the Scottish government, the National Lottery as well as various trusts and charities it has run an ambitious cycle-to-work promotion in Edinburgh for the past three years, provides adult training in cycling and mechanics, and has just secured £450,000 to do the same in Glasgow. It has even been the subject of an entire debate in the Scottish parliament.

“Because of the length of time we have been going, we have become an Edinburgh institution”, says campaigns manager Gary Bell. “People with bikes to get rid of expect to give them to us. Many is the Volvo I have watched rolling up with a couple of dusty bikes with 531 frames in the back and anyone who wants a good, reconditioned run-around bike comes to our Saturday sales”.

It is little wonder that there is demand for the bikes, given the increase in cycling that Edinburgh has witnessed in recent years. One survey showed that the number of riders pedalling into the city rose by 12% last year alone. That give cycling has a 7.3% ‘modal share’ in the Scottish capital, up from around 3% a decade ago.

Bike recycling forms the core of what the Bike Station does. It occupies two modern industrial units close to Edinburgh university’s main buildings where volunteers and workshop staff keep the air ringing out with the sound of tools on metal. One unit holds a store of several hundred donated bikes, mostly hanging on racks that stretch up to the ceiling. The other provides retail and workshop space.

“Our retail model is slightly east European”, explains Bell. “We put out 40 to 50 bikes every Saturday morning, there is always a queue, sometimes quite long and we mainly sell for under £100. We manage to rescue around 55% of the bikes that are donated to us – the rest are used for parts or are appropriately scrapped.”

The organisation grew out of Spokes, the Lothian cycle campaign which has long been among the most organised and hard-working local cycle groups in the UK. A recycling project that started life with a few parts in a skip attracted a nucleus of volunteers around it in the late 1990s. Bike Station then spent some years operating from a disused rifle range beneath Waverly railway station before moving to its present premises.

Funding has come from the Scottish government, the People’s Postcode Lottery and the Robertson Trust, among others. In some years, Bike Station’s income has exceeded £1.2m – although is slightly down on that this year. Established as a registered charity, with a trading arm, its workforce is flexible, but there are around 20 staff with a far larger pool of volunteers.

Some of these come via referral from statutory agencies, such as social services, who have come to value the grounding effect of a course on bicycle maintenance. Other volunteers, like Canadian Jet Wessel, stumbled on to the bike station as she toured the world ‘in search of adventure’. “I started off in the workshop, and now I come in once a week to work in the warehouse”, she says. “I love the way the project works and I have made some really good friends here. I can see myself staying in Edinburgh for a while”.

Tony Hudson, came to the Bike Station three years ago as a workshop volunteer and is now employed as a mechanic. “I love working on the bikes and feeling that we are making new use of something that would otherwise by landfill”, he says.

As well as refurbishment, the workshop is also used for ‘Fix Your Own Bike’ sessions. At these, cyclists pay £4 an hour to use full workshop facilities and get expert advice to maintain their own bikes. There are also Build Your Own Bike week-long sessions generally aimed at members of marginalised groups, many of whom come via referral.

Among the most visible manifestations of the Bike Station is its Edinburgh city cycleways ‘Innertube Map’. The Scottish capital has a reasonable network of dedicated cycle routes, some on the beds of old railways, others on river and canal banks. As part of the A Better Way To Work campaign, the project commissioned a guide to city, based on Harry Beck’s famous London underground map. “The beauty of the Innertube Map is that it is useful for people who don’t know the cycle ways – but it also makes the point that they are not as connected up as they could be”, says Ruairidh MacGlone, Bike Station’s training co-ordinator.

Sadly a bid for funding to continue the A Better Way To Work campaign in Edinburgh was turned down – meaning that Bike Station will probably give up the lease on the suite of offices currently housing some of the organisation’s office-based staff. The application to run a similar project in Glasgow did succeed, so it is there that the mantle will now be taken up. “There are far fewer cyclists in Glasgow”, says Greg Chauvet, who is project manager in Glasgow. “The city itself is very different – much bigger, and with a motorway running right through the middle. It was designed around the car”.

He facess quite a challenge, as many who have tried to promote cycling in Scotland’s biggest city have found before now – modal share is only around 2% at the moment. Bike Station, however, has a track record and infrastructure – and a popular mood that is growing more sympathetic to two-wheeled transport. Chauvet says that when his three years of funding comes to an end, there will be visibly more cyclists in Glasgow. On the basis of Bike Station’s track record, I suspect that he will be right.

TD Apr 12

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