New Brunswick Bike Exchange on a Roll

Jun 12, 2013, 1:04 PM, Posted by Jeff Meade

bikevolunteers Left to right: Marisa Rodriguez-McGill, Leighann Kimber, and Julio Garcia, PRAB director of operations

More than a dozen bicycles are stacked upright on a pair of racks in a sweltering New Brunswick warehouse. Most of the bikes are low-end Huffys and Schwinns, the kind of models you might pick up at a Walmart for under a hundred bucks, like a child’s powder blue two-wheeler, with scuffed white tires, banana seat, adorned with dog and kitty decals. One or two—like a sleek, sturdy Cannondale—are more expensive models, aimed at serious cyclists.

In too many cases, bikes like these would have been destined for the landfill. Not so these bicycles. They’re getting a second lease on life—chains cleaned and re-lubricated, bald or flat tires replaced, crooked handlebars re-aligned, here and there a spot of touch-up paint. Soon they’ll be sold, heavily discounted—as low as $10, as high as $120 for the high-end models—to residents who otherwise would be unable to afford this economical, healthful and fun mode of urban transportation.

The New Brunswick Bike Exchange is a nascent project of the non-profit organization PRAB (Puerto Rican Action Board), which is a partner of the Foundation’s statewide New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids program. The Partnership focuses on efforts to combat the childhood obesity epidemic.

The New Brunswick program replicates the highly successful Trenton Boys & Girls Club Bike Exchange, founded by Russ White. Revenue from all transactions helps cover the exchange’s operating costs, as well as other PRAB programming.

Even though the PRAB project is just getting under way—it launched in April—PRAB director of operations Julio Garcia believes it is already touching the lives of local residents.

On one recent night, a couple dropped by the New Jersey Avenue warehouse to check out the stock. They picked out a bicycle for their child, and Garcia could tell at a glance that setting up the bike exchange was exactly the right thing to do. “I remember the look on the mom’s face” Garcia recalls. “She was so happy to be able to purchase it, and it was great to see the joy on the child’s face.”

Before they get to the point of inspiring joy and happiness, all the donated bikes begin the process of their re-birth at the back end of the warehouse, awaiting triage by the bike repair crew. Bike mechanics are volunteers who each put in a few hours a week. Some bikes will be destined for reclamation, and others will be cannibalized for parts. The salvageable bicycles then move from the back of the warehouse to the center, where all of the mechanical work is done at three long metal tables topped with tool boxes, socket wrenches, spray cans of WD-40, and tubs of GoJo hand cleaner. After that, it’s on to the sale racks toward the front of the warehouse. Store hours are Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings.

Leighann Kimber, working on her master’s degree in city and regional planning at Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, coordinates volunteers, and she also takes part in some of the repair work. “I started by helping coordinate bike drives,” she says. Now, she adds with a smile, “I feel like a proper mechanic.”

Kimber says she wasn’t much of a cyclist until she came to work at the exchange, but the role of bikes in transportation soon appealed to her. Bicycle transportation now figures prominently in Kimber’s studies.

As uninvolved in cycling as Kimber was initially, one prominent member of the team has no riding experience whatsoever.

For that, Julio Garcia has taken some gentle ribbing from his colleagues. PRAB Executive Director Mario Vargas says, in a line usually guaranteed to get laughs, that one of the goals of the program “is to teach Julio how to ride a bike.”

Garcia, looking a big sheepish, says he’s going to get around to it. “This is a perfect opportunity to learn how to ride, and ride safely.”