How London’s Big Bike Giveaway put essential workers on wheels

Workers in the southwestern Ontario city were looking for transportation that felt less risky than city buses — so a local program changed gears
By Leslie Garrett - Published on Jul 16, 2020
The City of London came on board last year and started collecting bikes for the Big Bike Giveaway at its EnviroDepots. (Facebook)

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LONDON — Monica and Shayne Hodgson needed a new plan. Early in 2020, they were already preparing for their 7th annual Big Bike Giveaway, a program they’d kicked off in 2014 to get free bikes to people who needed them. Then COVID-19 struck. Their strategy of hosting up to 2,000 people in a London park clearly wasn’t going to work with self-isolation and physical-distancing measures in place. But, while they were brainstorming a new approach, essential workers began to call and email, eager for transportation that felt less risky than city buses.

“We knew our program was going to have to change this year,” says Monica Hodgson So the couple figured, “let’s start now.”

Big Bike Giveaway is the brainchild of the Hodgsons, a London-based couple who came up with the idea to get used bikes to people in need. Donated bikes are collected throughout the year, and Shayne, a triathlete and avid cyclist, does repairs and tune-ups. What started as a dream became a social enterprise, says Monica, thanks to Pillar Nonprofit Network, a local organization that provides resources and support to individuals wanting to strengthen the community impact of their organization or business. Pillar, Monica says, “taught us how to take a business concept and use it for social good — so we started to dream bigger.”

By March, with essential workers clamouring for bikes, the Hodgsons had about 100 ready to go and more coming in — but, given self-isolation measures, the challenge was how to distribute them.

They turned to Squeaky Wheel Bike Co-op, a long-time community partner of Big Bike Giveaway, which had a location where bikes could be stored. An online registration form was created for essential workers: it required disclosure of income level, essential job, and size and height to ensure that each person received a bike that fit properly. “And then we just went one by one,” says Monica.

Recipients were given a time to come to Squeaky Wheel so that distancing could be ensured. And, then, over a span of roughly 90 days, Big Bike Giveaway put about 150 essential workers on wheels.

“The story we heard most often was someone who was working at a grocery store or variety store and really terrified to use the bus,” says Monica. Some had shifts starting as early as five in the morning, because stores had longer hours in those early days of the provincial shutdown.

Miguel, a cleaner at Walmart, wanted a bike because he had three small children at home. “I need to feel safe,” he says.

Arlene, a long-term-care worker, gave up her car insurance due to financial constraints and needed the bike “to keep my job,” she says. One restaurant worker with asthma was afraid to take the bus but nonetheless needed to get to his job.

“The bikes really changed their lives,” Monica says. “They cut down their travel time and [the workers] felt way safer.” Some, she adds, had never even been on a bike before. The empty streets allowed them to learn safely.

While the bike giveaway for essential workers is over, the program relaunched on July 1 for the annual public giveaway, albeit with a difference this year. Instead of coming to a big day in the park, people are being asked to register online in the month of July. When the Hodgsons find a bike that fits them, they’re notified and given a date, place, and time for pickup. Bikes are being distributed in small batches of 10, and, Monica says, Health Canada guidelines for COVID-19 regarding mask-wearing, physical distancing, and sanitizing are observed. She anticipates that 500 bikes will go out by the end of September.

The program is often able to provide helmets and locks through London Health Sciences Centre, Can-Bike, and Helmets for Kids. Local bike shops provide donated parts for repairs.

The City of London came on board last year and started collecting bikes for the program at its EnviroDepots, says Monica. In three months, it donated almost 400 bikes: “Without [the city], we’d be spending all our time driving, using gas to collect bicycles.”

The program’s success has brought new challenges — for example, an increasing need for storage space for the hundreds of bikes they collect. The Hodgsons run the Big Bike Giveaway while working full-time jobs, Monica in public relations and Shayne as a quality-assurance Officer. “I don’t know how we do it,” Monica laughs. “Our ultimate goal is a storefront where people can walk in and walk out with a free bike.”

She’s optimistic that the Big Bike Giveaway will continue to grow: “You see things changing every day, every year, and I just can’t believe it keeps getting better and bigger.”

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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