London is one of the most exciting places in the world. The British city has always attracted people from all over the world who are drawn by its liberal attitudes and multicultural society. Anything seems possible in London and God save the Queen. Only one thing is taboo in England’s capital and financial centre – poverty. Anyone with a lack of sufficient funds or a flat in the wrong part of town will soon find “London calling” has become “London falling”.
It is a tough place for the socially disadvantaged, who have to carefully budget what little money they have. Even the bare necessities can break the bank in London though. Getting around the city without a car, for example, means depending on the local transit system, which is pretty pricy for anyone under age 60 or without special needs.
Life in London is especially tough for refugees, who need some mode of transportation to get to know and build a life in their new home. “I mentored a refugee when I was at university. I could see one of the biggest challenges he faced was getting around in the city as he only had £36 per week to live off, but a weekly bus pass cost £21 per week. That did not leave him much money to live off. I gave him a second-hand bike and that was the first step into normal living for him: Suddenly he could access education, healthcare, and psychological support,” Jem Stein tells us. This moment has never left him. He realized that mobility meant personal freedom, and if it was really as easy as owning a bicycle, there had to be a way to scale it up. What if every refugee in London could be given a bike and with it a bit of precious freedom?
Jem started looking into it and soon discovered that in London alone, 27,500 bikes are simply abandoned because their owners don’t want them anymore. Bikes that could be fixed up and given to refugees in need. And so “The Bike Project” was born at the start of 2013. The initiative restores abandoned bikes and gives them to refugees. Over the course of three years, the small team has already provided over 2,100 refugees with a bike.
What began with Jem taking to the streets in search of abandoned bicycles he then repaired in his back garden has grown to the point where the Bike Project now gets bikes delivered free of charge: “All our bikes are donated by individuals, the police, or local councils. It normally takes our mechanics 2-3 hours to refurbish a bike.”
Around 100 bicycles are donated each month, but demand far outstrips supply. Right now there is a three-month waiting list for a free bike. The bikes are part of a complete package too. When new owners come to pick up their two-wheelers, they also get a helmet, lights, a visibility vest, a lock, and training in the rules of the road and how to ride safely. The initiative has also started offering extra training for women, many of whom had no opportunity to learn to ride a bike in their homelands. Every year, 50 women have learned how to navigate the roads of London in just ten weeks.
The Bike Project is growing so fast that a back garden is no longer enough. In addition to all the volunteers who work on the bikes in their spare time or help with the project in other ways, Jem now employs seven people. One of these is Ahmeed, a former refugee from Eritrea. Once the recipient of a bike, he now gets them ready for their new owners.
The project is financed through a combination of grants and bike sales to Londoners. Jem currently sells 30 second-hand bikes a month, an essential source of funding for the team. Like most social enterprises, Jem has to fight for every donation. His ultimate goal though is to have the project support itself: “We want to scale up what we do significantly: we want to provide many more bikes to refugees in London and beyond. To support this, we need to sell more bikes to create an independent source of revenue.” For the concept of the his Bike Project Jem was selected as a finalist in the European Social Innovation Competition.
If you live in the UK and would like to donate your bike, or maybe feel it’s time for a new one, Jem is more than happy to list all the advantages: “Our bikes are cheaper than new bikes and better quality than bikes from other second-hand shops. If that’s not enough, all the proceeds go into the charity!”