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Amy Jacobs JMC 204 News Story: Event 4/25/11 Working Bikes Grapples with Sustainability, Development Dozens of bicycles are parked outside the Whole Foods Market on Milwaukee’s east side. Most of them are chained to racks, but several are parked in the bed of a pickup truck. Forty years old and rusting, these bikes are relatively worthless in the United States, but Lee Ravenscroft explained, “they are coveted in Africa.” Ravenscroft is a member of Working Bikes Cooperative, a nonprofit organization that recycles and repairs used bicycles in the Midwest for use in developing countries. On April 23, Working Bikes hosted a bicycle donation event at Whole Foods Market. Though based in Chicago, Working Bikes selected the Milwaukee Whole Foods as a donation site because of what Ravenscroft called, “a real bike culture in Wisconsin.” Despite the good weather, donor turnout was low. Bike waste is one of the side effects of bike culture in Wisconsin, Ravenscroft said. Thousands of bicycles are thrown away every year in the United States, many of them still in repairable condition. Ravenscroft attributes this waste to a cultural mentality. “Here [in the US] you get a flat tire and you go back to Target and buy another bicycle,” Ravenscroft said, “in Africa these bikes are used until they just disintegrate.” Working Bikes aims to put these “scrapped bikes” to use—by the thousand. “It costs ten dollars to ship a bike to the poorest person on the planet, in quantities of 500, so for $5,000 we can send 500 bicycles,” Ravenscroft said. A shipping container holds 500 bicycles. Each year, Working Bikes sends two shipping containers to each of their fifteen projects worldwide.

These countries include: 



El Salvador


Cuba In fact, while other groups exist with a similar purpose (Pedals for Progress, Bikes not

Bombs, and Bikes for the World, to name a few) Working Bikes is the only organization with permission from the US Department of Commerce to ship bicycles to Cuba. The bicycles in the back of the pickup truck will likely go to Africa, where the majority of Working Bikes’ projects are located. For many residents in developing African nations, a bicycle will be their first and only vehicle. Yet in these smaller communities, a bicycle can be an inexpensive and effective mode of work and transportation. “You can get to work yourself and get home every night, you could work five miles away and get home every night from work. Or you can use the bike for your work,” Ravenscroft said, “You can take your produce to market place.” Often in developing nations, girls receive little to no education, and make a living primarily by gathering water. Ravenscroft said that Working Bikes seeks to address this gender inequality. “Historically only boys have been receiving bicycles to get to school and back and now there are programs to get bikes to girls as well,” Ravenscroft said.

He went on to say that bicycles have the potential to change more than just social conditions in developing nations. Riding a stationary, bicycle powered water fountain, Ravenscroft explains his thoughts on the role of bicycles in sustainable development. “In addition to using bicycles to get to work and bike and get to school and back and to carry your crops to market place, you can also use them to generate power,” he said, demonstrating. By attaching a belt around the rear wheel and connecting the belt to an electrical generator, a bicycle can produce small amounts of electricity. According to Cornell University, Lance Armstrong can produce 500 watts of sustained energy for twenty minutes. Ravenscroft believes there is a genuine potential for bike-powered sustainability in developing nations. He cites Working Bikes Nordic-Track-powered television and bicycle-powered stereo as examples. “In a developing country, one kid could pedal and all the kids could have power…light in the library for example,” Ravenscroft said. A young boy, maybe five years old, looks at the bicycle-fountain in wonder. Ravenscroft sets him atop the seat, and the boy pedals away. All the while he stares backwards at the water spout, giggling. “It’s just to get people to talk to us,” Working Bikes member Sanford “Sandy” Rotter said, pointing to the bicycle-fountain. Rotter, an engineer in the field of electronic research and development, disagrees sharply with Ravenscroft’s views about bicycle-powered sustainability. “People have an idea that you can get energy back from gym clubs,” Rotter said, referring to manually-powered exercise machines like the ones at the University of Wisconsin-

Milwaukee’s Klotsche Center, “that’s a fallacy in sustainability because you’ll never get the amount of energy back from doing it that you would put in.” Rotter added that to produce 500 watts of energy, Armstrong eats roughly 10,000 calories per day—a blinding contrast to the poor nutrition prominent in developing nations. Sustainability education is more practical, Rotter believes, than bike-powered electricity. For this reason, Rotter creates bike-powered machines as demonstration tools to engage children and adults in learning about conservation practices. One machine uses a generator connected to a bicycle to power a 15 watt compact florescent bulb and a 60 watt incandescent bulb alternately. “People have to learn kinesthetically that when they’re pedaling a bicycle and they feel a difference of going from 15 to 60 watts that’s a big difference,” Rotter said, “that’s going to persuade you to turn off the lights in your house, and give you a better understanding of how much energy you’re using.” Rotter went on to explain his belief that successful sustainability education must reach people at a young age. Much of Rotter’s time with Working Bikes is devoted to educating Chicago Public School children, in collaboration with Rabiah Mayas, Director of Education for the Museum of Science and Industry. “We want to…come up with curriculum that teaches people to be better stewards of the earth,” Rotter said. Rotter and Mayas are collaborating on a paper to present at the IEEE-ISST Sustainability Conference in Chicago, May 18. Rotter expressed frustration that few opportunities exist in Wisconsin to study sustainability in-depth. He was further upset by the lack of recent funding for recycling in the state. Rotter chalks these issues up to a political schism.

“We all have to work together. And there should be no disagreement to work towards sustainability,� Rotter said.

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