If you’re reading this, you’ve probably done some thinking about bicycle policy in Toronto. In the aftermath of this summer’s struggles over shared roadways, culminating in last month’s extremely ugly incident, many voices have joined the debate, some less successfully than others. There is, in the middle of all this, a group of cycling activists in Toronto that is resolutely ambivalent to all solutions. The organization is Bike Pirates, and it exists to address an issue that cuts through law and infrastructure, right to the heart of the daily cycling experience.
“Many of us are parts of other organizations or advocacy groups, but Pirates’ form of advocacy is: fix your bike, make it safe,” said Chloé Rosemarin, who has been associated with the volunteer-run organization since shortly after it was founded, three years ago. In those three years, Bike Pirates has grown into Toronto’s biggest bike repair collective.
“We started in a backyard, in a communal living house,” said Geoffrey Bercarich, another longtime volunteer. From that backyard, Bike Pirates moved to a curb, then to a storefront at Bathurst and College streets, where a benefactor, known to members as “the anarchist professor,” let the org stay for two years at below-market rent, before asking them to move on to another location last year .
Chloé and Geoff spoke to us in the back of Bike Pirates’s new storefront, at 1292 Bloor Street West, across a table in a little makeshift kitchenette that looked like it had been pretty well lived-in. Bike Pirates isn’t exactly a repair shop, see—it’s more of a community. And its members share much more than kitchen space.
Tools and knowledge, for instance.
Bike Pirates began as a loosely organized tool-sharing program, where members could dip into a centralized pool of equipment for bicycle repairs. Today, their storefront resembles a fully functional bike shop, but with an important difference: “We won’t service your bike,” said Chloé. “We’ll help you service your bike.”
In other words, bringing your broken-down beater to the Pirates means taking their tools and their expert guidance and using those things to learn to do it all yourself. They’re the opposite of a full-service, no-sweat repair place, but to the segment of the bicycling public for whom dirty fingernails aren’t a problem, Bike Pirates is cycling Avalon. They don’t make repairs; they make repairpeople.
Bike Pirates charges retail price for new parts, and they sell used parts on a pay-what-you-can basis. They also ask for donations in exchange for their advice and the use of their tools. Their policy is not to specify amounts, but they do like to remind walk-ins what comparable service would cost elsewhere.
“Bicycle mechanic shops charge way too much. They’ll charge you fifty dollars an hour to work on your bicycle,” said Geoff. He said tool time with expert guidance, similar to what Bike Pirates provides, usually goes for around forty dollars per hour.
“The City of Toronto is not taking cycling seriously, especially when it comes to the labour involved,” continued Geoff, who looks upon his work with the Pirates as a way of addressing a critical shortage of bike repair expertise.
“You learn more here than you learn at a high-end shop,” he added. “That’s for sure.”
The volunteers we spoke to pointed out that Bike Pirates’s style of bike activism is distinct from that of the better-known Toronto Cyclists Union, which functions primarily as a unified mouthpiece to the media and the city. The Union advocates for bike lanes and bike legislation, whereas the Pirates do the majority of their work face-to-face with the public and their bikes, either in their shop or in the roadside tune-up kiosks they frequently operate at street fairs (they’re regulars at P.S. Kensington, for instance).
Since Bike Pirates depends on its volunteers for all critical duties, they welcome new hands at all times. They say no experience is necessary, but an ability to thrive in a non-hierarchical work environment is preferred, since there is, officially, no chain of command at the shop.
(The irony of obligatory anarchy isn’t lost on them, but they insist that the system works. Come to think of it, they probably wouldn’t have a storefront, if it didn’t.)
Volunteers are rewarded with increased access to the shop’s equipment, first dibs on donated bike parts (on a pay-what-you-can basis), and even the occasional meal. And then there are the intangible benefits:
“It’s a great place to meet people, Bike Pirates,” said Brendan Zagorski, another volunteer.
Volunteers are initiated at a monthly volunteer orientation (the next one of which will be tonight, October 7). The public is also welcome to simply drop in and introduce themselves during any of the shop’s normal operating hours.
Also, unlike many pirate crews, the group checks and politely responds to email.
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.