Peddling a New Lifestyle

A February post from Joshua Stearns, SCA Board Member and Alumnus
A few weeks ago we got the first snow storm of the winter here in Western Massachusetts. My wife and I decided we would treat ourselves and order take out from a new restaurant in town called Sparky’s All American Food. Sparky’s was unique from the beginning. At first glance the menu suggests a classic burger and dog joint. They even serve corn-dogs, that magical combination of meat on a stick wrapped in a corn pancake and deep-fried.

However, on closer inspection it turns out all their meat is “locally-raised, grass-fed, humanely treated beef, chicken and pork with no hormones or antibiotics” and their burgers, dogs and fries, come with toppings like homemade chili, garlic, chive, and white cheddar cheese, or buffalo sauce and blue cheese. Their veggies are organic and locally sourced (as much as possible) and they make all their toppings in-house. Perhaps best of all, their corn-dogs are vegetarian. But this essay is not about their menu, it about their delivery.

With the snow starting to fly, we opted for their free delivery and got settled in for a cozy night. After about half an hour our doorbell rang, and we opened the front door to find a slightly bedraggled cyclist, his bike splayed in the sidewalk below our steps, and our food in his hand. He apologized for being a little late, waving abstractly at the snow storm which he had just emerged out of. After we paid, my wife and I both watched from our window as he climbed back aboard his bike, and peddled - slipping and sliding - back down the street. This was the most recent in a series of events that has gotten me thinking about the power of the pedal, and the possibility those two wheels may hold.

Monday is trash day around me. On Sunday nights people in my neighborhood drag their trash cans to the curb. However, more and more, instead of the big green and brown plastic barrels, my neighbors are dragging enormous Rubbermaid containers like oversized Tupperwares to the road side. On the side of these boxes, scrawled in black magic marker, are the words “Pedal People.” The Pedal People call themselves “a human-powered delivery and hauling service” which is perhaps the most mundane and understated characterization I could think of.

When most people think of the environmental impact of garbage they think of dwindling resources, damaging extraction techniques, and overflowing landfills. They think about that old adage: reduce, reuse, and recycle. But seldom do people think about the old and out of date fleet of garbage trucks that rumble down America’s streets hauling the trash away, leaving a fog of exhaust in their wake. With the advent of curbside recycling, these trucks have doubled and tripled in number. The Pedal People have imagined a different approach.

With retrofitted bikes, equipped with extended carts, the Pedal People provide a people-powered alternative. Year round the Pedal People collect trash and recycling from the greater Northampton area, stacking the Rubbermaid bins high on their long trailers, and pedaling with a dedication that makes it clear that this is more than just a job. However, their contribution doesn’t end with the act of hauling and towing, they are also making our waste visible and thus making it harder to ignore everything we throw away. Imagine how you would look at your trash differently, if you knew a friend or neighbor would be carrying it on their bike to the dump.

This is not guilt, it is awareness.

Instead of hiding those bags of rubbish away in a truck that burns fossil fuels to haul it away, a person is carrying your trash out in the open, pumping their legs, and expending their own energy.

Alex Jarrett, one of the founders of Pedal People, succinctly captures the whole spectrum of impacts their project has on the local area in an interview on their website. He says, “One of the things I like about using our own energy for hauling is that we’re keeping any money we make in the local economy. Unlike other trucking businesses, none of the money people pay us is spent on imported oil. Hmm, unless you count the olive oil in the beans we had for lunch. Also, by using bikes we save the city resources because we don’t wear out residential streets like trucks.”

However, one of the key impacts that Jarrett doesn’t mention in the above quote, is the power of putting ideals into action. Nearly every article and interview I have read about Pedal People describes them as inspiring. I have no doubt that their model has inspired others, to put down the nozzle and pick up the pedal.

All around me, people are talking about bikes, working on bikes, and considering just how much they could do on their bikes. In the past few months three of my friends have found or bought old frames and totally restored them. One of them turned me onto great company called Xtracycle who sell kits to turn your average cycle into a “sport utility bike.” They have created a great way add some massive hauling capacity to your two wheels so that you can go from cruiser to grocery-getter. At the same time, another friend of mine began working at a small worker-owned bike frame fabrication collective, Circle A Cycles (http://www.circleacycles.com). In each of these cases, whether the bikes are made piece by piece out of old parts in a basement, or newly constructed by a small group of passionate friends, this trend points to another aspect of this growing bike culture.

Tied up with the all the rhetoric about sustainability and all the community minded environmentalism there is a passion for the art of the bike. All around me, the people who have taken up two wheels have done so with such vigor, passion, and vision for what might be. Bikes are beautiful (if you have any doubt, just look at the Circle A Cycle site). In addition to all the work they can help us do, they can also be fun. Work. Beauty. Fun. This seems to me, a powerful trinity with the potential to make a world of difference.