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Pies, hugs and pedal spanners

BY BEN BRANGWYN, TRANSITION TOWN TOTNES AND TRANSITION NETWORK

A while back a friend here in Totnes, after learning of my DoctorBike sessions in the market on a Saturday, asked me, "Why do you fix bikes for free?".

DoctorBike logoSounds like a simple question, but it isn't. And behind it is a whole lot of assumptions and prejudices.

So, unpacking the questions:

"Why do I fix bikes?" That's a very simple question to answer - because I enjoy it, because I'm good at it, because it's needed. It's needed because there is a very high level of bike ownership in the UK (90% of kids, 45% of adults, according to a 2003 British Medial Journal paper) and a significant proportion of them are unused because of minor mechanical problems. Of the ones being used, my experience indicates that well over half have niggles that, if fixed, would improve the rider's enjoyment, and around 20% have a safety problem, sometimes very serious. Additionally, simple maintenance work can increase the longevity of a bike and I try to impart these easy-to-learn practices when I'm fixing someone's bike. On my DoctorBike sign, I've written "keeping Totnes on two wheels rather than four" – which kind of says it all.

"Why am I doing it for free?" Less simple to answer. I think there are six main answers – the potential of state interference, my views on money/consumption/CO2, a spirit of economic experimentation, an appreciation for the tough economic situation that lots of people find themselves in, something to do with self-confidence in terms of "business", and lastly a desire for interesting human interactions. I'll deal with each of these in turn.

Totnes marketIn terms of state interference, I don't charge money for my work because I don't want the taxman and regulators crawling over my joyous experience fixing bikes. I've got rather poorly rationalised (and very deep) notions about how unaccountable authorities suck energy, joy, innovation and creativity from just about anything they get involved in. I'm a fully qualified mechanic, I'm insured and I'm meticulous and conscientious. That's better than a whole load of bike shops, and it's good enough for me.

I don't charge because I don't actually need the money. I have a full-time job with Transition Network (www.transitionnetwork.org) that pays sufficiently (though a lot less than other jobs I've had). I'm also working on simplifying my life and reducing my consumption levels. More money would not help that process and, given the correlation between increasing incomes and increasing CO2 emissions, not very welcome.

One reason for me engaging in this experiment is to blur the edges between the formal and the informal economy - the latter being grossly ignored in mainstream economic discourse. The formal economy happens in what we generally call "the market", the informal happens in homes, on street corners, across farm gates, between friends and neighbours. By bringing the informal economy into full view of the market, by questioning the unquestioned assumption that an economic element must be brought into each human exchange interaction in a marketplace, some of the most powerful assumptions of our day are challenged. As I write those words, I'm struck by how grandiose they might sound, but I want to keep them here because many people who stop and chat reflect that very point.

Ben fixing up a bikeAnother reason to fix bikes for free or barter is to help those without much money – the very people who rely much more on bikes for transport. Time and time again I hear from people who take their bike to a bike shop and the quote they receive for repairs and spare is way in excess of the value of the bike. In many cases, the local shop will simply say it's not worth repairing. The DoctorBike service gives them another choice and for some it's quite a lifeline. That's not to say that it's only economically-stressed people who come to me in the market. But I don't descriminate - I've never turned anyone away because they drive a Porsche!

It's not all light and goodness that puts a zero charge on the work I do. There's also a little bit of shadow there too, a bit of me that's loathe to put myself at the mercy of the customer – that mythical creature who can decide whether I sink or swim. Should I give them that much power? What on earth makes me feel that they'd let me sink anyway? This is a murky area for me, and something that keeps me from taking the risk of launching a business. I also wonder about the viability of a business that doesn't seek to extract every last penny from a customer. Is it too idealistic? Perhaps my free market sessions are a way of gently testing the water for a much bolder move later...

The last point I wanted to get across is about one aspect of the nature of money that, for a DoctorBike session, is most unwelcome - its impersonalness. It allows me to transact with someone without making a relationship. I'm sure a relationship-free transaction would be appropriate if I were doing something that involved 500 transactions a day, but I'm not. A huge part of my spending 6 hours each Saturday is that I want to connect to this community, to get to know people here and to increase our overall web of resilience. At the start a year ago, I did take sterling occasionally. People would fold up a fiver and slip it into the top pocket on my apron and that would be it. Sure, they'd smile and say a big thank you, but that was the limit of the engagement. Now I tell people "I don't take sterling", and once that's sunk in, they ask what I take instead. I point them to my sign which lists "Totnes Pounds, time swap, barter, hugs, pies or gingerbread people one of the local shops, or nothing if that's all you've got." and then we gently negotiate. People respond in a very nurturing way to a "how about you get me something really tasty from Greenlife or Riverford" - I eat very, very well on a Saturday. I've swapped hours of garden work, carpentry, and clothes fixing. I've had delicious meals cooked for me. Treatments that really helped an injured shoulder. A French grandmother once asked me if I'd fix her bike in return for sexual favours! I've received songs, poems and hugs. I've fixed a Tibetan refugee's deathtrap bike in return for a good karma blessing – seems to be working so far... I've made friends with people from 8 to 88 years old from all walks of life.

Bizarrely, it turns out I don't take sterling because I'd feel all the poorer for it! But I'm in a privileged position in terms of income and skills, and I often find myself taking that for granted.

All in all, I fix bikes for free because it make me, and lots of other people happy, and it makes me, and lots of other people, more resilient. And given what's happening around the world right now, resilient and happy is exactly where I want to be right now. And who else wouldn't?

 

Photos: DoctorBike logo, Totnes Market Place and Ben ready to fix a bike (all courtesy of Doctor Bike)

Ben Brangwyn is the co-founder of the Transition Network and an active member of Transition Town Totnes. As well as offering his services as DoctorBike he is also involved in the local currency group.

Comments

Kerry Lane's picture

May the world be blessed with many DoctorBikes!

What a fantastic thing to do and lots of brilliant reasons too. I am not an qualified mechanic, but I know the basics of maintenance and repair and what makes a bike safe and rideable, and I really enjoy helping people to sort their bikes out. It's really satisfying to know the bike is more enjoyable to ride and that people will hopefully enjoy it more. 

Hopefully we will see many more DoctorBike's appearing soon!

Mark Boyle's picture

Honest and inspiring post

Thanks for such an inspiring post Ben, that's one of the best blog posts I've read it a long time.

I can personally vouch for the handiwork of Doctor Bike, who gave my bike the once over a few weeks ago and he may even have saved my life (considering my breaks barely worked)! Fantastic job.

Thanks Ben for all that you do and are - with Transition and Doctor Bike.

Steph Bradley's picture

thanks Ben

I love the way you are not only walking your talk (or should that be pedalling, or even spannering;)) but explaining why you do it too. I love how you are explicit about how you don't need the money. I love that you are living Transition - right here right now.

Your contribution to Transition is priceless

 

" I don't take sterling" could become a very lovely Transition mantra!! Or even a song...

 

...performed at the next Transition Conference perhaps....

lots of love,

Steph

Erica Thompson's picture

This is great and it's clear

This is great and it's clear both you and your "customers" get a lot out of the transactions.  And all of your reasons for doing it resonate with me.  But how does this impact other people who have trained to become qualified bicycle mechanics, who want to make a living from this profession, and who are undercut by your subsidy from your other job?

When I was a member of a juggling club (jugglers have a strong community), there was an unwritten rule that it was never appropriate to work without a charge, even if you didn't need or want the money, because it devalued the skill and time input of those who were trying to make a living and who didn't have a subsidy from another job.

How would you feel if I volunteered to do your job for free?  (You might have to start charging for the bicycle maintenance!)  Perhaps it would be good to put up a price list of what your time and skill are actually worth, so that those who take advantage of your very generous subsidy do not get the impression that bicycle maintenance is a value-less skill?

I'd like to know what your thoughts are because I feel sure there is an answer; clearly the move towards a less monetary valuation of skill is a good thing but in the transition phase it seems like a bit of an own goal to undercut and therefore price out anyone who wants to do this sort of thing for a living?  But surely it must also be possible, and positive, to choose to give freely.

Ben Brangwyn's picture

@Erica - you've made some

@Erica - you've made some valuable points and I'd like to answer them in 4 ways: how it is here, how it might be somewhere else, dealing with scale and demand, and then reframing your question. I'll also mention a relevant new development.

How it is here
There's only one bike shop here in Totnes and it has a continual queue of bikes for maintenance. The only other bike shop closed down over a year ago. The current place has a couple of outstanding mechanics (I've worked alongside one of them) and they do fine work. They also have quoted astronomically high estimates for work and they've missed crucial repair work as well. Many times they've told people that it's not worth fixing their bikes because the repairs would cost more than the value of the bike. Those are often the people who end up coming to me and if I fix their bikes they have mobility that they might otherwise not be able to afford. So I reckon your concerns don't apply to the circumstances here in Totnes right now.

How it might be somewhere else
If I were in Bath, say, things would be very different. I'd possibly be competing directly with Bath Bike Workshop, and since I love what they do, I wouldn't do anything to jeopardise the viability of their enterprise. What would I do instead as a way to explore alternative economics? I'm not sure, and I think that attests to the transition notion that solutions are EXTREMELY locality-specific.

Scale and demand
Totnes has about 8,000 inhabitants, which, according to the stats in the blog post, will mean there are about 5,000 bikes here. Each one of those will need one service per year, or almost 20 per day (for 260 working days in the year). I manage an average of 6 or 7 bikes on around 35 Saturdays in the year, equating to less than 5% of the "potential" demand. Now, you'd be right in saying that "potential" demand isn't "actual" demand. However, when I fix bikes I involve the rider, explaining to them how the machine works, what the safety issues are, what will improve their riding experience and I see people APPRECIATE their bike more. I also ask them about other bikes in their household and who else might do more riding. I feel reasonably certain that more miles are ridden as a result of my intervention and that I am increasing AGGREGATE demand for bike maintenance (while reducing car miles). And anyone who has been to Copenhagen will know just how high "potential" demand can be, with literally a bike shop less than every 100 yards in the city centre.

Reframing your question
Your question could have been asked in this way, "How do you feel about negatively impacting an industry that has a commercial imperative to sell products that customers don't need, at prices they can't afford, using up valuable natural resources unnecessarily, increasing environmental degradation and serving to perpetuate a linear manufacturing/servicing model that is bringing the planet perilously close to crucial natural boundaries?"

Different approaches for different circumstances
Yesterday I was asked by the local council to do some safety checking and fixing as part of a "biking at work" scheme they're running. It's a 2-hour assignment, and I'm charging them £25 per hour, payable by cheque to Transition Town Totnes.

In summary
I guess what I'm trying to say is that your questions can't be answered by general principles. The moment one of the factors change, something else has to adjust accordingly (as we'd expect within a complex system like a society or economy, however small). What might be totally appropriate for Totnes in 2012 might negatively impact resilience and happiness somewhere else. That's why local solutions designed by people who are intimately embedded in that locality are a foundation element of the complex web of solutions at all scales we need in order to get us out of the mess we've created for ourselves.

Erica Thompson's picture

Thanks :o)

Hi Ben,

Thanks for the thoughtful response.  I agree solutions have to be local, and clearly what you are doing in Totnes fills a much-needed niche.

I don't think your reframing of my question was really what I had intended by it though - of course I don't have a problem if you take a very small fraction of business from a self-serving multinational conglomerates (it would be even better if you put them out of business :o) ).

What still worries me is that it looks uncomfortably close to the unpaid-internships thing, where only those who can afford to subsidise themselves to work for free are allowed into an industry.  Now I realise you're not attempting to do this, and on the scale of one person it clearly makes no difference, so to be clear I am not criticising you or the situation in Totnes.  I agree 100% with your motivations, and I admire your choice and your efforts and your commitment.

But on a wider scale, if people see this and are inspired, is it a good thing if well-meaning middle class Transitioners do this kind of job for free and prevent other people finding a way to make a living from it?  Should we not be sharing out the labour and the returns (monetary or otherwise) more equally, each doing less (as the New Economics Foundation keep saying), rather than taking it all on at a below-market rate?  There is a niche for a paid bicycle mechanic at the market in Totnes, as a part of a new economy, and it seems a shame to lose a "green job" to someone who doesn't need the extra work.

Shaun Chamberlin's picture

Fantastic post Ben, and a

Fantastic post Ben, and a really insightful reply to Erica's excellent question, which has helped me own thinking along.  Thanks.

Ann Owen's picture

We need a Doctor Bike in Machynlleth!

Great article and and what an interesting discussion. 

I'm sure I would use my bike more if the pedals would go round smoothly instead of clonkingly and if my brakes didn't make that horrible squealing noise. Unfortunately our local bike repair shop is like the Totnes one; unaffordable and I doubt they would consider my rusty steed worthy of repairs.

Ben's initiative is about much more than just repairing bikes. It's real value lies in all the questions it raises and the connections that are made, the thinking that it inspires and the promotion of kindness and generosity. However, Erica does raise a very important point. As the crisis deepens and more and more people struggle to keep roofs over their heads and pay the bills, is it still cool to provide a service for free where it could possibly be a part of someone's livelyhood? How ethical is it to have jobs or services, which previously were provided by councils and paid staff, done by well-meaning well-off volunteers? If you are a person on a low income, you might have to work all the hours the day brings in order to make ends meet. This means that even if you wanted to, you could not volunteer your time, say f.i. at your childs school, which might well mean that it's not gonna be your child that gets a part in the school play...It feels like this could be an interesting workshop/discussion for the conference.

Times are getting harder and this is why projects like REconomy are vital and I think will prove to be a great succes. In the mean time, go Doctor Bike, keep the poor's bikes safe and squeak free, keep raising those questions, you're doing a great job!

Ben Brangwyn's picture

Fascinating comment from Energy Bulletin

Fascinating comment from Energy Bulletin (where this blog post is replicated)

Raintonite 2 days ago

When I recently started volunteering to work on a historic garden in Scotland the groundskeeper asked me in a very perplexed but not vexed manner why I was working for free. He just couldn't get his head around the idea of labouring for nothing.

I couldn't give him an answer - not one that made economic or even practical sense. I was stumped. I still am.

Orginally the idea of voluteering was to beef up my CV with gardening references. However, I quickly became involved in researching the garden's history as it's undergoing a remake to incorporate the addition of older planting regimes. I now couldn't be bothered updating the old CV as both the physical gardening and research produce their own merits. I'm learning new things and doing some practical labour.

At the same time, I sold my van and took to mostly foot locomotion. I stop carrying money around with me and the means to get at it easily. I stopped watching TV. I've started other activities and started making plans that don't directly involve making a living but simply means to living.

Once you decide on a course of action, you just start doing and stop thinking about it. Once it gains a momentum of its own, you just stop trying to justify your actions within the context of our commonly accepted narratives. Doing things out of the ordinary becomes common place.

Anyhow, my labour isn't free. I own it again. Or maybe I own it for the first time in my life by not charging for it.

It's very hard to explain. It's almost alien.

I think he's right. There's something about claiming my labour back. It's very deep. So deep I don't think I'd really noticed it.

Shaun Chamberlin's picture

Maybe it's something to do

Maybe it's something to do with the clash of cultural viewpoints here?

There seems to be a difference between those who ask "how can we get the money we need to live in these difficult times" (for whom people doing useful work for free can be seen as a threat undercutting their potential employment), and those who ask "how can we access the resources and people we need to live in these difficult times" (for whom people doing useful work for free can be seen as a valuable resource).

The interactions between these two cultural viewpoints (and the very different economies each would like to create) raise a lot of interesting questions.  Two spring to mind now:

  • Perhaps the meaning of 'livelihood' can be more than just a way of earning money, and expand to encompass any way of sustaining one's life, money-based or not?
  • Many see the 'Big Society' as a cynical ploy to replace funded local services with overstretched volunteers meeting the same needs, but could a volunteer-based society be a better one?

If we are not paid for our labours, then we are free to do our work as we see fit, thus freeing us from all that top-down bureaucracy, unaccountable control etc that "suck energy, joy, innovation and creativity from just about anything they get involved in", as the original post put it.  So could volunteers perhaps find the freedom to replace soulless, impersonal Council-provided services with something alive, nourishing and potent?

Wonderful!  But then how are the volunteers to be sustained?  As Ann says, what if we are working all the hours in the day just to keep our heads above water - how then can we afford to volunteer to create such a new alternative?

The answer, in a functioning REconomy, is surely that we would be supported - fed, housed, clothed etc - by other aspects of the informal economy, as we learn to rely on each other again, instead of on money (to me this principle is the core of 'Transition Money', as I blogged recently)

The problem, then, is that we currently live in a society dominated by the formal economy, so those informal support structures can be hard to find.  Living as we are through the clash of these cultural perspectives, we can end up with the worst of both worlds (unpaid interns stuck with all the frustrations and isolation of mainstream employment models but without any pay) or the best of both worlds (Dr. Bike enjoying the freedom of independence and the pleasures of informal economy interaction while having enough money income to cover those things for which he needs money).

Hm, just a few thoughts I'm now mulling over, I'm grateful for the stimulus and look forward to more informal discussion :)

Shaun

ps  I owe a debt here to an interesting conversation I had with John Holloway in which he argued that the unions will ultimately need to get beyond the important work they do of fighting for "jobs", and start working towards people being able to determine their own labour and lives.  Is fighting for the right to be paid to do someone else's bidding the best we can hope for?

Ann Owen's picture

Beyond wage slavery

Thanks Shaun, for such a thought-through comment. As one who has a foot in both camps; needing to work all hours to make ends meet and enough of an idealist to regularly try and insert bits of gift economy thinking (we sell veg from our market garden to local people at a guide price, customers decide whether they can afford more or less and give us what they feel they can) the dream of a "different way" has a powerful draw. And yes, we have to get beyond wage slavery, it's creating a lot of disempowerment, conflict and unhappiness.

How about it then? Do we have a date for a workshop/discussion at the conference, so we can talk strategies?

Ann Owen's picture

It's a thin line

Anyhow, my labour isn't free. I own it again. Or maybe I own it for the first time in my life by not charging for it.

Ah, so true, so powerful, but such a thin line between empowerment, being the change and being simply a mug or a "blackleg". How to negociate this territory safely and with the desired outcomes? Such an emotive topic in these economically harder times. Yet this is the change that is so needed to heal society from the worst expressions of the capitalist disease. How to encourage this new, "alien" way of thinking and working along in a socially just context? I'm currently reading "Ecotopia" for the first time, the serendipity is making me laugh out loud!

Isabel Carlisle's picture

Dr Bike and gift culture

Dear Ben

This is such a great articulation of what is possible in gift culture, and your motivations and the satisfaction factor that I am making it item 1 in reading material for One Year in Transition (the new one-year learning journey for over-18s). Thanks for being such a brilliant example of how to walk the talk.

Isabel (Carlisle)