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What happens to abandoned bicycles? The City Council is working to see if they can be repurposed

(Somerville Wire) – At a Sept. 23 City Council meeting, Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen put forward an order that the chief of police establish a policy to donate unclaimed bicycles to local non-profit organizations and/or to auction them to the public. Ewen-Campen came up with the idea in response to an experience when a constituent described an incident when she found an abandoned bike in her driveway. He spoke with Somerville Police Department Chief Charles Femino and the City’s Law Department and is hoping to have more discussion about the topic.

“I think that this could be a great opportunity to find a way to provide bikes that are not otherwise in use to people who could use them,” said Ewen-Campen. “It started, basically, because a resident reached out to me. There was an unknown bike in her driveway, and she reported it to the City. She was told that it would have to be destroyed—and that turned out to not be true, but it caused me to look into what the process is. My sense is that over the years, the City has taken a few different approaches. I know that there have been times when we’ve done auctions; there have been times when we sold them to local stores and used the money for the City budget. The order is really to look into whether there’s a way that we can take the opportunity, where we have bikes on our hands, to give them to a local non-profit or to people who can use them, and/or to auction them at affordable prices to help increase bikes in our community.”

Councilor Jesse Clingan expressed support for the idea during the City Council meeting, saying that he had always envisioned an organization like Bikes Not Bombs refurbishing unclaimed bikes and distributing them to children in the Mystic Projects. He also imagined that biking classes could be held so that kids could learn how to safely ride in their neighborhoods. Clingan said that he would like to see city streets become safer and more conducive to cyclists, and having protected, separated bike lanes is one step in the right direction. A plan for the bikes could have goals of achieving greater social equity.

“Everybody needs bikes, but in the name of equity, we would try to get the bikes to the folks who most likely are not able to necessarily buy one, or have the resources to get one, or the ability to maintain one,” said Clingan. He added, “If we’re trying to get bikes into the hands of our most marginalized residents, then, yes, there’s always a social justice aspect to anything you do in an inner city where there’s such a disparity between the wealthier families with money to buy fancy bikes and the kids who can’t go and buy a bike.”

Clingan said that in the past, he attended an auction that the City held, but he believes this practice has not continued recently. Some bikes had been collected in the basement of the Powderhouse School, and Clingan said, “I think they just pulled them out from the basement there” and decided to sell them. Unclaimed bikes that are to be distributed to the public must be sold at a price and cannot simply be handed out. Now, the City has accumulated “a bunch of bikes in the garage of the police station,” said Clingan. Bikes can typically sell anywhere from $100 to $2,000, and Clingan said that he believes bike dealers would be eager to get their hands on abandoned ones.

Somerville Police Department Chief Charles Femino said that he would be in support of some kind of redistribution program and affirmed that SPD has looked into this in the past. He would be interested in working together with the City Council to develop a plan for the bikes in the future.

“I am in full support of the councilor’s proposal to donate unclaimed bikes to local organizations who need them,” wrote Femino, in a statement. “We are currently exploring the details of what this process could look like, and I look forward to continuing to work with the Council on this initiative.”

Ewen-Campen said that he is open to hearing ideas about how redistributing the bikes could help improve life in the city.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to teach local residents about basic bike maintenance and bike safety, how to ride bikes in the city, and to remove any financial barriers that there might be to getting a bike,” said Ewen-Campen. He added, “Bikes are an amazing way to get around. They’re good for the environment. They’re good for health. They’re cheaper than cars. They’re quiet. Of course, we want to make sure that there’s no financial barriers to getting a bike, to learning how to ride a bike safely, in a dense city like Somerville. Anything we could do to help would be great.”

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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