New worker cooperative envisions a bicycling economy for all
Madison CycleWorks is a worker cooperative on the north side that will offer mobile bicycle repair and delivery of food and goods by bicycle.
Pepe Barros Hoffens is an industrial engineer, independent bike mechanic, Chilean immigrant and, until January 2022, the city of Madison’s pedestrian and bicycle outreach coordinator. Grant Foster is a bilingual parent, a District 15 alder and a co-founder of Madison Bikes, a bicycling advocacy and community organization. Neither really uses a car — Foster doesn’t even own one. They bicycle year-round through Wisconsin’s brutal winters and unpredictable seasons. Both are big believers in bike delivery, worker cooperatives, a living wage, fighting climate change, anti-racism work, human-powered transportation and equitable access to cycling. This spring, they’ve rolled all of those concepts together in a new business, Madison CycleWorks, a worker cooperative on the north side that will offer mobile bicycle repair and delivery of food and goods by bicycle — something that doesn’t yet exist at this scale in Madison, despite the city’s “Platinum” bicycle-friendly designation from the League of American Bicyclists.
“This is a bike town, a lot of people recognize Madison for that,” says Barros Hoffens. “And every time we mentioned this [CycleWorks project] to someone in Madison, they’d say something like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe this isn’t already happening.’ ”
CycleWorks opened in April on Madison’s Pennsylvania Avenue (coincidentally, it’s near Union Cab, one of the city’s first-ever worker-owned cooperatives, for which Foster once drove), but the whole thing took about a year to come together. Foster and Barros Hoffens started brainstorming in spring 2021. Early on, they were joined by Juan Tomás Martínez, another native Spanish-speaking friend who’d voiced interest in starting a pedal taxi business. Additional founding members, Tom Wilson and Caitlin Hussey, came on board, and the group successfully applied for a $10,000 startup grant from the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition to assist with legal fees and organizational costs. By the first part of this year, they’d begun adding their first nonfounding members, starting with experienced bike mechanic Jesús González Manjarrez; and in March they launched a Kiva microloan campaign to raise money to purchase a fleet.
“A lot of my work in the city as a bike advocate active on transportation issues is coming from a place of believing we can — and we have to — use more human power to get around,” Foster says. “And so this feels like something much more concrete. Not doing it through policy or infrastructure, but actually creating a business.”
CycleWorks isn’t just a meeting of its founding members’ minds — it seeks to fill a larger unmet need in Madison, a city that already has a strong biking infrastructure and citizen buy-in but is still largely focused on recreational cycling. “We would like to push toward a cultural change at a level of how we are using and relating to bikes right now in town,” says Barros Hoffens. “And I think the city is ready for the next step, which is really integrating bicycles in the center of its economy.”
Madison also has a growing demand for bicycles and bike repair, Barros Hoffens says, with new shops opening every year that instantly develop long waitlists for increasingly expensive repairs. And still, he says, too many people are unable to access or are uncomfortable using the area’s many resources — including those in Spanish-speaking communities, for whom he often ends up serving as a conduit.
“There’s a big push in the whole country for people of color and people with Latinx backgrounds to come more into biking,” says Barros Hoffens. “I’m a Latino, and a lot of the Latino families come to me when they want to know about bikes. They want to buy bikes. Every week, I’m receiving calls. … I think there’s a big gap there.”
Barros Hoffens also believes mobile bike repair is the future. However, while most mobile bicycle shops bring the repair experience to customers by van, Barros Hoffens started his own business in 2017, Down With Bikes, to pedal his tools and workstation to various neighborhoods, schools and organizations on his cargo bike. Down With Bikes will naturally fold into CycleWorks because “it’s a good intersection of how the whole market is moving toward being more virtual,” he says, adding that many larger retailers have also pivoted to delivering bikes their customers purchased online. “We can offer both things, delivery and mobile bike repair, at the same time.”
Both Foster and Barros Hoffens hope that the more that people witness bicycling for transportation — kids pedaling to school year-round, CycleWorks members delivering restaurant orders all over the city or mechanics using cargo bikes to repair rides in people’s driveways and workplaces — the more it will normalize everyday cycling, eventually leading to better infrastructure and access. As a parent, Foster is particularly interested in empowering kids to safely pedal around the city regardless of where they live, and Barros Hoffens is excited to appeal to the “car-free curious” crowd. They also feel a synergy with the service industry people who make the foods and goods we have delivered, and they say models like CycleWorks get the money to those people, resulting in a healthier, more equitable workforce.
“It’s really not just an interesting niche kind of thing, like, ‘Let’s do something and let’s do it in a weird way,’” says Foster, pointing to examples of successful bike delivery worker co-ops such as Shift Delivery in Vancouver, Canada, and Confluence Courier in Denver. The group also sought guidance from CoopCycle, a Europe-based federation of bike delivery co-ops that has developed a software platform. “So it’s almost strange that we don’t have it here yet, because it’s a lot more common I think in a lot of places,” he says.
One of the most practical components of bike delivery is picking up packages from distribution centers, a concept known as “last-mile delivery.” Amazon is already using it in some regions, and Madison was one of the cities chosen by FedEx last summer to test its e-bike delivery pilot program. “It just makes sense when you don’t have to pay for big trucks and the insurance and the fuel and everything else,” Foster says.
Foster says that while the bicycling industry focuses primarily on recreation, bicycles could and should be integrated into almost all areas of our lives.
“I would say for me it really comes down to our name,” says Foster. “It’s CycleWorks, so it really is focused on using bikes as tools to get stuff done … and helping other people that want to do the same.”
Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.
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