Building Bikes & Community: Golden Wheel Awardees San Francisco Yellow Bike

Photo by Nuala Sawyer

Every year at the Golden Wheel Awards, we honor people who are transforming our city into a more people- and bike- friendly place. This year on July 30, San Francisco Yellow Bike will be one of two groups to take home the award.

The San Francisco Yellow Bike is a grassroots, pop-up, do-it-yourself, community-building machine that brings dead bikes back to life and puts more people on two wheels for free or cheap.

Founded in 2011, they have salvaged hundreds of bikes and taught just as many volunteers how to fix bikes. Operating out of a volunteer-run shop on Ellis Street in the Tenderloin, the San Francisco Yellow Bike has been a key partner in making the SF Bicycle Coalition’s Community Bike Build program a success.

Co-founders Mary Kay Chin and Nathan Woody recently took some time to answer a few of our burning questions:

When you co-founded the San Francisco Yellow Bike, how did you see it changing your community?
Mary Kay: We founded San Francisco Yellow Bike in order to increase access to the resources needed to own and operate a bicycle safely. We imagined creating a space run by volunteers and fueled by community donations that served those most in need of access to bicycles and repair know-how.

Nathan: There are often a lot of barriers to get community members onto a bike. Our goal was to lower these barriers so everyone in the community can have equal access. With more people biking on the streets, we’ve seen a rise in overall road safety, a decrease in environmental impact and an increase in community members who now power — and are empowered by — their own transportation.

Were there any challenges that caught you off guard when you were getting San Francisco Yellow Bike off the ground?
Mary Kay: Finding a physical space was a huge challenge. San Francisco is not the cheapest place to operate a nonprofit, especially one that has physical needs. Our first space, while large, was poorly located and difficult to find. But I had seen a space open in the Tenderloin and knew we could directly benefit an underserved area of the city. We’ve been here 20 some-odd months now and have embraced the community here.

Can you remember one encounter you had through your work with the Yellow Bike Project that really stuck with you?
Nathan: One of my favorite memories at Yellow Bike was watching our work come full circle.

Terence had been volunteering with us for six months and had learned quite a bit about bike maintenance and repair. One night a new volunteer, Michelle, came in wanting to learn the basics about taking care of bikes. Typically that would mean the volunteer starts by helping me out with a project. Well, this night Terence took on the role of the teacher by jumping in and working with Michelle, teaching her how to adjust brakes. As they worked together, I watched the knowledge I had helped impart to Terence be passed on to the next volunteer and took great pride in helping create a space where all are welcome to come in, help, learn and teach all at the same time.

Is there anything important about San Francisco Yellow Bike that people overlook, or something about which people have a mistaken impression?
Mary Kay: Probably the biggest is that we’re all volunteer. We’ve held over 300 shops, refurbished more than 1,000 bikes and have had volunteers dedicate countless hours since we started. That’s no small feat! We volunteer this time – in one of the most expensive cities in the country – because we truly believe in what we do and the impact it has on our community.

All these years later, what’s surprised you most about the role San Francisco Yellow Bike has played in peoples’ lives?
Nathan: I think the think that has surprised me is the passion our volunteers have brought to our work, and how their energy has sustained both the organization and my personal motivation to continue to serve. As an all-volunteer staff sometimes the SF Yellow Bike Project can get pushed to the background of people’s lives. Through our combined energy though we always seem to find the right time to pick up an associate, support the organization or be there when someone needs some help. Our bike resource has morphed into a community support group serving to help us all remember why we love to ride and why we love sharing that feeling with others.

Want to attend the Golden Wheel Awards on July 30 and help us honor the SF Yellow Bike Project? Get your tickets today!

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