Two weeks ago, I bought a bike. I was committed to buying a used bike—seeing the carcasses of cheap, mass-produced bikes around Oxford scared me off of new ones—but was also wary of purchasing something from Craiglist and feeding into Berkeley’s rampant bike theft. I lucked out, though, and found a store that refurbishes old bikes.
The dated Schwinn road bike I bought needed some repairs before I drove it off the lot (so to speak), but I was assured they would be done in a week. I gave it an extra day, and called to see if it was done. No one answered, and their voicemail box was full. After waiting another day, I decided to just go to the store—no easy feat since, given my lack of a bicycle, I had to walk three miles. I arrived to discover that, in the last week, they had done absolutely nothing. Nada. Zilch. After pointing this out to the mechanic on duty, he set to work, promising that he could recable it by the afternoon. Again, though, I played it safe, waiting until the next day to call and see if it was done. Once again, no one answered, so once again, I trekked to the shop. At this point, the bike was even less rideable than the day before; shortly after I left—I was informed—the mechanic disappeared, and he wouldn’t be back for a few days. The staff member who was there proceeded to try to convince me to take another bike—in this case, a run-down children’s mountain bike—but I passed.
This is, you might say, no way to run a business. But here’s the catch: the store from which I bought my bike isn’t a business, at least in the conventional sense. It’s a workers-owned cooperative. The idea behind Recycle Bike is a great one: take the abandoned bikes left by students every year and give them at low cost to people who need them. Unlike some of the other anarchist-inspired cooperatives I’ve visited, both the store’s customers and workers are a racially and socioeconomically diverse bunch. In short, there was nothing not to like about Recycle Bike—except, as it turned out, that it kind of sucked at providing bicycles.
Community-run cooperatives do not have a monopoly on inefficiency. Despite the faith Americans place in financial incentives and free markets, I’ve had plenty of bad customer experiences at for-profit businesses. But, to some extent, I expect it there—businesses that exist to make money, not serve people, tend to be better at making money than serving people. Cooperatives like Recycle Bike, on the other hand, combine a commitment to helping people with humane labor practices and a lot of good intentions—and yet, somehow, these things concatenate into dysfunction. It’s a paradox I’ve experienced with many a leftist movement: a tendancy for innumerable positive qualities of the individuals participating to lead to outcomes that are somehow much less than the sum of their parts.
I did eventually get my bike. Ultimately, I just showed up and refused to leave sans wheels. The guy who performed the final tune-up was so kind and apologetic that I couldn’t help but feel bad for my frustration. I rode home, my faith in humanity restored. At least until the chain fell off.