It Takes a Bike
An ex-Peace Corps volunteer's bike donation program for developing countries aims to boost local economies
Only one man owned a bicycle in the impoverished Ecuadorian village of Sucúa in 1977, a prosperous carpenter who was the landlord of Peace Corps volunteer David Schweidenback. Schweidenback knew his landlord was not a particularly skilled carpenter, and never understood why he was more prosperous than the others.
“Then it really dawned on me why this guy was so successful,” Schweidenback said. “He had mankind’s greatest invention: the wheel.”
Whereas other tradesmen were limited by how far they could walk, Schweidenback’s landlord could bike 10 miles outside of the village for jobs.
Schweidenback came to view the lack of transportation as a leading cause of the villagers’ poverty.
“Absolutely everyone walked everywhere and it was peaceful and tranquil, but they didn’t get a lot done,” Schweidenback said.
Mobility and Prosperity
Over the next dozen years, Schweidenback thought about this whenever he saw bicycles in the trash, or broken ones at yard sales, in his hometown of High Bridge, N.J. One day in 1991, he “foolishly” decided to collect a dozen bikes and ship them to Sucúa.
Things didn’t work out exactly as he planned.
Instead, after he had collected 140 bikes, he began to envision what this could do for other impoverished families in developing countries.
This was the start of Pedals for Progress, Schweidenback’s nonprofit organization that today boasts a nine-person staff and volunteers based in High Bridge, N.J., which has sent 125,000 bikes to 32 countries.
“I started getting involved in this, and became so enthralled by the whole concept that we could change society for the better,” he said.
The idea, he said, was simple: to act as a bridge between people who have bikes they no longer want and the people who need a means of transportation in Latin America, Africa and Central Europe.
It costs $35 to get one bike to a user in a poor region. Pedals for Progress asks $10 from the bicycle donor, and receives an average of $10 from the sale of the bike abroad (bikes are sold at 10% of their estimated worth).
“My greatest challenge is coming up with that other $15,” Schweidenback said. “I can only ship as many bikes as I can raise $15 for.”
Schweidenback said that the other part of his job is very “blue collar,” working with a minimum of 6 to 8 people to pick up as many 30-pound bikes as possible at each collection. The bikes are then loaded on to an 18-wheeler and dropped off at a warehouse. From there, they are put on ocean freights.
Central America and Africa
Right now Pedals is working mainly in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Moldova, Ghana, Uganda and Sierra Leone. Two of its biggest partnerships are in El Salvador (more than 20,000 bikes shipped) where bikes are sent to a San Salvador training organization that teaches people to be bike mechanics; and to Rivas, Nicaragua, where donations of nearly 17,000 bikes over the years have put more than 35 percent of the population of about 30,000 on wheels. Pedals says this has “noticeably boosted local economic activity.”
Collections are primarily sponsored by groups — church groups, bike shops, bar and bat mitzvah projects—in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut.
Ryan Hermansky, 18, of Delran, N.J., took up a Pedals for Progress collection for his Boy Scouts of America project. The 66 bikes he collected were sent to Accra, Ghana.
“If I had built a swing set for someone, that’d be nice, but it isn’t the same impact as giving people bikes to use as transportation,” Hermansky said. “The people who get these bikes will be able to ride to school and work and it will really make their lives better.”
Schweidenback said he finds it amazing how many bikes Americans buy—23 million new bicycles each year, 18 million of them adult bicycles—leaving their old ones unused in basements, garages, or landfills.
“We’re throwing the old ones in the landfills because they are the wrong color,” Schweidenback said.
Sending bikes to developing countries is not merely a short-term fix for poverty, Schweidenback pointed out. “The bicycle represents the cleanest form of transportation and it dramatically increases the movement of goods and services, which allows societies to grow in steps.”
Schweidenback had worked a middle school teacher, carpenter and contractor. But after collecting those first bikes, he knew this is what he wanted to do.
“I was afraid I would cut my fingers off because I’d be cutting wood but thinking about bikes,” Schweidenback said. So, he talked it over with his wife, a professor at Pace University, and “she gave me a year to try it out.”
Pedals for Progress receives hundreds of different brands of bicycles, including 28-speed mountain bikes, name brands such as Gary Fisher, and custom made Terry bikes.
“We get everything from bikes that were made in the 1920s to bikes that you could ride in the Tour de France,” Schweidenback said.
Real estate developer Jeremy Doppelt, of Boonton, N.J., began volunteering a year ago after seeing a pamphlet in his local bike store. An avid cyclist, Doppelt said was amazed to learn about how a bike can change a life. He recalled learning about children who slept outside of their schools at night because the walk home was too far.
“It’s crazy because, like the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and this really applies to Pedals for Progress,” he said.
Schweidenback, who was named a CNN Hero in 2008 and has received numerous other prestigious awards for his work, said that Pedals for Progress is only a “small drop in a big bucket,” considering that there are 3 billion poor people on the planet.
“Yet it gets me up in the morning and I know everyday there are families that have a brighter future because of the bikes we send them.”
Lisa Euker studies journalism at New York University.