Down among Melbourne’s legal precinct, where lawyers in sharp suits go about their business, is a small and bustling bicycle shop. It looks like any other bike shop – it’s full of bikes, equipment and keen pedal-pushers but there is something different about this destination. In truth, it would be over-simplifying to call Good Cycles a bike shop, in the same way it’s not quite accurate to describe Vegemite as a breakfast spread: there’s so much more going on than just the business of bikes.
Good Cycles is a social enterprise ostensibly about generating jobs for young people but also about exploring new ways to engage with city problems of rubbish, sustainability and access. And as our cities become more crowded and congested, the humble bicycle could become the most efficient way to minimise some of the city’s issues.
Good Cycles CEO Jaison Hoernel is a big and genial presence. He is thoughtful, animated and incisive, reflecting a varied career that includes not only running his own bike shops but also a life-long devotion to social equity. He learned early on that what you saw on the outside of the bike industry wasn’t necessarily what was going on internally. “It looks like everyone is riding bikes but the industry itself is fairly cottage,’’ he explains. “It’s got no regulatory environment. The push for professionalism is actually coming from the manufacturers and the brands in an attempt to leverage market share and market differentiation. If as an employer I wanted a bike mechanic who’s going to make me money, they need to have been doing it for three or four years at least because it’s quite a complex problem-solving task.’’ That was an observation that went to the heart of what the first iteration of Good Cycles did: provide support and training for disadvantaged youth through rehabilitating broken bikes destined for landfill. At the end of their six-eight weeks with Good Cycles, the young person would emerge with a bike, a lock and a helmet, and often a potentially significant change in their circumstance – they had a cheap means of mobility. The engagement was intense and successful, but it wasn’t a sustainable model.
The business was established by Loretta Curtin and Luke Wright in 2013, and when they stepped back three years later, Jaison joined the organisation and shifted the emphasis. “We were still looking at that retail and bike environment but instead of training bike mechanics we wanted to create employability skills, giving a young person that first real job: they can work for us a while, we can give them a credible reference to go out and get another job.’’
That has translated into a range of programs that combine bikes’ capacity to dodge congestion and inaccessibility with the challenges of city living - from car cleaning to food wastage, to rubbish recycling. Although it generates about 80 per cent of its own revenue, Good Cycles has several strategic supporters, including Geelong’s Give Where You Live, the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation in Melbourne and last week, the Paul Ramsay Foundation’s Peer To Peer Program – run in partnership with Philanthropy Australia - awarded Good Cycles $150,000 to help to fund the development of social enterprise in the City of Liverpool NSW to create employment pathways for disadvantaged youth.
Good Cycles in action on Melbourne's famous Degraves st
The grantmaking has enabled Good Cycles to combine job-creation with bike-led solutions. It started with carshare companies about two and a half years ago. Sub-contractors usually carried out the fortnightly inspection and cleaning of shared cars, moving around the city in vans containing their cleaning products. “We said we could do that on a cargo bike,’’ Jaison explains. “We’ve got a cleaning method…using that as an opportunity to create employment plus removing van and truck trips from the CBD.’’ The cargo bike service covers 600 cars across Geelong, Sydney, Melbourne, creating jobs for cycling cleaners. “The methodology of cleaning cars in instilling those simple job readiness skills – turn up to work on time. It’s instant – you can see the reward for your work. It’s really powerful,’’ Jaison says. The program has worked so well it has seen off its competitors, including start-ups using the gig economy, who haven’t been able to match Good Cycles’ cleaning quality. The program also raised another important question - what else could Good Cycles do around the city? The answer proved to be as varied as it was engaging.
It ranges from inspecting the condition (and repairing) the bike path on the Melbourne’s ring road, to a laneways project in Geelong that is trialling the use of cargo bikes to pick up rubbish from businesses operating in narrow streets.
“Councils usually don’t pick up business waste or if they do, it has to be at specific times,’’ Jaison says. “In Geelong, they have a problem with that because when they designed these buildings, they didn’t create a space for the waste bins. But now half a dozen waste trucks coming in and out of there every day, some places they can’t get to.
“What [Geelong] council’s proposed is – ‘We’ll put up a hub at the end of the street where you can deposit your waste as often as you need to, so you could walk them down there, but we’ll pick it up in a cargo bike. We’ll provide that service for you,’’ Jaison says.
“In Geelong, there are five laneways: it’s pretty small and self-contained trial. But it’s directly solving a problem the council has: they don’t want bins in the street.’’
In the Melbourne CBD, Good Cycles does some work for CityWide, initially picking up food waste from the cafes and restaurants in Degraves St and now extending their collection points, using cargo bikes each day. On each of these bikes – which can carry 200kg, including the rider – is someone who now has a job. Although it sounds like hard work, the cargo bikes are electric-powered and can reach 25kph, taking the sting out of the journeys around town. There are plans to import some European cargo bikes that could expand the load weight to 400kgs.
The next big step for Good Cycles is tackling youth unemployment in Liverpool. One thing is certain – it will involve providing a new way to get young locals moving while generating a lasting benefit to their community.