T.O.A.D. wants as many people to ride bicycles as possible

The backyard at the end of Hoffman Court in the Vine neighborhood is a busy place on Monday afternoons. Lots of bikes are turned upside down for repairs and riders on others are circling the yard, testing to see if fixes are complete.

This is the weekly bike clinic, one of the regular offerings of T.O.A.D., a bicycle cooperative that has been working for more than two years to make riding and maintaining bicycles something anyone in the community can do.

Today, among the many jobs in process, they have repaired one bike that was in a serious smash up and another with a wheel that had been misshapen in an unrelated mishap. This is a perfect spot for those who feel the "imperative to wrench," as one of the coops founders says.

Sean Cleary and Mike Palmer are the driving forces behind the T.O.A.D., the ones who keep it on the road. "This has been our life for the past two years," Palmer  says. "There are people back here every day."

Cleary can’t get any more numbers into his phone since it’s full with names and numbers with notes like Jeff, needs wheel, and Sarah, needs brakes. For him it’s easiest to remember someone by the repairs that bring them to T.O.A.D.

Over the life of the organization, a lot of people have offered ideas for new directions for it to take, but, as Cleary says, the two of them have put their time and money into T.O.A.D. and they will not be diverted from its primary mission -- making riding a bicycle available to everyone, especially those who cannot afford other modes of transportation.

"If someone needs a bicycle we want our name to pop into their heads," says Cleary. In keeping with the group’s aims, it’s not uncommon to get bikes for free or in the $20 range from the cooperative.

There’s another way T.O.A.D’s philosophy and goals are easy to discern: Study its name. T.O.A.D. stands for Train, Organize, Assemble and Disseminate. They want to train people to be able to perform their own basic bike maintenance, organize a bike culture in Kalamazoo, assemble working bicycles from junk bikes, and disseminate information on biking, from how to ride safely in a group to rules of the road.

Or, as Palmer says: "We want to empower Kalamazoo community by encouraging independence through mobility. We will set you on a path to bicycle maintenance proficiency."

In that way, T.O.A.D. is like other bicycle cooperatives across the county. Most are dedicated to getting people on bikes they can use as a primary source of transportation and teaching maintenance and repairs to keep those bikes on the road. It’s difficult to get a handle on how many such cooperatives exist or even how many there are in Michigan, although one online list names 15 organizations and there are established co-ops in Ann Arbor and Detroit.

Palmer says the Kalamazoo-area bicycle cooperative and most others he is familiar with are largely independent affairs and for T.O.A.D there is little contact with other bike co-ops in the state. The group does collaborate with the Bike Stable at Western Michigan University, a student-run bike shop, and a similar organization at Kalamazoo College. They make sure their workshop days don’t conflict with each other, he says.

There’s more to it than fixing bikes, though. T.O.A.D. often sends out a call by text or Reddit for a purely for fun group ride -- the Risque Underwear Ride was a recent midnight diversion that drew 42 bike riders and picked up two more on the way back to Hoffman Court.

There typically are at least three weekly rides, each at different paces so bikers with a range of abilities can participate.

And although the group’s founders have definite opinions and political views as one might expect of organizers of a cooperative, T.O.A.D. does not endorse any political viewpoints as they don’t want people to avoid riding based on perceived political biases.

They do encourage people to be politically active, however, especially when it comes to issues that deal with biking. They encouraged members to sign a petition calling for a stronger Complete Streets Policy.

And a long term goal for T.O.A.D. is to work with city planners to make the road layout of Kalamazoo more conducive to bicycle commuting. For example, the road layout around the junction of Oakland and Stadium drives and Michigan Avenue. Stadium Drive has four lanes and a turning lane, but almost no shoulder or room for bikes near its intersection with Lovell Street.  

Palmer says its challenging to commute from WMU’s campus to the Vine Neighborhood or downtown. All the side streets -- Oliver, Howard and West Main -- have steep hills. On the east edge of WMU's campus a bike rider’s only choice is to hop onto a sidewalk for a bit and ride very slowly until he or she can find the way to one of the main streets.

"It can be harrowing for people who are casual riders," Palmer says.

A cut-through on Bellevue Place could be modified to allow easier and safer flow of bicycle traffic into the Vine neighborhood and downtown, he suggests.

That dead end street leads to a wide sidewalk that goes directly to Davis Street in the Vine Neighborhood. But the sidewalk often has a locked metal gate over it on Davis Street, reducing its utility to cyclists. With minor renovations, that path could become the main path for cyclists in that area and reduce the number of bikes riding on the sidewalk on Lovell Street or riding the wrong way down Lovell to get to Davis Street.

"There are a lot of little tweaks like this that could get the bike traffic flowing a bit more efficiently," Palmer says. "Most people wouldn't think of them unless they themselves commuted by bike daily."

Other goals are for the group to become a nonprofit and find a workspace that is closer to the center of downtown Kalamazoo.

Till then, the group will continue to occupy the two houses at the end of Hoffman Court -- or the compound, as they call it. That’s where people know to drop off bikes they can no longer use. Cleary says it’s a lot like organ donations in that one donation leads to a lot of repairs. "The donation of one kind of crappy mountain bike can lead to 10 or 15 repairs," Cleary says.

As repairs continue around the yard, this reporter gets into her car and tries to maneuver in a tight spot between a back porch and a bike parked in front of the garage, backing and turning, backing and turning. It’s impossible to escape the conclusion a bicycle would have been on the road by now. Mission accomplished, T.O.A.D.

Kathy Jennings is Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance editor and writer.

Photos by Erik Holladay.

Mike Palmer helps fix Anita Wuoti's bicycle that was damaged during the groups Midnight Underwear Ride.

Mac Armstrong, lower left and Sam Demorest, lower right, work on repairing bicycles along with other members of T.O.A.D.

Mac Armstrong takes apart a wheel frame to salvage a few parts for another bike. He is a part of T.O.A.D which stands for Train, Organize, Assemble and Disseminate.

Mike Palmer attempts to fix an out of true wheel.

Sam Demorest helps take apart a wheel to salvage parts for another bicycle.

Mike Palmer puts the finishing touches on repairs to a members bike.

Julian Lord-Hill repairs the front tire of his bicycle.
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