A while back a friend here in Totnes, after learning of my DoctorBike sessions in the market on a Saturday, asked me, “Why do you fix bikes for free?”.

DoctorBike logoSounds like a simple question, but it isn’t. And behind it is a whole lot of assumptions and prejudices.

So, unpacking the questions:

“Why do I fix bikes?” That’s a very simple question to answer – because I enjoy it, because I’m good at it, because it’s needed. It’s needed because there is a very high level of bike ownership in the UK (90% of kids, 45% of adults, according to a 2003 British Medial Journal paper) and a significant proportion of them are unused because of minor mechanical problems. Of the ones being used, my experience indicates that well over half have niggles that, if fixed, would improve the rider’s enjoyment, and around 20% have a safety problem, sometimes very serious. Additionally, simple maintenance work can increase the longevity of a bike and I try to impart these easy-to-learn practices when I’m fixing someone’s bike. On my DoctorBike sign, I’ve written “keeping Totnes on two wheels rather than four” – which kind of says it all.

“Why am I doing it for free?” Less simple to answer. I think there are six main answers – the potential of state interference, my views on money/consumption/CO2, a spirit of economic experimentation, an appreciation for the tough economic situation that lots of people find themselves in, something to do with self-confidence in terms of “business”, and lastly a desire for interesting human interactions. I’ll deal with each of these in turn.

Totnes marketIn terms of state interference, I don’t charge money for my work because I don’t want the taxman and regulators crawling over my joyous experience fixing bikes. I’ve got rather poorly rationalised (and very deep) notions about how unaccountable authorities suck energy, joy, innovation and creativity from just about anything they get involved in. I’m a fully qualified mechanic, I’m insured and I’m meticulous and conscientious. That’s better than a whole load of bike shops, and it’s good enough for me.

I don’t charge because I don’t actually need the money. I have a full-time job with Transition Network (www.transitionnetwork.org) that pays sufficiently (though a lot less than other jobs I’ve had). I’m also working on simplifying my life and reducing my consumption levels. More money would not help that process and, given the correlation between increasing incomes and increasing CO2 emissions, not very welcome.

One reason for me engaging in this experiment is to blur the edges between the formal and the informal economy – the latter being grossly ignored in mainstream economic discourse. The formal economy happens in what we generally call “the market”, the informal happens in homes, on street corners, across farm gates, between friends and neighbours. By bringing the informal economy into full view of the market, by questioning the unquestioned assumption that an economic element must be brought into each human exchange interaction in a marketplace, some of the most powerful assumptions of our day are challenged. As I write those words, I’m struck by how grandiose they might sound, but I want to keep them here because many people who stop and chat reflect that very point.

Ben fixing up a bikeAnother reason to fix bikes for free or barter is to help those without much money – the very people who rely much more on bikes for transport. Time and time again I hear from people who take their bike to a bike shop and the quote they receive for repairs and spare is way in excess of the value of the bike. In many cases, the local shop will simply say it’s not worth repairing. The DoctorBike service gives them another choice and for some it’s quite a lifeline. That’s not to say that it’s only economically-stressed people who come to me in the market. But I don’t descriminate – I’ve never turned anyone away because they drive a Porsche!

It’s not all light and goodness that puts a zero charge on the work I do. There’s also a little bit of shadow there too, a bit of me that’s loathe to put myself at the mercy of the customer – that mythical creature who can decide whether I sink or swim. Should I give them that much power? What on earth makes me feel that they’d let me sink anyway? This is a murky area for me, and something that keeps me from taking the risk of launching a business. I also wonder about the viability of a business that doesn’t seek to extract every last penny from a customer. Is it too idealistic? Perhaps my free market sessions are a way of gently testing the water for a much bolder move later…

The last point I wanted to get across is about one aspect of the nature of money that, for a DoctorBike session, is most unwelcome – its impersonalness. It allows me to transact with someone without making a relationship. I’m sure a relationship-free transaction would be appropriate if I were doing something that involved 500 transactions a day, but I’m not. A huge part of my spending 6 hours each Saturday is that I want to connect to this community, to get to know people here and to increase our overall web of resilience. At the start a year ago, I did take sterling occasionally. People would fold up a fiver and slip it into the top pocket on my apron and that would be it. Sure, they’d smile and say a big thank you, but that was the limit of the engagement. Now I tell people “I don’t take sterling”, and once that’s sunk in, they ask what I take instead. I point them to my sign which lists “Totnes Pounds, time swap, barter, hugs, pies or gingerbread people one of the local shops, or nothing if that’s all you’ve got.” and then we gently negotiate. People respond in a very nurturing way to a “how about you get me something really tasty from Greenlife or Riverford” – I eat very, very well on a Saturday. I’ve swapped hours of garden work, carpentry, and clothes fixing. I’ve had delicious meals cooked for me. Treatments that really helped an injured shoulder. A French grandmother once asked me if I’d fix her bike in return for sexual favours! I’ve received songs, poems and hugs. I’ve fixed a Tibetan refugee’s deathtrap bike in return for a good karma blessing – seems to be working so far… I’ve made friends with people from 8 to 88 years old from all walks of life.

Bizarrely, it turns out I don’t take sterling because I’d feel all the poorer for it! But I’m in a privileged position in terms of income and skills, and I often find myself taking that for granted.

All in all, I fix bikes for free because it make me, and lots of other people happy, and it makes me, and lots of other people, more resilient. And given what’s happening around the world right now, resilient and happy is exactly where I want to be right now. And who else wouldn’t?


Photos: DoctorBike logo, Totnes Market Place and Ben ready to fix a bike (all courtesy of Doctor Bike)

Ben Brangwyn is the co-founder of the Transition Network and an active member of Transition Town Totnes. As well as offering his services as DoctorBike he is also involved in the local currency group.