Back in 2002 my good friends Alex Jarrett and Ruthy Woodring had a crazy idea to start a business that uses bicycles with trailers to haul things around Northampton, Massachusetts. They are both very dedicated to a car-free lifestyle and bicycle activism, among other things. One of the other things that interested the young entrepreneurs was that the business be run ethically, and so they formed a workers collective called Pedal People. They bought some bike trailers that can hold loads up to 300 pounds from a company called Bikes at Work, and started offering their quirky service to our community.
I am not sure if it was the original plan, but the business quickly became centered around picking up residential trash and recycling and taking it to the Northampton Department of Public Works Transfer Center. Because Northampton doesn't have a municipal trash and recycling pick up we have competing garbage truck companies. This is a particularly wasteful way to gather garbage. Each company travels down the same streets with giant trucks burning fossil fuel and belching toxic crap into the air as they continually stop and go picking up individual customer's waste. The genius of Pedal People is that the same service is offered on bike, reducing the carbon footprint of residential waste removal drastically. Because Northampton is a Liberal enclave the idea really appealed to the townsfolk, and the business took off.
Since I was friends with Alex and Ruthy I somehow got involved as a sub early on, meaning I would occasionally cover a route for one of the actual collective members when no one from within the collective could do it. I pretty much did it once or twice a year for about five years, and only in nicer weather because I didn't have any fancy gear to ride in the winter. Over this time I watched Pedal People grow and become hugely popular and always thought about what it would be like to do it full time. When thoughts like this came into my mind I considered the reality of New England winters and quickly ushered them out of my head.
Yet as I grew older and my vicissitudinous lifestyle etched lines of character into my personality I started to romanticize the idea of working out in the elements and becoming a bicycle activist. As fate would have it one of the Pedal People got hurt (off the job) and called me to sub. He left the collective shortly after that and offered me his routes, which he wasn't actually allowed to do according to the collective's procedures. This chain of events did, however, allow me to wedge my foot in the door, and since I was technically the sub with the most seniority I got to audition for the part, and somehow they allowed me to join.
Joining the collective entails nine months of apprenticeship that must include one winter. I started in August of 2008 and gradually accumulated the gear I needed as well as the muscles and endurance so that by winter I was ready to face the snow, slush, sleet and frozen diapers. People are always amazed that we do this every day no matter what the weather is like. During the winter of 2008 I think there was only one day when we called customers to postpone our pick ups. Most of us have studded snow tires on our bikes as well as all kinds of crazy clothing to deal with different situations. For me the hardest part is making sure I don't sweat too much. With a loaded trailer and a 3 mile uphill ride to the transfer center it is easy to start sweating even on the coldest of days, and once your shit gets wet its all over as far as being comfortable is concerned.
At 42 years old, I am currently the oldest Pedal Person. I am also the newest Pedal Person because I was voted into the collective in September. I made the cut! I contribute it all to my amazing vegan diet. All you silly people who ask vegans where we get our protein can bite me, and then you will get yours. I haul some crazy heavy shit up hills and all over town. I have been vegan 14 years and I am still as strong and fit as I was when I started, and twice as good looking. I honestly don't know how I keep so humble and modest with my multitude of qualities.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly...
There are some very conscientious customers, and there are some customers who make our jobs less enjoyable. So much recyclable stuff ends up in the trash it is sickening. On the flip side some people will try to recycle everything, and then we are stuck picking garbage out of recycling bins. We have a contract to do the downtown trash in Northampton and it is particularly bad there. There are recycling receptacles next to almost every trash can, and inevitably people still throw their cans and bottles into the trash. That along with thousands of disposable coffee cups. At this point the Northampton landfill is almost a landfull, and we need to stop producing so much trash. At Pedal People meetings we often talk about ways to encourage people to be more conscientious about their waste, and in the near future we will be doing trash audits to help people learn ways to recycle more and produce less.
Another thing, meat stinks! It attracts maggots that completely cover some peoples trash bags by the time we get to them. We offer a composting service for vegetable waste, meat goes into a landfill. As a human and vegan activist I believe it is definitely time for us to evolve from our carnivorous ape phase and become more spiritually enlightened beings. The planet can't sustain us all the way we are living. It takes lots of vegetation to make food out of animal flesh. The existence of factory farms calls into question the very notion that we are civilized. We are all complicit in allowing atrocity as long as they lurk in giant shadowy sheds around the country hidden from sight with their manure lagoons and animals gone completely insane from being constantly and relentlessly tortured. All to save a few dollars and for brief moments of pleasure on our tongues. The free range-organic -grass-fed-happy-meat ideal is faulty in that there isn't enough land to support all of our billions at our current level of flesh consumption. Furthermore there are no real regulations on the use of humane labels so it boils down to being a marketing ploy that encourages us to pay more so that we can relieve our consciences, even though many of the same inhumane practices are employed. Capitalism breeds inhumanity, same as it ever was. As far as seafood is concerned the oceans are nearly depleted of sea life, and many of the fish we like to eat take several years to reach maturity, so it is hard for them to make a comeback. We are pretty close to going over the cliff, and most of us still have our foot on the gas. Time to get off the meat-mobile and ride a bike!
In spite of these gripes I really love being a Pedal Person. Working in a cooperative has been an amazing life lesson on how a group of people with common goals can work together and achieve far more than any of us could as individuals. I encourage anyone who is starting a business and wants to contribute to a better world to consider the collective model. It ensures that workers all get treated equally and are valued. It keeps everyone honest and teaches us how to respect each other.
I love biking in the rain. I love biking in the snow. I love my big overshoes that make me look like a superhero. I love the big mass of muscles I have grown around my leg bones. It makes me feel so good that nearly every time I work some stranger will tell me how great they think the Pedal People are. I love that my job is also a form of activism, that it inspires people to think about the waste they produce and the way they commute to work. I took my own car off the road after about 5 months of being a Pedal Person. I love biking, feeling the wind around my face, flying by cars stuck in traffic, jumping curves, ringing my bike bell. It is real freedom. It keeps me in shape and makes me smile. I am one lucky bastard.
Thanks to Selena Dittberner for taking the awesome photos of me. I still owe you dinner!
View more photos at PedalPeople.com