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Boston Bike Cafe Has Transportation Equity on the Menu

Rendering of the Sip and Spoke Bike Kitchen (Credit: The American City Coalition)

Noah Hicks loved it as soon as he got an inside look. Dilapidated, sure, but the onetime streetcar station on Columbia Road in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood had this unusual “Italian cottage” quality to it. Gorgeous, he thought, and relaxing. The building’s developers, nonprofits Historic Boston and The American Cities Coalition, acquired the station, abandoned since at least the ’70s, from the city for $100. They’d called him over for a tour — Hicks being a potential tenant, and his business idea being a bike shop and cafe in one place.

“I’d passed by it maybe a 1,000 times in my life. Easily,” Hicks says, a Dorchester native. “When you grow up in a community like this, with this much persistent blight, your brain trains itself to ignore it.”

That was more than a year ago. This month, Hicks launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the Sip and Spoke Bike Kitchen, which is slated to open in the spring of 2017.

Historic Boston Executive Director Kathy Kottaridis describes Upham Corner Comfort Station, built in 1912, as something you’d likely find on the West Coast, a “more Mission-style Arts and Crafts with the terra-cotta-tiled roofs, that I’m not sure we have. I can’t even think of any that are like that within the city of Boston, so it’s an unusual style.”

“It is a remnant of a transportation system for which there is no other visible evidence in the neighborhood at the moment,” Kottaridis explains, listing other merits. There are bus stops and the occasional buried tracks that older buckling roads reveal slices of, but the streetcar lines tell an important story, she says, about the city’s growth and urbanization. According to city analysis, between 1870 and 1920, new water lines, trolleys and rail led Dorchester’s population to grow 12.5 times its size.

The streetcar along Columbia took its first trip in 1897. No. 16 was privately owned, and Boston Elevated Railway ran the line for 50 years, until the Metropolitan Transportation Authority took it over, and then discontinued it two years later, says Gil Propp, transit historian and founder of the Boston Streetcars website.

Upham Corner Comfort Station’s ties to the past mean something to Hicks, who notes that a 382-year-old burial ground is beside the station. He describes those who use bikes out of financial necessity over cars and public transportation as his chief customer base. He currently works at Bowdoin Bike School, which he founded, where he offers free-to-low-charge classes and repair services.

“People hear bikes and coffee and just assume I’m a white man. Or assume that I’m a person of color coming in to this community from outside trying to change it in a way that’s not needed, wanted, discussed or asked about by the people who live here,” Hicks says. “And that’s not true.”

He learned more about the history of the station on that first tour he took.

“My imagination started to run wild. I thought about restoring not only the building but its importance as a transit hub,” he says. “Another blow that has been dealt to this community is the persistent undermining of public transit, and progressive and safe streets as a way to get around.”

Why was streetcar No. 16 discontinued? “If a line didn’t run into the subway,” Propp explains, “then it was seen more appropriate to [convert] it to a trackless trolley and then ultimately a bus, because that would free up more space for cars.” (The bus kept the number; it still runs today.)

American cities began to depopulate around the same period that public sector transit agencies were rising to replace private streetcar operators, according to Alex Karner, a planning professor at Georgia Tech who researches transportation equity. In many cases, the change was due to poor labor practices and mismanagement by the private operators, he says.

“Previously, the streetcar operations that had been run, they were totally private, right? They could make a profit. Streetcar operators would run service where it basically made economic sense to run. And you have very linear urban forms,” he says.

White flight led to a “spatial mismatch,” where highway planning encouraged suburbanization and key job centers sprouted in the outskirts too. “It’s this feedback cycle where funding for transit declines, and then it’s just less convenient for folks to use it,” says Karner.

Noah Hicks

As Hicks plans Sip and Spoke Bike Kitchen, he reflects on design history too. “If we do nothing else for this community, at least we’ll be restoring [Frederick Law] Olmsted’s vision, for greener streets and greener passageways,” he resolves.

Several reports have pointed out the stark contrast between bicycle advocacy circles, which lean white, and the diversity seen across American bicyclists.

“I see advocacy and organizing as two separate things,” says Hicks on the matter. “They happen together, and should happen together, but I think to effectively advocate for some of the cyclists in this community that are being ignored, you need to organize. And that’s part of what bike shops do.”

Dorchester has a working-class reputation. Fifty-five percent of households earn less than $35,000 per year. A quick Yelp search shows only two bike shops in Dorchester; one is Hicks’ bike school, which serves 1,200 cyclists annually.

He continues, “It’s easier, if there’s going to be a public discussion about the kinds of streets that people want to see, to turn out dozens, if not hundreds [in neighborhoods with more bike shops.] A lot of [folks here] have to get a flat, and then either take your bike on the bus, or train, or walk for three or four miles to get to a bike shop. That just keeps people off of their bikes.”