Citybikes Uses Cooperative Structure to Keep Portland’s Cyclists Up and Running

Portland, Ore., is a notoriously bike-friendly city, with bike lanes and bike routes and cyclists on virtually every street. Perhaps no shop has found a friendlier way to serve the city’s bikers than Citybikes, a cooperative bike shop that offers new and used bikes and parts along with quality service and repairs.

Citybikes was founded by Roger Noehren in 1986 as a sole proprietorship, serving as a source for parts and repairs and as a place for fellowship for Portland’s bike community. By 1990, however, Noehren sought to move on, and he eventually sold Citybikes to his five employees for $12,000, encouraging them to form a cooperative. Citybikes Workers’ Cooperative was formed on Jan. 1, 1990, and it has been pedaling forward ever since.

Tim Calvert, a member-owner who has been with Citybikes since 1990, said that the shop’s cooperative structure has many advantages, including decreased turnover among the engaged workforce.

“I think one advantage would be that it allows a lot of the work in the co-op to be delegated to more people instead of just a single owner, so it allows people to keep from being burned out and doing jobs they can’t do or don’t like—or both,” Calvert said. “We have successfully attracted a very long-term work force. We still have turnover, but it’s not maybe as extreme as some bike shops.”

Citybikes currently has about 25 workers, 11 of whom are co-owners, and is seeking to hire seasonal employees as well. The shop has no managers, and the business is run through shared decision-making at monthly committee meetings. All tasks are shared, and everyone on staff—including, according to their website, the bookkeeper—is a trained mechanic.

“Initially, the reason I started going to Citybikes was that I had heard that it’s a really honest, good bike shop run by good folks,” said Louie Opatz, a Portland resident who built his bicycle, which he uses as his primary mode of transportation, with the help of parts and know-how from Citybikes. “I don’t think I super aware of the co-op aspect right away, but I think those [positive qualities] might stem from that structure and contribute to the atmosphere there.”

As Calvert explained, Citybikes has a focused, manageable mission.

“To provide employment and transportation to the public,” Calvert said. “It’s nothing too dramatic. We’re not trying to change the world too much, but we’re trying to sell new and used products and provide a decent wage for the workers and promote bicycling.”

It carries out its mission in a number of ways. Citybikes offers service and maintenance and carries an array of “dependable reconditioned bicycles,” in addition to new and used parts and accessories. The shop also emphasizes “green” practices and sustainability in several ways. Its business model lends itself naturally to a focus on reusing and recycling, and the shop works to stock locally-made parts whenever possible. According to its website, Citybikes also seeks to “maximize the utility of bicycles as a viable alternative to motorized transport by providing products that increase a bike’s carrying capacity, and gear to protect riders from the natural elements and motor traffic.”

“I think that one of the best things about Citybikes is that you can find random used parts that are just as good as new parts a lot of the time,” said Cayle Christensen, another Portland resident and Citybikes patron. “You can find older parts as well that are in great condition. I feel that the staff at City Bikes are more down to earth and less snobbish than other bike shop employees. It is also really rad that you can sell your unwanted or unneeded parts to them as well.”

Bicycling has exploded in popularity in Portland during Citybikes’ existence, and as cycling has become more feasible and more prevalent, Citybikes has grown as well, having moved into a new facility in the mid-1990s and expanded its current space in 2009.

“Little improvements here and there in the overall bike infrastructure have started to net exponential gains,” Calvert said. “Once you’ve really got a great network down and you keep improving it, it encourages more and more people to ride. I think the finishing of the Springwater Corridor was huge. Just that alone created a great recreational ride for people and a great commuter ride, too. It’s encouraged both in a big way.”

Calvert explained that Portland’s growing emphasis on bicycling has also created more competition, however, as the city has seen “explosion of bike shops” recently. According to Opatz, the culture at Citybikes has allowed the shop to differentiate itself from its competitors.

“When you have literal ownership, that gives you a sense of ownership in the way you treat your customers as well, and I think that shows,” Opatz said. “In a lot of situations, especially when it comes to things like bikes or cars that involve an expert telling you what’s going on with something you don’t totally understand, there’s a tendency to feel like you’re being sold something. But when you are a part of something, and in some ways your name and livelihood are attached, I think at Citybikes it’s more important that you just have a good experience. And it’s important to them that you get your bike working. I’ve had a lot of situations where they’ve suggested a used part, or they’ve broken it down for me and said, ‘Look, you probably don’t need to spend the extra for this,’ and those kinds of interactions are always really heartening because they’re few and far between otherwise.”

Citybikes also puts an emphasis on community education, working to contribute to the sustainability of an already sustainable hobby by offering events such as Community Wrench Nights and regular classes on bike maintenance.

But as much as Citybikes is truly working to educate its community, it is also serving to create a greater sense of community among its customers and in its city—and in the process, it is managing to subtly to change the perception of what a “bike community” looks like.

“When they’ve had help-wanted signs up in the past, they specifically are making an effort to target more women and people of color and sexual minorities, and I think it is an attempt to really broaden what a bike shop could be,” Opatz said. “It seems like they are actually committed to fostering a good community and not just to fixing your bike.”

“I think we’re just working to provide durable, affordable, comfortable bicycle transportation to a wide range of people,” Calvert said. “We offer accessories and labor, and we try to be really fair and offer a decent price. And we try to keep our customers happy.”

Citybikes has two locations in Portland. The Annex is at 734 SE Ankeny, and the Repair Shop is located about 12 blocks further east at 1914 SE Ankeny.


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Posted in NWCUA.