Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

The Monday Roundup: Broke mechanics, ridiculous legislator & more

Posted by on February 17th, 2014 at 4:28 am

Hanging out with the Wrench Raiders-9

Too many volunteer mechanics:
maybe that’s the problem.
(Photo by J.Maus/BikePortland)

Here’s the bike news from around the world that caught our eyes this week:

Broke mechanics: Why do bike mechanics make so little money? Here’s a pretty depressing slideshow that details the situation state by state.

Bad politician: After a Long Island teen had two classmates killed by cars while walking and then his mother was hit by a car while biking, he wrote his state legislator asking for more bike lanes. The legislator responded in a letter saying that “no one” in Suffolk County “should ever ride a bicycle” and that of those who do, “90 percent” get hit by cars. (If you’re not on Facebook you can read the news coverage.)

Commutes and happiness: Every additional minute of your commute makes you less happy, a British study found, and the nicer home or higher income many people trade that time for doesn’t seem to offset the damage — though biking to work seems to help.

Wheeled snow shovel: A bike and a shovel got snowed in for a few days and a few months later this ingenious device appeared.

Olympic commute: On a whim, Finland’s Olympic hockey team rode to work together on bikes in Sochi last week. “It was kinda nice, actually,” forward Olli Jokinen said.

Jan Gehl speaks: If you haven’t checked out Streetsblog’s new podcast yet, their interview with the man who reversed Copenhagen’s slide into motordom makes a good introduction.

Bike parking triumph: The capital city of Swedish biking has a very impressive new bike-and-ride parking station.

E-bike skepticism: In Denmark, one in 10 bike fatalities happen on electric bikes, and Mikael Colville-Andersen is questioning the “Hype Cloud” that he says surrounds them.

Hope for suburbs: “Intensely urban” after 40 years of working to create its own identity, downtown Bellevue has become an anti-sprawl asset to the Seattle region, the Seattle Times says.

Muddy singletrack: The Bend Bulletin has some tips for mountain biking on muddy trails.

Ergonomic bike racks: A San Francisco design firm thinks urban bike racks should have built-in shelves to set your laptop bag on while you lock up.

Carsharing impact: Every shared car displaces 32 privately owned cars, according to surveys of licenced drivers in Portland and nine other U.S. cities. It’s added up to half a million reduced car sales since Portland introduced carsharing to the country in 1998.

Honor among thieves: “I stole your Trek Madone near 33rd and Vine,” someone wrote in the best Craigslist post you’re going to read this week.

Fat bike regulation: The rise of fat biking and ski biking is raising unfamiliar questions on snowmobile and cross-country routes in the nation’s parks.

Central Eastside boom: A group of out-of-town planners and developers predicts that Portland’s Central Eastside is in for big and rapid changes but worries that “makers and doers” could be “priced out.”

Jaywalking history: The BBC casts an outsider’s eye at a peculiarly American institution: criminalizing walking across the street. The story starts in 1913 with a department store Santa Claus.

Finally, it’s nice how smoothly biking fits into the argument for buying local in your video of the week from the UK:

If you come across a noteworthy bicycle story, send it in via email, Tweet @bikeportland, or whatever else and we’ll consider adding it to next Monday’s roundup.

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  • Mike Quigley February 17, 2014 at 5:39 am

    Why do bike mechanics make so little money? Because the majority of them are kids who don’t know how to fix bikes!

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  • q`Tzal February 17, 2014 at 6:12 am

    The “Fat bike regulation” link goes to the “Honor among thieves” link above it.

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  • Stochelo February 17, 2014 at 7:02 am

    The illustration is right–too damned many bike mechanics give their work away. Any shop owner who does “service specials” on already underpriced work deserves to be put out of business by employee theft.

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    • Ian February 17, 2014 at 9:57 am

      It was kinda amazing how clueless most of the commentary I saw about this was. Customers don’t pay mechanics, employers do. If mechanics are underpaid it’s because their employers are exploiting them, not because customers don’t want to pay enough for repairs.

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      • Jay February 17, 2014 at 12:58 pm

        Or it’s because they don’t generate enough revenue for the shop to pay them much…and because a 16 year old kid with 2 months training can do most of the work.

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        • Bill Walters February 17, 2014 at 2:35 pm

          Eh, it’s not so much the revenue as the margin.

          And yeah, a kid with two months’ training can fix flats — with a certain amount of resulting bunged-up shifting and braking from re-installing a wheel un-carefully — and do other, similar stuff, which is “most of the work” by frequency. (I could and did.)

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        • Huffy Bandit February 17, 2014 at 2:40 pm

          A mechanic of any age with 2 months experience might be able to do “most of the work” but probably not fast enough or consistently well enough to be profitable. In a well run shop that person is a trainee. There is a difference between a mechanic (problem solver) and someone who knows how to bolt on parts, hopefully the right one.

          Most shops do too little to build the value of their services and service departments. Thus, some people think it is easy unskilled labor.

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        • Chainwhipped February 17, 2014 at 5:01 pm

          No. Not really, no.

          If a shop’s service dept. fits Jay’s description, go elsewhere. The difference between the 16-year-old trainee and the 10-year vet is beyond huge. If the shop can’t tell the difference, your bike is in trouble.

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        • AnotherJim February 17, 2014 at 10:03 pm

          I was told that the shop doesn’t make any significant profit on the bikes; the service ‘department’ is in there because customers expect it (and someone has to assemble the bikes, anyway); and the significant profit is in the other stuff, such as helmets, gloves, etc. If you need someone to do a skilled job that requires expensive tools (you need the dropout raced and faced), you don’t want the 16 yo. You probably want a big shop that does lots of volume, or you want a shop owned by a mechanic.

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  • 9watts February 17, 2014 at 7:51 am

    …about carsharing impacting new car sales, I’d like to read more but the wsj had its famous paywall. The claim that carsharing will (significantly) displace car sales/car ownership dates to the beginning of car sharing, but I’d be curious to see more research–or perhaps this study will lay my fears about ‘free riders’ to rest. I’m all in favor of anything that diminishes car sales, and promotes shared use of fewer cars, but I’ve not yet been convinced that it is as rosy as these numbers suggest. Anyone got a link to a copy of the WSJ article in full, or the research it is based on?

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    • Harald February 17, 2014 at 8:47 am

      The trick is to enter the headline of the article into the google and then follow the link from there. That should get you around the paywall.

      The key sentence from the article is “Based on the data it accumulated, AlixPartners concluded about 48% of the people who use car sharing regularly eventually end up not purchasing a car or selling a car.” We of course can’t conclude that those 48% would’ve bought or not sold their cars if car share hadn’t existed.

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      • 9watts February 17, 2014 at 6:55 pm

        Thanks, Harald. I always try that, but in this case a dozen hits/articles/mentions of this all took me back to the pay-per-view wsj article.

        And thanks very much, Michael, for the link to the AlixPartners piece. Very good to see they had a control group.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) February 17, 2014 at 9:04 am
    • Eric February 17, 2014 at 10:25 am

      Also, I think you can get to their articles through the library’s website, under research, then research tools.

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  • Granpa February 17, 2014 at 9:18 am

    I may be a cranky old bastard, but I never balk about paying for service to keep my bikes smooth, silent and tight.

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    • q`Tzal February 17, 2014 at 11:00 am

      Reply goes here:
      Shadap n pay or learn to do it yourself and buy all those tools.

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      • Granpa February 17, 2014 at 1:12 pm


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        • Jane February 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm

          Maybe he read “balk” as “think”? Only thing I can think of.

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        • q`Tzal February 17, 2014 at 4:44 pm

          I’m agreeing with you.
          People can either:
          () Learn to do the job right, buy all the correct tools and have some place to store them, or
          () pay for the convenience of not having to do any of this.

          For example: I have a lot of generalized tools and can do successfully most repairs on almost any machine. OTOH: I haven’t bought a truing stand and can’t seem to get any of the on frame tricks to work. I’ll pay to get my wheels trued by someone who can do it right the first time. I had to ship my frame to a shop that would install the Schlumpf-Drive because there is a highly specialized chamfering tool and quite frankly it was complicated enough an install that I’d want to see it done properly once.
          You gotta know your limitations.

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  • dave February 17, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Simple supply and demand. The supply of people who romanticize the shop rat lifestyle and have the requisite combination of opposable thumbs and mild to moderate mechanical ability far exceeds the demand for $50 derailleur adjustments.

    I mean, that’s part of the appeal of the bicycle, right? It’s so simple most people can do most basic maintenance with a few simple tools, as opposed to a modern car that can’t have a burnt-out bulb replaced without a lift and a plasma torch.

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    • Psyfalcon February 17, 2014 at 10:32 am

      Mine did not need a plasma torch, but it required either a second elbow or two different size socket wrenches.

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    • Bill Walters February 17, 2014 at 10:48 am

      Few simple tools and mild ability? Somewhat true for “vintage” bikes, as with older cars. And if you go that way exclusively, power to you.

      But since 1990 or so, a working shop mechanic needs ever more bearing/cup install/removal tools along with increasing knowledge of hydraulics (brake and suspension), pneumatics (suspension), electronics (high-end shifting, lighting, component-integrated power meters), plus torque values and surface treatments so as not to crush or create stress risers in carbon-fiber parts.

      Oh, and increasing knowledge of what can fit with/work with what as proprietary and semi-proprietary standards proliferate and then fall away to (planned?) obsolescence, leaving riders in the lurch.

      But yeah, your primary argument holds up: supply and demand.

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      • wsbob February 17, 2014 at 11:55 am

        Money in general, available to be going out(in simpler words: ‘kinda poor’), is a problem for me. Otherwise, I’d happily be taking my couple of bikes over to the local bike store for regular maintenance. I’m aware of and respect bike mechanics for all the things you describe that they do.
        As is, I mostly have to wangle my own repairs to my bikes.

        Potential customers with available money though, I don’t think is the reason many shops aren’t getting more maintenance and repair jobs. The big issue here related to supply and demand, etc, re; bike mechanics/wages paid them, is that not enough people ride their bikes for transportation. People mostly drive cars, consequently resulting in their putting their vehicle maintenance budget dollars into this mode of transportation which they most rely on for basic travel needs.

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  • FSR February 17, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Bike mechanics: Charging more does mean you’ll lose some customers and your customer demographic will shift. But definitely charge more anyway.

    Because if you assume that you have to sacrifice yourself to get a viable business, you’ll never achieve anything better than a viable business that involves sacrificing yourself. Ugh.

    For a bike shop that has employees: Good wages and good benefits lead to higher quality service, more professional employee behavior, less turnover, fewer mistakes, smoother operations, happier customers.

    I would LOVE to comparison shop for bike repair (and other products/services) based on whether the staff are compensated properly. If you have employees: What’s the minimum compensation package at your shop? Post it on your (physical) wall and on your website. Make it public, conspicuous, and (above all) factually correct at all times. Add a blurb that explains why it’s important to pay well.

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  • Criss Cross Crusade February 17, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Blame Zinn and his awesome books…

    Perhaps shops could have some sort of premium service. Like a mechanic on retainer or something. I’m just thinking out loud here, but if a mechanic at a shop had a stable of I don’t know, 50 bikes and owners who were willing to shell out an annual premium, then these owners could rely on premium service from a known entity and all the perks that come with it, like an online repair log and customer relations, realtime online feedback, that type of thing. basically a team mechanic with no team. these mechanics would get paid the big bucks to work on the VIP client’s bikes. If 50 riders paid $250 a year, they could pay the mechanic an extra 10k and pocket 2500. If I raced with any regularity and started to get good results, i’d consider $250 a marginal gain worth paying.

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    • Jane February 17, 2014 at 2:11 pm

      Doctors do it, why not mechanics? I’d put a grand on a mechanic retainer for a year, but then again I live in Seattle.

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  • q`Tzal February 17, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Shadap n pay or learn to do it yourself and buy all those tools.

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  • K'Tesh February 17, 2014 at 11:39 am

    That article about commute times and happiness rings true with me. I moved out of Beaverton (20 minute commute/direction) the summer of 2012. Now I’m in outer Washington County (60-90+ minute commute/direction), and my commute is on the bus. I can’t afford not to live where I am, but I hate my commute. I can’t wait to finish school, and get out of here.

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  • davemess February 17, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    “The speed limit for snowmobiles at night is 55 mph.”

    Wow, Natural Selection at its finest!

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  • Craig Harlow February 17, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Has that teen been arrested and charged yet for having his classmates killed?

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  • Chainwhipped February 17, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    Mechanics are broke because bike shops aren’t paying them. Bike shops aren’t paying mechanics because they think they don’t have to.

    “You’re expendable”, a store owner once told me. At that time I had the lowest repair return rate of any mechanic on staff in his store, but he had no idea what that meant and he really didn’t know what a tuneup was or why it took longer than 10 minutes to build a quality wheel. He had never worked in a bike shop prior to buying himself a job in one. Shop owners know that the average customer doesn’t really care how experienced a mechanic is. The kid with the UBI certification will start at minimum wage and he’ll be happy to take your place.

    Store owners also tend to be markedly stupid when it comes to labor rates and service structure: Free Tune-Ups with your bike purchase! Good luck ever making a living as a mechanic at a store that offers free “tune-ups”. Other mistakes include: discounting labor during the peak season, keeping the newbie kid mechanic on staff – even after he’s caused injuries, giving free labor to amateur bike racers (commonly mistaken for “advertising”), and never ever raising your labor rates.

    That last one is outright crippling, right in there with free tunes. If a shop isn’t keeping up with inflation rates, something’s gonna give. The busiest labor schedule I ever experienced was in a shop that was charging the same labor rates it had used since opening more than a decade earlier. Owner was a really really nice, but foolish man. He had employees who had to resort to dumpster-diving to make ends meet and he was not getting the message. He eventually sold the place for almost nothing and the new owner immediately began to stair-step the labor rates. The schedule stayed full and everybody got raises.

    I guess the short answer to the question “Why are bike mechanics so underpaid?” is that bike shop owners place so little value on our skilled labor.

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    • davemess February 17, 2014 at 5:53 pm

      You make it sound like no owners were ever wrenches themselves, definitely don’t think that’s true.

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      • Chainwhipped February 17, 2014 at 8:07 pm

        Some store owners start out as mechanics, but a lot fewer than you’d think. In most bike shops, the owner is the LAST pair of hands you want on your bike.

        Starting a bike shop (or taking over an existing shop) is really expensive, so the most experienced industry folks rarely get the chance to run the show, simply because they never get paid enough to make that happen.

        Case and point: there’s a highschool kid down in Bend who owns a bike shop. Daddy bought it for him. What could possibly go wrong?!

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  • Psyfalcon February 17, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    It would be an interesting article to research the bike mechanic pay in Portland specifically. How many are career mechanics? UBI graduates? How many really are HS students looking for minimum wage?

    A pretty common refrain against raising the minimum wage is that the only people making it are HS students working at McDonalds. That isn’t true for McDonalds and it probably isn’t true in Portland bike shops (see post #1 above).

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  • Brian February 17, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    I’ve used at least six different shops in Portland and have never had a “kid” work on my bike. I must be lucky. In fact, I’ve never seen a teen working at a shop. Ever.

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  • Beth February 17, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    I worked full time in a bike shop for nearly two decades.
    I had no illusions that it would ever garner me enough money to save for retirement or afford health insurance. I was still relatively young (30) when I started, single and reasonable healthy.

    Twenty years later, and a year and a half since leaving the bicycle industry, I have few regrets. I learned a lot, accomplished a lot, met some really good people along the way — and got out just as my knowledge base was proving too archaic for the current crop of whiz-bang, overpriced and un-durable technologies that are littering bike shops everywhere.

    Hardly anyone today cares that I can overhaul a Sturmey 3- or 5- speed hub, or overhaul a coaster brake hub. Few shop owners today would justify paying me to do the labor on those more intensive repairs. They would instead urge me to persuade the customer to “upgrade” to more “modern technologies” with their more cost-effective throw-aay components.

    I had a good time. I made near peanuts. I don’t have enough saved to retire on, but I hesitate to say that my two decades in the bike industry were a waste of time, and not a career. I certainly did have a career, just not an especially lucrative one. Life is short. I chose to do what moved my passions. now I have moved on to other passions and other projects. I have no regrets about the choices I’ve made, even if I end up in the 21st-century equivalent of the poorhouse.

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  • drew February 17, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    I worked in bike shops from age 18 to 33. Then went into the medical field, realizing that wrenching on bikes was limiting my earning potential. By then I was highly skilled and fast with builds and repairs and I really liked the job. All my bike skills went in a box, so I could earn enough to buy a house and get some retirement $, although I have kept up my skills to an extent, and have done some framebuilding too.

    It’s unfortunate that the profession tends to shed the most advanced mechanics; the ones you hope that will work on your bike.

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  • Danny February 22, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    For all the people claiming the shop owners are to blame, it would be interesting to see if there is a difference in pay among owners that are former mechanics and owners that didn’t wrench. What if this is mechanic-on-mechanic crime? I’m afraid it’s still a supply and demand issue no matter what bleeding heart story you attach to it though. The average person doesn’t take their bike in to a shop unless it’s broken. The idea of paying $100 for a tune-up/overhaul freaks them out. If they own a $1000 bike, that’s 10% of the value of the bike. Imagine if tuning up your $30,000 car cost $3,000 – how often would you bring it in to the shop?
    I get it btw – I get my bikes worked on in shops, I’m just illustrating what the average non-avid cyclist or family with a garage full of bikes will probably think.

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