One year after closing its doors, SPOKES bike centre still denied re-opening

Photos by Kiley Verbowski.

80 street-ready loaner bicycles sit patiently, volunteers — not so patient

SPOKES bike upcycling and loan centre, located in the Campus Bike Centre underneath Mystic Market, locked up its repair cage last March when the rest of campus shuttered. Despite having a Safe Work Plan approved by the UVic health and safety office since Sept. 2, 2020, they are still not open to the public. 

Mikael Jansson, a long-time volunteer with SPOKES, is frustrated and confused by communications from the Office of Campus Planning & Sustainability (OCPS), which provides some financial support to SPOKES, but has never formally been responsible for the organization.

“Students contact us all the time saying, ‘Hey, are you open yet?’” said Jansson. “And I say, I don’t know. I was hoping for next week. I was hoping for next week back in June 2020.”

After more than a year of back and forth communication with the university, SPOKES is still unclear on the exact criteria they need to meet in order to reopen.

History of SPOKES

SPOKES has loaned thousands of upcycled bicycles to UVic students, faculty, and staff since opening in 2003. For $40, wannabe cyclists can loan a bike and lock for as long as they are registered at UVic, after which they return the bike and are refunded half of the original fee. 

The organization also has a smaller selection of bikes available for sale, with prices that are determined in consensus with volunteers. SPOKES operates with a non-hierarchical volunteer structure, besides the two resource co-ordinators that the OCPS funded at different points in time.

UVic provides SPOKES with their workshop space in the Campus Bike Centre as well as a small operating grant. The organization has a bank account with the UVSS and a partnership with the UVic Sustainability Project, but otherwise provides their own funding and is mostly independent from UVic. They are not a registered non-profit organization.

In terms of institutional operations, SPOKES may be a bit of an oddball, but is certainly a well-loved one. Every September, they loan out an average of 65 bikes, and they estimate that 1 000 UVic students benefit annually from their services. They typically have 25-30 volunteers every school year.

In 2019, UVic hosted the Western Division Canadian Association of Geographers conference and the Society of Geography Students (SOGS) partnered with SPOKES to provide 30 bicycles to visiting students during their weekend stay in Victoria.

“[It was] super successful,” said Mack Ross, co-chair of SOGS. “There was no monetary exchange […] it was definitely very gift economy-like, you know, we’re just going to do this thing and SPOKES was super helpful.” 

UVic’s sustainability reputation also benefits from the work of SPOKES. The organization was credited in all three of the self-reporting periods between 2014 and 2020 for the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System used by post-secondary institutions. UVic has achieved a gold rating for all three reporting periods. In the 2017 report, SPOKES was described as, “innovatively diverting waste, improving community health, and taking action on climate change.”

Responding to the pandemic

Over a year after closing its doors in March 2020, the Campus Bike Centre looks as though a tornado has blown through, taking with it more than three quarters of the bikes that would usually be parked there on a warm April afternoon, and damaging the remainders. Many have flat tires; a few are missing wheels. Some have a pedal resting on the crossbar of the rack, a technique Jansson and the other volunteers use to see if their owners are riding the bikes regularly, or if they are abandoned. 

Some of the bikes were hastily returned to the basement parking garage last March by students who had loaned them but had to flee home unexpectedly. Unfortunately, many of those students left their bikes with loaned locks attached, but took the key with them.

The physical space of SPOKES is within a floor-to-ceiling cage in the corner of the concrete Campus Bike Centre, totalling 55 metres squared, and it became obvious that many changes would have to be made in order for volunteers to safely work there during the pandemic. 

Jansson and the other volunteers sank what he determined to be hundreds of hours into transforming one tool hub into three distinct and distanced work stations, each with a fully stocked tool board. They marked the areas with painter’s tape on the floor, and created a disinfection protocol. Volunteers also worked out a detailed safety plan for customer service. 

The UVic Occupational Health, Safety, & Environment (OHSE) office reviewed SPOKES’s completed Safe Work Plan and determined that it was compliant with all safety measures, and advised volunteers to submit it to SPOKES’s supervising department — the OCPS. On Sept. 1, 2020, the OCPS sustainability coordinator emailed Jansson asking him to, “Please let me know once the volunteers […] have signed the final document so we can approve it.”

Seven SPOKES volunteers hustled to sign the Safe Work Plan that day and sent it back to the OCPS, hoping to be approved before their first planned volunteer session on Sept. 7. More than three weeks later, after hearing nothing further, Jansson emailed to express his disappointment with the “lack of attention to the SPOKES file.” A senior employee of the OCPS replied with a request to schedule a meeting but Jansson chose not to respond.

The Safe Work Plan remains unsigned by the OCPS.

Governance negotiations and liability insurance

According to Jansson, after SPOKES had their Safe Work Plan approved by the OHSE, the OCPS requested for the first time that they have an “affiliation with the university” and obtain liability insurance.

In an email to the Martlet, UVic defined two options for SPOKES’s future affiliation: become an official UVSS club or allow the OCPS to absorb the organization.

In November 2020, SPOKES became a club and enquired about obtaining insurance through the UVSS’s insurance provider. On March 3, 2021, the UVSS determined that “SPOKES cannot fit within our existing insurance structure,” and terminated their club status effective April 30.

In an emailed statement to the Martlet, UVic wrote, “[T]he university was not aware until recently that SPOKES was not obtaining third-party liability insurance for their operations. That is a concern since it means that the volunteers of SPOKES could have become personally responsible if somebody claimed they were injured on a borrowed bike.”

SPOKES has always required bicycle loaners to sign a waiver before leaving the cage which outlined the applicable rules in the Motor Vehicle Act, such as wearing a helmet, and ensured that the rider assumed responsibility for any “risks, hazards, injuries, costs, or damages.” Jansson says that university has never previously required SPOKES to have external insurance.

SPOKES has since obtained a quote for liability insurance from a private, off-campus company, which will expire on May 12.

The second option that UVic provided was to allow the OCPS and Campus Security to “take on responsibility of administering the SPOKES program with a paid program coordinator who oversees the work of volunteers and ensures volunteer agreements and equipment agreements are adhered to.”

Previously, the OCPS and SPOKES have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that outlines each party’s role and responsibilities for a two-year period. The most recent MoU expired on July 15, 2020. On July 30, the OCPS sent a new and much more complex draft of an MoU, which Jansson claims was based on the MoU between UVic and the Campus Community Garden, which has a different funding and organizational model than SPOKES.

Jansson wrote in an email to the Martlet that “some of us [volunteers] were quite upset about how disrespectfully volunteers were treated in the draft MoU,” although he is not opposed to some of their suggestions. 

The MoU outlines a formal governance structure, which is something SPOKES had been considering and drafting models of since January 2020. Other changes that the OCPS requested in the MoU include a digitization of SPOKES’s loaning system, and the transfer of sales of helmets, bike lights, and other new gear to the university bookstore or SUBtext. Jansson said he would be pleased to accept those changes, granted that the OCPS administer them.

On March 29 of this year, Jansson drafted a new MoU that outlines the assets that will be transferred to UVic, the governance structure including the responsibilities for the paid program coordinator, and other membership and workshop guidelines.

However, in a response to the Martlet’s request for clarification, UVic wrote that “the university would take ownership and management of the program therefore an MoU with the volunteers would not be required.”

In a follow-up email they added, “the process […] would need to be discussed between the volunteers and the university and the[n] could change based on the results of those conversations.”

Jansson wrote, “This [response] is so very disappointing. All of the work that we did last year was wasted. […] Of course it begs the question of why they have kept SPOKES closed for so long. Bike shops were declared an essential service in the spring of 2020.”

The university has not yet responded to the Martlet’s request for the exact criteria that needs to be met by either party in order for the OCPS to take responsibility for SPOKES and allow its doors to reopen.

“All we want to do is make sure students get bikes,” said Jansson.