CORONAVIRUS

New C.R. program gets a handle on transportation needs through donated bikes

Brandon Whyte, Cedar Rapids multimodal transportation planner, works on a donated bicycle in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Frid
Brandon Whyte, Cedar Rapids multimodal transportation planner, works on a donated bicycle in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, May 15, 2020. Whyte is collecting and fixing donated bikes for people that need them to get to work or other reasons. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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While the wheels on the Cedar Rapids city buses weren’t going round and round this spring, the wheels began spinning for Brandon Whyte to find an alternate way to get people to their jobs — and hopefully into the recreational bike riding realm.

Whyte, 38, of Cedar Rapids, is the multimodal transportation planner with the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization. Among his duties is bicycle and pedestrian transportation planning, which he said mostly involves the trail system.

“They hired me for bike and walking expertise,” he said, and he’s been on the job 6 1/2 years.

But when the Cedar Rapids city buses stopped running March 25 to help stem the spread of COVID-19, that severed a lifeline for people who relied on the city transit system to get to their jobs and essential appointments. A local nonprofit reached out to the Linn Area Partners Active in Disaster (LAP-AID), seeking a way for their clients to get to their jobs. Whyte’s colleague and LAP-AID committee member, city planner Jeff Wozencraft, relayed that request.

So Whyte, an avid cyclist, began exploring ways to provide donated bicycles to those who could use them, and Bikes for Transit was born.

“It’s a low-cost way to get around, because it doesn’t require gas — just air, some oil very very seldom — but can help people out, especially with the downturn in the economy like we’re experiencing,” Whyte said from his garage-turned-repair shop, where he was busy working on the back brakes of a donated bike.

“I’m hopeful that with all the bikes we give out, that 25 or more percent of the people will become regular cyclists — transportation cyclists or recreational cyclists,” he said. “It’s a healthy way to travel, and it’s also good for mental health right now.

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“There’s not much you can do anymore, but the trails are still open and you can go out and ride. You can ride on the street, and it’s a safe way to do that, with the fresh air blowing COVID out away from us,” he said with a laugh.

“It’s good for the mental health, it’s good for the physical health, it’s good for the pocketbook.”

In the past month, Whyte and his repair partners, including a retired bike mechanic, have taken in about 135 bicycles in various conditions and ages. They’ve ranged from brand-new to those needing minor repairs, and some that could only be mined for parts needed to fix up other bikes. More than 60 have been refurbished and given out, with more bikes in his workshop sporting names of the people to whom they are going.

Some have gone to a Congolese support group; clients in the RISE program assisting people transitioning from incarceration to communities; and about a dozen to students in English Language Learners programs through the Cedar Rapids public schools.

The donations have come mostly from Cedar Rapids, but also from Marion, Ely and as far away as Strawberry Point. Whyte met that donor in Coggon, then put those five bikes in the back of his pickup, which can hold eight bikes.

The LIFTS program helped with the RISE distribution May 5 and 6, but otherwise, Whyte and his partners have logged more than 700 miles making pickups and deliveries.

And even though city buses began running again on Monday, because they’re on modified service, Whyte said the need for bikes remains. So he’s still accepting bicycle donations, but fewer “parts” bikes that can’t be refurbished. Also on the wish list are bicycle helmets, locks, racks that attach over the back tire, and cargo bags that can sit on those racks.

“The city wants to support citizens however they can during these tough times,” Whyte said, and because it’s considered part of his job, “they supported me to help do that.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

To donate

• What: Bikes for Transit donation, distribution program

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• Needed: Children, youth and adult bicycles; bicycle helmets; racks that fit over the back tire; cargo bags to place on a rack; locks

• Inquiries: Email b.whyte@cedar-rapids.org or call (319) 640-7371

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.