Alongside a swath of bike racks on the northwest part of Menlo-Atherton High School's campus, a teacher is spearheading an effort to enable more students to commute to school by bicycle.
In January, James Nelson, an English teacher at the school, took an old tennis court storage shed and transformed it into a small bike workshop alongside the school parking lot on Middlefield Road and Oak Grove Avenue. The workspace, which Nelson dubbed the "Bike Shed," is used to fix bikes and store supplies.
A rotating group of three or four student volunteers, who Nelson calls "Monkey Wrenches," come to the shed after school on Wednesdays. Other students swing by for bike fixes -- anything from help filling a flat tire with air to adjusting a misaligned bike chain, free of charge.
Nelson wants to teach students how to care for, and maintain, their bikes so they'll choose to bike to school, thus pulling cars off congested roads, he explained. This promotes environmentalism by reducing gasoline usage and emissions from cars, he added.
On a Wednesday in March, The Almanac visited the Bike Shed, as Monkey Wrenches snacked on Spam musubi while examining bikes. Students work for about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the shed's workload. They have made quick fixes to about 150 to 200 bikes, and have done more extensive fixes to about 25 reclaimed and abandoned bikes, Nelson said.
"Better to mend than to spend" Nelson told Bike Shed volunteers during The Almanac's visit.
Nelson, who is in his fifth year of teaching at M-A and is a self-proclaimed bike enthusiast and environmentalist, taught himself how to fix bikes as a teen in Southern California. He began fixing bikes at M-A in the school's G Wing in November, before moving his operation to the shed.
The school's student bike repair club, M-A on the Move, helps run the shed and supports transportation options other than driving. Nelson is the group's teacher adviser.
A $14,000 Safe Routes to School grant from the San Mateo County Office of Education funds the shed and other transportation-related programs, said M-A Vice Principal Brenda Bachechi in an email. The grant, distributed between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, also goes toward efforts such as "Walk & Roll 2 School Days," in which students are encouraged to get to school using a means other than a car.
Traffic and bikes
The Bike Shed is part of an effort at M-A to curtail a problem that vexes the school and the greater Bay Area: traffic. Excessive traffic is clogging the neighborhood with cars and increasing wait times at intersections, Bachechi said.
"It takes 20 minutes to clear the front parking lot after school and both Ringwood and Oak Grove (avenues) are impacted by parent pick up (and) drop off," she said. "An increased number of students using sustainable options to get to school makes us better neighbors and allows improved traffic flow."
The school's latest travel audit, done last November, indicates that about 500 of the school's students, who number around 2,100, bike to M-A each day, Bachechi said. The school would like to increase this number to 700, or a little over 30 percent of its student population, she said.
There are currently 350 parking spaces in bike racks on campus, 130 of which were installed along Middlefield and Oak Grove in 2016.
"For many students having a bike is the best way to travel to school; about 87 (percent) of our student body live more than a mile away from school (and) having a safe, functional bike allows them to independently get to school with relatively no cost," she said.
The amount of time the average Bay Area commuter spends in traffic congestion each weekday has increased by more than 80 percent over the 1.9 minutes recorded in 2010, according to an October 2018 report from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a government agency responsible for regional transportation planning in the Bay Area. The commission defines "congested delay" as the time spent in traffic moving at speeds of less than 35 mph.
Traffic will continue to get worse in the Bay Area since there are no planned increases to square footage of freeways or surface streets, Nelson noted. This means people will have to find alternative forms of transportation to get around, he added.
"The amount of time we spend sitting in cars is absolutely horrible," he said, and the stress and toll on mental health from commuting is widespread.
"Cars are really toxic," he said. "Whether it's an electric car or not, you're encased in this little bubble. It's just not what we (humans) are made for."
Helping students get to school
Joel Argueta, a junior, smoothly rode in a loop around the bike racks on Middlefield and Oak Grove after Nelson tinkered with the student's bike on one of the two Dero Fixit bike work stations located next to the shed.
A gear in Argueta's bike had been stuck in the hardest shift since January, making it difficult to stop or ride up hills. He continued riding the bike despite the glitch because he relies on it to get to school from his home in Menlo Park. The alternatives were a 30-minute walk or leaving for school much earlier to catch a ride with his mom.
"I think what he's (Nelson) doing here is really great," he said. Without the Bike Shed, Argueta said, he'd be stuck paying to get the bike fixed.
The outcome of Argueta's experience at the shed fulfills one of its primary goals: to ensure that every M-A student can get to the campus quickly, and in an accessible and reliable way.
The shed also fixes up abandoned and donated bikes to give to students who may not be able to buy their own.
Some students miss classes not because they're "bad kids," but because they don't have reliable transportation to get to school, and a reliable bike can help combat this truancy problem, Nelson said.
Learning new skills
Nelson also strives to educate students through the Bike Shed. He teaches them about how to safely ride their bikes, advising them to ride with helmets, maintain their brakes and use bike locks to prevent theft.
There are other concerns Nelson zeros in on at the shed. The school has heard reports of some students riding their bikes unsafely around town, rolling through stop signs, taking up a lane of traffic or biking the wrong way down a street, he said.
Junior Jack Andrade, who bikes to school from East Palo Alto, began to work at the Bike Shed in February.
"I'm really into bikes," he said. "I like to fix them and work on them. ... I really wanted to do something I like after school. It's satisfying to know how to fix my own bike and how to help others." Since beginning to volunteer at the shed, he's learned to fix flat tires and gained skills in building bikes.
Freshmen Daniel Dallal and Loring Teuteberg began assisting Nelson on bike work in the school's G Wing in November. Dallal said he's learned to change brake cables and dismantle bikes. Teuteberg said he enjoys learning how to take better care of his own bike.
Nelson employs his personal teaching philosophy at the Bike Shed. Students learn best by doing, he's found. He tries to have students learn to be independent and think analytically about how to solve a problem, he said.
"If we can get kids to put down their phones, and start handling things in the real world (through the Bike Shed), that means a lot," he said. "People come to us looking to get bikes fixed, and go away feeling like they learned something."
The students volunteering at the shed benefit from having more job opportunities in the future, too, Nelson said. For example, with the advent of scooter and bike rental companies, businesses such as Lime and Ford GoBikes are hiring mobile mechanics, he said.
Down the road for the school's biking efforts? M-A will host its first Bike Rodeo on May 9, with a bike show by fixie (a fixed-gear bike) and BMX riders. It's a chance to showcase the talent in the M-A on the Move group and talk about bike safety in the community, Nelson said.
In the future, the school would like to ensure that students who need a bike can obtain one through the Bike Shed.
The school would also like to be able to offer certification in bike repair to students who regularly repair bikes at the shed, Bachechi said. Students now work at the Bike Shed on a voluntary basis, but the school will offer service hour credits down the line, Nelson said.
Eventually, the school would like the Bike Shed to expand to a bigger space with a covered repair area, Bachechi said.
"We love our Bike Shed and want to continue to see it grow and expand, as it is one of Menlo-Atherton's ongoing commitments to supporting a transportation culture in which we decrease our carbon footprint and focus on successfully taking cars off the road," she said.
Nelson noted that one doesn't have to be involved in the Bike Shed to find creative alternatives to driving a car.
To donate to the Bike Shed, email Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.