Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Top photo by Samuel Belmonte.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP RUMBLErumblerumblerumble thud CRASH!
That’s the sound of my Thursday mornings. It’s trash day in the Lowbright neighborhood, and the garbage trucks roar through the street at the perky hour of 5:45 a.m. I am grateful for this service, of course, but it does seem like a bit of a noisy, annoying, resource-intensive way to move our waste. After six years in Santa Cruz, I had resigned myself to this as part of life—like the barking of the sea lions—until I heard about Pedal People.
Pedal People is a worker-owned co-op that bike-hauls trash, groceries, CSA farm shares, compost, domestic cats, solar panels, Christmas trees, and anything else that needs moving in and around Northampton, Massachusetts. The bikes let them do this with minimal pollution, noise, or carbon emissions, and at a cost reasonable enough that the city contracts with them instead of with a traditional diesel-run trash company. It’s the lowest-impact hauling service to hit New England since the Ox-Cart Man.
Northampton has no municipal trash pickup—people either contract with a private company to collect their waste from the curb, or they bring it to transfer stations themselves. In 2002, Alex Jarrett was biking his own waste when he and Ruthy Woodring hit upon an idea—they could do this for more people, work outdoors, and make Northampton a nicer place to be. Ruthy had a lot of bike and mechanical expertise, Alex was able to build their website, and they both had their own wheels, so the business didn’t require any loans and had essentially zero overhead. They grew gradually and attracted more people, always operating as a cooperative. Ruthy thinks that the co-op model was key to their success, as people are more likely to keep pedaling through the weather when they work for themselves and not for a boss. The typical Pedal Person (there are seventeen of them now) spends about ten hours a week in the saddle and a couple more hours on administrative stuff. Most hauling destinations are within a few miles of each other, so it’s sustainable for everyone’s bodies as well as their environment.
Photo by Alex Jarrett.
Infrastructure is about flows—how we move waste, water, food, information, and ourselves through the world. Of course, most of this takes the equivalent power of many, many people—“energy-slaves,” as the inventor Buckminster Fuller called it. Pedal People is taking work back from the machines, and along with providing an array of services and (undoubtedly) getting in iron shape, they remind the people of Northampton about what it takes to actually move all the things we use to build the lives we live. This would make me, for one, think twice about throwing things away unnecessarily. Human-powered businesses are growing all around the country, some of which are advised by Pedal People, and you may see bike haulers in your own community. They’re finding niches—compost is a common one—and showing that trash hauling around a concentrated downtown core works just as well on bikes as with trucks.
Is bike-hauling cheaper, in dollar terms, than trucks? Generally speaking, no. If it was, it would be the way most towns worked (though Pedal People does offer some incentives to get people to switch away from their old services). The advantage of programs like Pedal People lies in externalities, effects that aren’t expressed in dollars, that are external to market transactions like hiring a hauling company. Mostly we think of externalities in terms of pollution, the cost of which, for much of history, was not paid for by anyone and remains pretty difficult to price in. The Pedal People do reduce pollution, of course, but I’d like to think of them also in terms of positive externalities. Simply in the course of doing their work, they make a healthier, quieter, more connected community. It’s a lot more pleasant to walk around a town with more cycling and less trucking, and it’s much easier to make friends next to a bike trailer than it is over a growling garbage truck.
Northampton isn’t a tiny hamlet—it’s got almost 30,000 people—and being in Massachusetts, it is dark and snowy through the winter. The People keep pedaling, though, all through the seasons. As long as it isn’t too snowy or hilly, you could do this anyplace. It makes me wonder why every single town south of the snow line doesn’t have its own two-wheeled oxen, cheerfully moving the flotsam and jetsam of modern life to and fro and letting people sleep in the morning.
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on dam removal politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and will begin an Environmental Studies professorship at Wofford College this fall. In his academic work, he researches the ways people decide to restore and remake their environments.