This year, 3,754 bikes were abandoned by participants with no regard for the principles of being a Black Rock City citizen. People either dropped the bikes carelessly, or they left them unlocked to be stolen and abandoned. This created tons of work for other Burners just like them, who spent days cleaning them up and getting them hauled off playa. We’re sharing this story of how they pulled it off so Burners can realize the impact of their actions on their fellow participants, plan accordingly, and pack out everything they bring — including bikes.
Burning Man’s Community Yellow Bike Program has a simple mission: to mobilize the citizens of Black Rock City with human-powered public transit. Each year, this department releases a fleet of Yellow Bikes onto the streets of Black Rock for free, public use. The rules are simple: Don’t lock them. Don’t modify them. Wear pants.
In addition to maintaining the existing community fleet, this department also:
- Adds several hundred new bikes to the community fleet each year (to compensate for theft and population growth) using donated/abandoned Huffy Cranbrooks from the previous year
- Runs Bicycle Lost & Found
- Conducts the abandoned bike cleanup effort on playa
- Equips the on-site Burning Man staff with dedicated personal bikes
This year, the Community Yellow Bike Program:
- Added 216 frames to the community fleet (all from donated/recovered 2016 Huffy Cranbrooks)
- Rolled out 871 tuned up community bikes onto the streets of Black Rock City
- Gave away 150 bikes to DPW for personal use during the work season and helped tune up >100 additional crew bikes
We were proud of these numbers and recovered 89% of our community bike fleet post-event, leaving us with 779 Yellow Bikes for next year (although 33 of those were heavily vandalized and will need a significant amount of time and energy to return to the fleet next year).
And then, the abandoned bike clean up effort began. A conservative (and astounding) 3,754 bikes were gathered during this process, beginning the evening of Monday (September 4) through the following Monday (September 11). To put this in perspective, the number of abandoned bikes we’ve cleaned up over the past several years has ranged from ~1,400–1,900. This dramatic spike in numbers was unexpected to say the least, and combined with the community fleet clean up effort, >4,500 bikes were gathered and processed in this single week. This daunting task could not have been accomplished without the help of many other crews, and I’d like to personally thank Burning Man’s HEaT (Heavy Equipment and Transpo) Department for their consummate efforts, which took place after their already exhausting work hours.
Over the past several years, the Community Yellow Bike Program has donated the abandoned bikes (after they’ve cleared Lost & Found) to a handful of nonprofits, including the Kiwanis Club, the Delores Huerta Foundation and the Reno Bike Project, to name a few. We give priority to organizations that conduct community-based, charitable programming, and target underserved communities. We’ve maintained an unofficial policy of not publicizing the wonderful projects we donate to, for fear that it would give the Burning Man community greater license to irresponsibly ditch more bikes on the event site. (An abandoned bike, for the record, is MOOP, and we struggle with our resources to handle this issue every year.)
By Monday, September 11, we’d maxed out the capacity of the nonprofits we’ve historically worked with, and still had a staggering number (>1,500) of bikes left on site, all of which needed to be removed by end of day Wednesday, September 13. In the five years I’ve managed this project, we’ve never sent a single usable bike to a scrapper or landfill, which was the final destination for these bikes unless a miracle should occur within 48 hours.
Sure enough, several small miracles occurred. DPW friends activated their networks and reached out to local contacts, resulting in a steady stream of trucks and trailers that arrived on site to help. Bikes were scooped en masse, destined for the Paiute Reservation, local neighborhoods, hurricane disaster relief in Texas and the Caribbean, and communities in Gambia, West Africa, again, to name only a few. By the time the final scrapper came at noon on Wednesday, we had a meager pile of three partial bike frames and four wheels, all of which appeared to have been run over by vehicles and were well beyond the point of repair.
During this madness, I met many amazing individuals who spent personal funds and energy to get keep this staggering resource from the landfill. I was humbled by the participation and immediacy of this communal effort, all in the name of civic responsibility and leaving no trace. It was an impromptu spectacle that seemed to display all of Burning Man’s principles in action.
The Great Bikeaggedon of 2017 leaves us with three big questions:
- Why the sudden jump in numbers this year?
The nearly 100% increase in abandoned bikes took us by surprise. Some folks point out that the Census shows a large number of first-time Burners, but that’s been true for a few years now. I personally think a variety of factors are at play, and I look forward to teasing them out in the weeks to come, but one thing is for sure: The worst areas of the city were the 9:00–10:00 o’clock side of the grid, where bike piles numbered in the hundreds. While we cannot clearly attribute a bike pile at a specific location to the camp that once existed there — these bike piles accumulate in the days following Theme Camp strike — I would encourage the community to look at what’s happening in that general neighborhood and look for ways to encourage better behavior.
- Why don’t we just let people take abandoned bikes away and unburden ourselves of this cleanup catastrophe?
By consolidating abandoned bike cleanup through a DPW department, we have the means to run Lost & Found and ensure we are not dealing with stolen goods. This also allows us to clamp down on profiteering and pirating that inevitably follows close at the heels of a resource stockpile, and instead divert that resource to charitable causes.
- What can we do differently next year?
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but what Black Rock City can do differently next year is PACK OUT ALL OF OUR BIKES! If you’d prefer to donate your bike to a good cause rather than bring it home, that’s your responsibility. Leaving it for other Burners to handle flies in the face of what Burning Man is all about. Nevertheless — as always — we handled it.
A sincere and heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped out.
Top photo by Logan “Cobra Commander” Mirto