After three years as program director, Joseph Bonaparte is stepping down. Commissioner Joan Leonard discusses his contributions and the future of the program.
By Matt Skoufalos
Like most programs in Collingswood, bike share began as an attempt to execute, inexpensively, an idea that had proven successful elsewhere.
“It was developed at my kitchen table,” recalled borough Commissioner Joan Leonard.
“I had been looking at bike shares around the world, how it was done, and what the advantages were in countries that are much more in tune with bike riding as opposed to motor vehicles.”
Leonard’s investigations led to the realization that establishing such a program could cost “literally millions of dollars,” from establishing an inventory of bikes, servicing them, logging participants, and adding bike lanes to the local roadways.
“But [it was]well worth it in terms of managing a city if you could do it,” she said. “What we were talking about was how to have bike share for no budget and tailor it to Collingswood’s needs, which are completely different from [those of]an urban environment.”
Typically, bike shares are designed to assist the residents of a densely populated city in their daily commutes, Leonard said; the borough envisioned its program as “more like taking a book out of the library,” where the library is a garage and the librarians are mechanics.
The bikes comprising the 300-member operation are repurposed from abandoned, donated, or auctioned inventory. The labor that maintains them is nearly free, and of varying skill, and within seven years, the program has put more than 430 bikes on the road for borough residents.
For six of those seven years, one of the key bike share volunteers has been Joe Bonaparte, a Collingswood resident who’s spent more than half that time as the bike share director, overseeing program operations from an annex to the public works garage on Atlantic Avenue.
Leonard credited Bonaparte’s enthusiasm and creativity with helping to make the program as successful as it has been.
His efforts to sustain the bike share have resulted in some unusual yet lucrative fundraisers–most notably the formation of a glam rock cover band that raised several thousand dollars–while expanding its volunteer ranks.
“He’s charming, and he knows how to work [with]people, not just be a mechanic,” Leonard said. “His expertise, guidance, goals, and enthusiasm is why we are where we are today.”
Bonaparte is also stepping down as the director of the program to which he has given so much of his time. Time constraints from a new job have left him unable to “do the minimum anymore, much less talk about a fundraiser where we do extra improvements,” he said.
“I love Bike Share,” Bonaparte said. “This isn’t something I do with great ease; giving it up. This has been a ridiculously rewarding part of my life. In addition to being trusted to serve the community with this awesome program, I got to be in a rock band accidentally. The effort that went into that is largely what the results of this are.”
Bonaparte isn’t leaving the program for good, however; he’s been tapped to train his replacements, and he’s still going to volunteer his time, when he has it, to build and fix bikes for his friends and neighbors. But his days of spending 20-plus hours a week covering bike frames in the program’s signature “sonic boom” green paint are over.
“Bikes are simple machines, but running a bike share is not quite as simple as that,” Bonaparte said. “It’s a borough program, so there is administrative work that goes along with it just like any other governmental program. It’s run as tightly as you can run a program with no budget.
“We’re the only bike share in Camden County that doesn’t get a quiver of working bicycles from the county,” he said. “We get bikes in all manner of disrepair before we put them out on the road, so our volunteers need to be decent bike mechanics in varying degrees. I had a customer last winter that I would go and do repairs at their home because it was the only means of transportation. Bikes get stolen. Bikes get out of circulation. People move away and don’t tell us. Those are [the]expectations.”
The people who’ve been tapped to meet those expectations are Collingswood residents and longtime bike share volunteers Chrissy Spallone and Tom Messick; they’re expected to be formally confirmed as the new co-directors of the program by the borough this fall.
When Spallone first started coming to Bike Share four years ago, she basically knew how to change a tire. Her skill set has expanded considerably since.
“I picked up a lot of stuff,” she said. “I like working with tools, working outside, being in the sun. It was sort of a natural flow into the responsibilities.”
Spallone said that the breadth of clients and volunteers the program attracts—“families, loners, people who walk in with their dog”—is a reason she’s stayed with the program for so long. The bicycle is a versatile, populist, low-cost mode of transportation, and educating more of her fellow neighbors in its care and maintenance is why she donates her time.
“I like what we’re doing,” Spallone said; “I don’t think it needs to change. The original mission, I think, still works: people can rent a bike for $25 a year, and that’s a great deal, and that comes with free repairs, maintenance. We’re going to try to keep our supplies stocked; always have a variety of bikes ready to go.”
Messick began volunteering with bike share in the summer of 2012. In the time he spent with Bonaparte, Messick said he enjoyed watching his friend’s “project” bikes materialize as much as he did managing his own repair queue.
“Working with Joe was always a great time,” Messick said. “He’s a great friend and I learned a lot about fixing bikes from him.”
Messick said he also absorbed a lot from Bonaparte’s approach to the volunteer experience, which emphasized an attitude of camaraderie, creativity, and service in the execution of the program.
He wants to retain those sentiments in the garage moving forward, while improving the mechanical facility of its staff.
“Our volunteers are the key to our success, and I’m proud of the work they get done during any one session,” Messick said. “I want to keep the volunteer experience fun and invest in their skills through formal training.”
Messick and Spallone have planned a couple other improvements to the program—streamlining its sign-up and payment process; relocating the public repair stand to a centralized locale, like the PATCO station or Roberts Pool; updating the public bike racks. Leonard said the group may consider subsidizing better bike locks for members to prevent theft and keep more bikes on the road.
Bonaparte supports these measures and others, too. He’d like to see the borough explore a feasibility study and implementation plan for adding bike lanes throughout Collingswood. He wants to help his successors grow the volunteer base of the program, from mechanics to administrative staff. But mostly, he wants to help build and fix bikes.
“The volunteers come because that’s what they like to do, and that’s what I like to do too,” Bonaparte said. “I did that before there was a bike share. I want to go back to making cool bikes.
“I feel like I’ve gotten some level of public recognition out of [directing the program], and I think that somebody else deserves to get that,” he said. “And it was super-fun to do.”
Leonard said she is “very excited” to work with Spallone and Messick to advance the mission of the bike share. She views it as a quality-of-life amenity that is distinct to Collingswood, and critical to connecting residents in the community with many of its other activities.
“Public health and safety is very important; recreation is something that we prioritize right below that,” Leonard said. “Things like bike share and the pool and events, parades, galas, are all part of that. Community theater, [the]farmers market; people in our version of bike share can get to all of those things in one safe, accessible community.
“We have a lot to work with, and I want to keep working,” she said. “Everyone should have a bike who wants a bike.”