If eagles are the rulers of the sky and sharks the lords of the sea, the Pedal People are the busy bees of the Valley’s bike trails, bringing to the system the lifeblood of commerce and the virtue of conservation. An early pioneering effort that has since been successfully replicated in several cities across the U.S., the Pedal People’s mission has crafted a model for locally-based delivery of goods and services that keeps employees in great shape and has the carbon footprint of a gnat to boot. The group is now incorporated as a worker-owned cooperative, and services the Northampton, Florence and Leeds areas.

The Pedal People perform many functions as the worker drones of Northampton’s bicycle byways, hauling garbage, recycling and even compost for fees comparable to those of the big commercial sanitation companies. They also deliver groceries and CSA farm shares and even rent themselves out as a “pedicab service” for special events. Northamptonites can see the cyclists all along the city’s roads and various bike trails, dragging about anything from laundry to lumber, couches to cats (yes, it says “cats” on their website) to king-sized beds, causing nary a traffic jam and burning nothing worse than calories.

“There are currently 13 Pedal People,” says co-founder Ruthy Woodring, whose original inspiration for starting the collective came from experiences as a bike messenger in Chicago and New Orleans. “Just under half of us live in Florence, and the rest in Northampton. We have 10 trailers and they live distributed at different members’ houses (and the downtown trash trailer in the downtown parking garage), so people can start their day with a trailer close at hand.”

So what’s it like to be a Pedal Person?

“For me it’s a dream job,” says Mike Hagans. “I really enjoy showing people in the community just how strong the human body is and what it is capable of doing. I feel like in this age of mechanization, while I appreciate some aspects of it freeing people from laborious, back-breaking work, it also makes us forget about our past and what we are truly capable of. I also hope we give trash a human feel—make people think about what they use and [what they] discard, and about other options [that are] available, like composting.”

“I started doing Pedal People right after I moved up here in 2004,” says Ben Winter. “When I started, there were 34 customers and the business seemed like a fun hobby, but something that might never take off. Since that time, Pedal People has grown into a real livelihood for me and a great business model: how many businesses can you start for $500 (the cost of buying a bike trailer)?”

The collective also likes to share its expertise in the world of cycling, and offers occasional free, informal bike workshops for anyone curious to learn more about gears, chains, brakes, tires and other moving bicycle parts, traffic safety or tips for winter riding. Pedal People co-founder Ruthy Woodring is currently holding Sunday courses called “Bicycling Street Smarts and Basic Maintenance and Repair” at 8 High St. in Florence, for a sliding-scale fee of $0-40. (Call or email to the contacts below if interested.)

“Many people think Pedal People both work and live together collectively,” says Woodring. “However, the house where Alex Jarrett and I live with friends is separate from the business. The location of the house on the bike path is convenient for us, but what I like most about the location is that it gives us a special opportunity to meet people in our community who are going by at walking or biking speed. The cob bench and shelter, the air pump, the swings, the phone—all are a plot to draw people in so we can make connections, and we can get our needs met, both for material things as well as friendship.”

The Pedal People also run a smallish food collective, wherein members who buy in can share the savings of bulk purchasing power, reduce the packaging they consume and also help limit the amount of fuel that’s required to move food from place to place. Members are highly encouraged to pick up their shares on foot or on bicycles to further reduce their impact on the environment. It appears they’re also dipping their toes into the lunch delivery business.

“Today [May 14, 2010] we are starting a trial run with Serio’s doing Friday lunch deliveries,” says Ruthy. “We don’t know yet what our service area will be for that, but most likely it will be similar to the trash/recycling/compost service area.”

The Pedal People can be reached by writing to Pedal People Cooperative Inc., PO Box 415, Northampton, MA 01061-0415, calling (413) 586-8591 or emailing (for general inquiries) or (for food collective questions).

Author: Tom Sturm

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