Chris Caldwell

REVELO ISSUE 01 • Written by Brooke Carlock Miller

Story Sponsor:
Lancaster Area Habitat For Humanity ReStore
155 Independence Court • Lancaster, PA 17601
(717) 293-0250 • www.lancasterlebanonhabitat.org

On any given day, someone stopping by The Common Wheel Community Bike Center in Lancaster might see a professional mechanic refurbishing a donated bike to be resold, a female customer purchasing a new bike to ride back and forth to work, a Cuban refugee fixing a flat tire at the self-serve working area, or a ten-year-old boy bringing in a bag of collected trash to pay for the repairs on his bike that he can’t afford. It is this coming together of community and culture that makes Chris Caldwell realize that his idea is working. For Caldwell, the creator and executive director of The Common Wheel, it’s not necessarily about the bikes, but about the movement.

The idea of a community bike shop came to Chris as he attended college at West Chester University. As a student and member of the baseball team, Chris used his bike as his main mode of transportation. He noticed he was one of the only people riding a bike, and he wondered why. He could get where he needed to go around campus, usually in less time, for less money, and without having to worry about parking. After graduation, Chris worked construction in Lancaster to finance what he calls his life as a “ski bum.” He continued to ride his bike around town in order to save money, but when he asked his friends to join him on bike rides to go to restaurants or markets downtown, he was met with resistance.

“At that point, there wasn’t really any urban bike culture in Lancaster,” Chris says. “There was a big road bike culture in the county,” he notes, but adds that even friends who owned a road bike didn’t want to haul out their expensive gear for short rides downtown. Other friends noted that they didn’t feel safe riding on Lancaster streets. Knowing the benefits of biking firsthand, Chris set out to change biking culture in downtown Lancaster. “I started to read about how cities can become more bike-friendly,” he says, “and the community bike shop model sounded like a good way to start something that was hands-on… It was an idea that started to percolate.” Around the same time, Chris’s mother lost a long battle with cancer, fueling his desire to do something meaningful.

In 2014, with about $50 in the bank, Chris went to the city and told them he needed a space for his vision to become a reality. “I didn’t think they’d actually have any,” he laughs, but they told him about an old 1,100 square-foot abandoned pump-house building in Reservoir Park. “Luckily, I had construction background,” Chris says. Following a complete overhaul of the neglected space, The Common Wheel opened its doors with a mission to provide access to cycling for everyone, regardless of age, gender, skin color, belief, or income level. Through programs such as “Earn-a-Bike,” “Bikes for All,” “Women on Wheels,” and adult beginner mechanics classes, Chris watched his vision of a vibrant biking community in Lancaster come to fruition.

Now, three years later, his vision is evolving and expanding, and new ideas are floating in Chris’s head. He would love to collaborate with Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology to promote mechanical STEM skills for the youth who go through the “Earn-a-Bike” program. He’s also hoping to start an “adventure biking” program that takes members of the community on trips outside of Lancaster. “Some kids who come in here have never seen the Susquehanna River,” he says, shaking his head. Taking those kids somewhere like the Pittsburgh-D.C. rail trail, “starts to expand their world view.”

Mostly, though, Chris still wants to get Lancastrians out of their cars and onto their bikes. “A big thing we tell people is it’s not like you’re flipping a switch and all of a sudden you get rid of your car and you have to ride no matter what the conditions,” Chris says, “It’s really just like, on a nice day, consider riding your bike. Ride a couple of times… to the store, to the market. Once it starts, it will spread, and I think we can help put Lancaster on the map as a bike-friendly city with a bursting bike culture.”

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