How a dorm-room project blossomed into a harbinger of accessibility
By Eddie Samuels and Reena Karasin
When Charles T. James and Daisy Chiu wanted to make biking more accessible, they turned to cell phone plans.
Cell phone companies know that people can’t or won’t shell out $800 on a phone up front, so they turn it into a monthly fee of $30.
Bikes are expensive as well, and a several-hundred-dollar price tag can be a huge barrier to the myriad benefits that biking offers. So James and Chiu, co-founders of CrimsonBikes, decided to launch a plan where people can pay off the bike over 24 to 36 months, with repairs included.
“Instead of walking in and saying, ‘I want to buy that $650 bike,’ now you can come and pay $40 a month and not only do you get the bike, but you also get your service for free,” James says. “Now you have something that works with your lifestyle rather than having to budget for it or worry about that time when you get a flat tire and you’re pinching pennies.”
But affordability is just one aspect of accessibility that Chiu and James want to tackle. CrimsonBikes also aims to address convenience, social-cultural inclusiveness, and physical accessibility.
For people with busy lives—maybe because they’re working multiple jobs, or juggling childcare—CrimsonBikes has a mobile bike shop that will come to people for a $10 fee.
In terms of social-cultural inclusiveness, Chiu and James are working to open the traditionally white and male biking world to women and people of color. They’re being mindful of who they hire to work in their stores and who they feature in their marketing.
James says that he and Chiu, as two people of color, are anomalies in the biking world, and they’re striving to help everyone see a place for themselves in it.
Physical accessibility is an issue that’s often glossed over in biking, according to James, who says that the vast majority of bike stores don’t have any equipment available onsite for people with physical disabilities.
“There are 50 million Americans who have a disability of some form,” James says. “There’s not a lot of folks thinking about how we can extend this service or experience to them.”
The issue became especially important to CrimsonBikes when Chiu, who uses a wheelchair, joined the team. Now the founders make sure to have accessible bikes and equipment in their stores.
She explains that there are various accommodations that can be made for those who can’t ride a standard bike, including electric cycles like the one she uses.
“For me, for example, balance is a big thing, so I need the tricycle setup,” Chiu says. “Adaptations like wheels or adaptations like horns or tandem situations [are things] that, a lot of the time, are limited to people who go to get extensive physical therapy but aren’t able to take them home with them.”
James knows firsthand what worlds biking can open up. If you had told him when he was an incoming freshman at Harvard that one day he’d be the owner of a bike shop, he would have had a very simple answer: “What’s a bike shop?”
In the 10 years since James started CrimsonBikes in his Harvard dorm room, bikes have become a huge part of his life. But he still remembers his first, unpleasant biking experiences.
“My only experience with bikes was $10 bikes from our local thrift store,” James says. “Growing up, we didn’t have a whole lot of money, and then I had tried working on a bike once when I was a kid, and I remember, my brakes had stopped working and I thought I could figure this out. I completely failed and scraped my little hands up, and I swore it off.”
But James discovered his love for cycling a few years later when his roommate, Daniel Lorenzana, let him borrow his bike to get to class one day. “He was the person who exposed me to the drug that is biking,” James says.
Eventually, after James repeatedly borrowed that bike, Lorenzana made it clear it was time for him to find his own. The pair took a bike that had been left in the donation area at Harvard at the end of the summer and fixed it up, and James finally had a bike of his own.
But James and Lorenzana decided to go beyond servicing their own bikes. Over time, by gathering and fixing up more unwanted bikes, the two had a collection on their hands.
“We realized we could fix bikes up for other people, and we started doing that. And we’d done all this work to get people onto bikes, but what could we do to maximize this impact?” James says. “And so, in the summer of 2009, we took some of the bikes that we’d built up, and made a fleet of them, and made them available to students to come and check out.”
Now managing Harvard’s first ever bike-share operation, the two had no problem maintaining the equipment, but they needed someone who could handle the logistics and customer service.
“I didn’t really come on until it came out of their bedroom space—when it was more than just a hush-hush project of them gleefully working on bikes, and more of a real thing,” Chiu says. “They were really good at bikes, but didn’t have time to do the back-end cleanup of organizing and talking to people.”
“When I was in elementary school, I was already an entrepreneur,” Chiu says. “I used to make things and sell them all the time. When I got to college I kind of ran a second-hand shop from my dorm room. I was not supposed to hang things from those water pipes, but I did anyway. I’ve always had that kind of mind. I also love to talk to people and help people.”
James and Chiu, classes of 2010 and 2008 respectively, got jobs elsewhere—Chiu in Boston Public Schools and James in the tech sector—before switching to CrimsonBikes full-time. Lorenzana, now a doctor, left CrimsonBikes after he graduated in 2009.
“I was splitting my time between these two things and not able to do either one really well, so what should I focus my attention on? It should obviously be the thing that gets me really jazzed every morning when I wake up,” James says.
This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.