From Zero to Hero: Supporting Sustainable Ag and Economic Opportunity Through Bikes

Posted by Marc OBrien

This year, Project M is celebrating its 10th anniversary of using the power of design to uplift, change lives, and accelerate good around the world. Project M is an immersive program designed to inspire and educate young writers, photographers, designers, and filmmakers by proving that their work—especially their "wrongest" thinking—can have significant impact on communities. We're sharing some of our favorite examples of Project M's work here.

It all started with a challenge—to create an identity for a bike movement that rejected logos, marketing, and corporations. 

John Bielenberg—founder of Project M and co-founder of collaborative brand COMMON and rapid ingenuity firm Future—kick-started the idea with a group of students with a single un-built steel bike frame. Immersing themselves in the fixed-gear sub-culture, the students documented their research and experiences with the first NADA bike, developing an evolving identity system inspired by individuals.

Inspired by the results, John sent out a small batch of unpainted steel frames, encouraging design colleagues to customize their own NADA bikes. Pictures began to trickle in from all over the world. A month later, John ordered 120 more frames in various sizes to be shipped to his Half Moon Bay studio. With the help of myself and other Project M alumni (affectionately known as M’ers), he started to develop NADA Bike further, designing collateral, processing orders, creating a website and mission statement. NADA began to be highlighted on bike blogs, and we eventually presented at the 2010 Ignite Bay Area. After six months, the NADA Bike frames sold out. But the story doesn’t end there.

In the meantime John had met Marty Odlin of the Bamboo Bike Studio and decided to take NADA into the bamboo world. He also began working with former First Lady of Alabama, Marsha Folsom, on Alabamboo, a new initiative to introduce bamboo as sustainable agriculture for the Alabama region. Somewhere between the evolving NADA movement, bamboo bikes, Alabamboo, and fortuitous M’er jokes, a new and even more powerful idea was brewing.

One day over a lunchtime ride, John Bielenberg, Brian Jones, and I had a good laugh over my dream of riding a bike across the country before my 30th birthday. With just 13 months to go, the idea seemed ludicrous. But when John laughingly suggested using a NADA fixed gear for the trip, something clicked. Why not go further, and make my NADA frame out of bamboo? Why not Alabamboo? And why not fund the ride by spreading awareness about bamboo, bikes, sustainable agriculture, and rural economic opportunity? By the end of lunch, we had sketched the rough outlines of the Alabamboo Make & Ride.

I built a website and recruited other M’ers and allies to join the team. We launched a successful $5,000 crowdfunding campaign and sought out title sponsors, raising an additional $10,000. Just months later, we met in Greensboro to begin making our bikes with locally sourced Alabama bamboo, with the help of the Bamboo Bike Studio. With the bikes completed, we embarked on the 3,000 mile journey west from Alabama to San Francisco, CA.

Along the way we shared the Alabamboo movement with communities across the country, holding events during rest stops and interviews with local news channels. During our two months on the road, Marsha Folsom and Alabamboo’s cause were picked up by blogs all across the country and featured in local headlines along the route. Best of all, the ride’s impact even rippled back to Greensboro.

Making our bikes at BikeLab inspired our host, HERO—a longtime nonprofit Project M partner—to begin HERObike, a Greensboro initiative that builds bikes out of locally harvested bamboo while teaching YouthBuild students craft skills, offering workshops, and building economic opportunity for the community. Today, HERObike is even prototyping new bamboo bike designs for more scalable, standardized ways of producing bamboo frames. To learn more about their latest ingenious community projects, check out the Semester Bike on Kickstarter, where it is debuting HERObike’s ingenious Hextube designs.  

Support the Semester Bike on Kickstarter—click here to say you'll do it.


This project is part of GOOD's series Push for Good—our guide to crowdsourcing creative progress.

Top image courtesy of HERObike; second image courtesy of NADABike; third and fourth images courtesy of Future.