Yellow Bike story

Legendary yellow bikes, Bikes Not Bombs, Pete’s stolen bike and other grassroots beginnings – A.K.A. how it all began…

Walk into Yellow Bike Project on Webberville Road on any given day and you’ll likely run into Pete; helping a volunteer, answering questions and generally hanging out to help wherever he can. He’s a busy guy, attested to by his half-finished bowl of granola and strawberries I noticed on a recent stop to buy a bike. We were there for over an hour and he never got a chance to finish the granola!

Pete Wall, one of Yellow Bike’s founders & a current staff manager at Yellow Bike

Pete is unassuming and generates a relaxed chill energy, just the kind of vibe you need at a community organization mostly staffed by volunteers. And the kind of vibe I’ve come to expect in Austin.

In 1996 a group of volunteers started a chapter of “Bikes not Bombs” in Austin. Bikes not Bombs originated in Boston in 1984 as a way to show solidarity with Nicaragua. Many other chapters of Bikes not Bombs popped up in the US in the following years. This idea was to give small bike shops a chance to thrive and get used bikes into the hands of people who needed simple transportation. 

The Boston chapter of Bikes not Bombs gathered donations and sent them to Nicaragua. Eventually the Nicaraguan government stopped funding the program. As the donated bikes piled up in Austin it was decided to find a place to manage and release the large volume of donated bikes. And so it happened; the Yellow Bike Project was born. There were about a dozen volunteers who took on the task to refurbish the donated bikes for use locally.

The Austin bikes for giveaway were all single-speed bikes. A plan was put in place to paint them all yellow making them easily recognizable. Stickers were applied to each bike that read “Free to ride but not to keep”, but that didn’t matter. The yellow bikes were placed on street corners and disappeared almost as quickly as they were dropped off. There was obviously a need, and it was being met by this dedicated group of volunteers.

In the mid-90’s Pete had ridden his bike from his home in Massachusetts to Austin with a plan to winter here. He stayed with a friend and during that stay someone stole Pete’s bike! While searching for a new bike Pete discovered Bikes not Bombs and started volunteering for them. 

In January of 1997 the first ‘yellow’ bikes were released for community use. In May of that year Pete finished his goal of riding to the west coast. He decided to return to Austin in September of 1997, drawn back to Austin by the mission and work of Yellow Bike Project. When he returned, he saw the yellow single speed bikes all around town. Seeing those bikes on his return to Austin he thought, “Wow they are really doing this – I need to stay involved.”

Eventually Yellow Bike Project had to move due to Austin’s need for the space they occupied. So in 2013 they moved to 51st Street and shared space with the Fire Station. A few years later there was progress in the city and Yellow Bike Project needed a new space. So Yellow Bike Project went to the Urban Transportation department with a pitch to get free space from Austin. The city was onboard with the Mission of Yellow Bike Project to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle so they offered three plots of land and Yellow Bike Project chose their current location on Webberville Road. Now that they had land it was time to build a structure.

Yellow Bike Project already had $200,000 but needed another $100,000. The Webberville Rd. location opened in May 2010 with a bit of debt. Crowdfunding was started to raise the remainder of funds needed. In two and a half years the lenders were paid back and by the end of 2012 Yellow Bike Project was debt free!

There have never been business sponsors, and this is by design. Yellow Bike Project relies solely on the kindness of the community via donations of cash and bicycles and accessories, and the knowledge and commitment of their many volunteers.

Amateur bicycle mechanics had incorporated the Yellow Bike Project in the summer of 1997. Until the Fall of 2013 Yellow Bike Project was completely run by volunteers. There is now a paid staff of nine; both full-time and part-time, with Pete as Manager.

Do you have a bike you no longer need? Or maybe bicycle accessories? Yellow Bike Project will take donations in any condition – part of the mission is to reuse as much as possible.

Monetary donations are greatly appreciated as well. Currently about 86% of operating revenue is from the sale of refurbished bikes. Last year Yellow Bike Project sold 514 bikes. Pete’s dream is to one day to not have to generate income like this, but to have enough cash flow through donations to just give bikes away to those in need in the community. In 2023 Yellow Bike Project gave a combined 1185 bikes to kids and adults. That’s a lot of folks served by this bustling shop of dedicated employees and volunteers.

When I asked Pete “What is your absolute favorite thing about Yellow Bike?” he said, “It has given my life purpose by doing good for other people, for the environment, and for the city of Austin”. 

I’d say the City of Austin is lucky to have Yellow Bike and all the employees and volunteers; and especially a guy like Pete.

By Patti Stauss