How this bike shop owner in LA turned the pandemic into opportunity for his community

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If you’re looking for a positive take on the maelstrom known as 2020, meet Adé Neff.

Neff is the co-owner of Ride On! Bike Shop and Co-Op in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. When the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country, he chose to see it as a further reason to raise awareness of the community-building benefits of bicycling. Raising awareness is a practice Neff knows well. He launched Ride On! in 2014, first as a pop-up that offered free bicycle repairs in South LA, then as a brick-and-mortar store in Leimert Park. What he created was far more than a business opportunity. “Normally, bicycle shops are just concerned about sales,” he says. “But we’re a community space for people. We advocate for safer streets. We advocate for better infrastructure within South LA. For me, understanding the struggles of Black people in public spaces, and advocating for folks to get on bikes, to be more healthy, came with other concerns that we had to address.”

The arrival of the pandemic triggered massive changes — not just in Leimert Park, but to the entire cycling industry — including a surge in demand as the public turned to safe, socially distanced methods of transportation and outdoor exercise. Sales for bikes nationwide more than doubled year-over-year in April, according to the NPD Group, a market research company. This created a unique shortage in the supply chain for bikes and parts for vendors such as Neff. “At the beginning of COVID, we slowed down. We had to close for a couple of weeks,” Neff says. “Then, we were an ‘essential business,’ so we opened back up, because people need to travel. People need to get around and commute. We got really busy, sold all the bikes we had in the shop.” But, as Neff recollects, when the effects of the pandemic really started to hit and people started looking at bikes as an alternative to public transportation, “the supply chain is bottlenecked. We can’t get bikes, we can’t get parts, and so I’m still turning people away, because we still haven’t any bikes in the shop. As soon as we get a bike, then it flies out the door.” Where some might see supply chain issues as strictly a business challenge, Neff saw an opportunity to pivot, both commercially and for his community. First, he set his sights on ensuring that the supply challenges that came with such increased demand didn’t impede access to bikes for those who need them, such as service workers who commute at late hours, when the bus schedule is more limited. This meant paying particular attention to the store’s digital presence and alternative revenue streams. “We started doing a lot of merch,” Neff says. “We had t-shirts, so we put them online. Even in March, when we started opening back up, we didn’t let people into the store; we did curbside. We did cashless for the most part. So, social media and the tech world was able to keep us going.”

Like many retailers, Ride On! was also forced to shift how it conducted its business and reached customers by developing a greater focus on e-commerce and curbside pickup rather than in-store shopping. With more clients choosing to shop and make purchases online, Neff saw an opportunity to make use of online payments system PayPal to help facilitate the transition. With more customers choosing to shop and make purchases online, Neff has been using PayPal to create an easy, and safe, way to accept payments from his customers. Touch-free payment options via QR code and flexible payment options are all part of PayPal’s platform, and technologies customers are increasingly coming to expect when they shop. With PayPal Checkout, Neff is able to process everything, he says, adding that this helped him pivot to online sales. “That was a big shift for us, and that was very helpful. On PayPal, everything is right there. It’s streamlined, it’s pretty simple, and it’s straightforward. I know the platform. I know how to use it.”

In addition to his business pivots, Neff continues to work with local groups to improve city infrastructure for the cyclists in his community. “We’re working on grants and working with different organizations to make sure more people have access to bikes,” he says. “People that need bikes to get around, that can’t afford a bike, or can’t afford an electric bike, even, can use a bike for their daily needs right now. That’s the direction that I like, because it’s also being of service to folks.

Neff and his team worked with other organizations to improve the infrastructure in South LA by securing more bicycle lanes throughout his community, so that, as he says, “people can stay on bicycles as we’re moving into this new world where we need to get people out of cars. More people are on bikes now than ever before. Hopefully, that won’t change.”

A Boston native with a master’s degree in urban sustainability, Neff discovered cycling for himself after he experienced a car accident and grew exasperated dealing with the hassles of car ownership. Unfortunately, what Neff also discovered was that LA’s rep as a car-culture city ran infrastructure-deep, particularly in Black neighborhoods like Leimert Park. “I started seeing the lack of infrastructure in South LA,” he recalls. “Considering, I’m biking everywhere in Los Angeles, I go to the west side, everything is nice. I feel safe. I’m in bike lanes. I come back to South LA, and my life is in other people’s hands.” Systemic racism — and police discrimination against riders of color — persists throughout the cycling community. This reality contributes to what Neff sees as a deficit in the embrace of biking from a community that should benefit from it.

“Since Black people have been in this country, movement from one point to another has always been an issue,” he says. “The bike is a form of transportation for me. It’s a symbol of liberation and freedom. I feel like a lot more people are in that position, or should be in that position.” And Neff hopes that post-pandemic culture will be able to leave some parts of the old world behind. When people ask, “When can we go back to normal?” Neff wants to know: “What is normal? Pre-COVID life was not normal. I mean, for Black folks in this country, it’s like, things have always been bad. Historically, a lot of Black people have suffered in this country. COVID, I think, made a lot of people see that.” But when he sees how outdoor activities like biking have helped people adapt and persevere, Neff says he realized that “people are seeing that they can actually live, and not just survive. I hope that continues, and so the next few years, the next five years, it just grows in the cities.”

So, Neff keeps pedaling. His work to increase access to bikes and biking infrastructure in the Black community continues. He still strives to develop Ride On!’s online and social media presence, and is talking about opening new locations in under-served areas of the city. There’s no doubt that technology will play a part in making his community and commercial dreams a reality, but it’s his unshakeable faith in a brighter future that’s most carrying him through. “It’s like I jumped off a mountain and believed that I was going to grow wings,” he says. “I think I grew wings about an inch and a half away from the damn ground. The universe has all the control. I’m just able to ride. Just ride.”

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