‘A problem worth fixing’: Howard nonprofit aims to provide bikes for kids in need

Ted Cochran, president of Free Bikes 4 Kidz Maryland, sits in the organization's headquarters Oct. 10, where hundreds of bikes are stored.

Every child should have a bicycle.

That simple philosophy — along with a lifelong passion for biking — spurred Howard County native Ted Cochran to launch Free Bikes 4 Kidz Maryland as the local headquarters of a Minneapolis nonprofit originally founded in 2008.


Following a one-time seasonal bike drive at 12 county fire stations on Oct. 5, the fledgling organization based in the former Columbia Flier building is on its way to making bike ownership a reality for hundreds of local kids in need.

In just four hours, FB4K Maryland collected 285 bikes of all sizes.


Hoping to increase the number of refurbished bikes being given away in Columbia on Dec. 14, the organization will continue to accept donations of gently used bikes through Oct. 31.

The organization’s hours are 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 6 p.m. Saturday at its offices at 10750 Little Patuxent Parkway.

Most needed are smaller bikes and tricycles, Cochran said.

After spending much of his free time on two wheels since he was 6, Cochran wanted to give youths in need “their first taste of independence,” as well as coax them away from phones, computers and TV screens and into adopting a fun and healthy outdoor pastime.

Having logged 25,000 miles commuting by bike between 2011 and his retirement in April from corporate research and development in Minnesota, Cochran knows firsthand what a well-developed bike culture can mean to a community.

Ted Cochran, president of Free Bikes 4 Kidz Maryland, works on a bike at the organization's headquarters Oct. 10.

“Columbia is a great place for riding with its pathways and cul-de-sacs, yet a lot of kids here don’t have bikes,” said Cochran, who volunteered at the FB4K Minneapolis location for 10 years when he lived in Minnesota. “That’s a problem worth fixing.”

Cochran, 65, said his startup operates as its own nonprofit, but he can piggyback off the established logo, policies and website of the Minneapolis location.

He has partnered with Howard County and the Howard Hughes Corporation, which gave the organization a $10,000 grant. The Horizon Foundation, a Columbia-based health and wellness philanthropy, is also on board.


Cochran intends to eventually expand the organization into Baltimore since “that’s where the real need is,” he said.

When that might occur and whether it can be accomplished from a Howard County-based headquarters have yet to be determined.

There’s still a lot to be done in the next couple months before the big giveaway.

More volunteers are needed to clean, adjust and repair bikes before a professional bicycle repair person gives them a final once-over and stamp of approval.

Information and online signup for workers of all skill levels is available at Volunteers younger than 18 can apply, but must supply a signed permission slip. Younger kids must be accompanied by a parent.

“We can use people with all levels of bike experience, from ‘What’s a bike?’ to ‘Mechanic for the Tour de France,’ ” Cochran joked on the website.


Cochran knows what biking can mean to a kid’s health and well-being.

He grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, a time when kids grabbed their bikes and took off to meet up with friends or just go exploring — promising to be back before dark from wherever they ended up, he recalled.

Cochran is the oldest of six children of Edward L. Cochran, a former Howard County executive and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory chemist, and the late Joan Cochran. His two sisters, Del. Courtney Watson and Mary Catherine Cochran, legislative director at the Maryland General Assembly, assisted with the bike drive.

Community service was always a priority in the Cochran household.

“We were taught to give back growing up,” Cochran said of the family, who made their home in Clarksville, where his father still lives.

What better way to do that than to combine a desire to give back with a passion for biking, he said.


What began for Cochran as biking for fun evolved over the years into getting himself to part-time jobs as a youth, cycling around Baltimore during his college years at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and eventually to a 20-mile, round-trip commute over the past nine years.

After volunteering for 10 years at the Minneapolis location of FB4K, Cochran retired in April from Honeywell and moved back to Howard County with his wife to be near family.

The Columbia site on Little Patuxent Parkway, to which he commutes by bike, is the eighth location of the Minneapolis-based organization, which was founded by Terry Esau in 2008.

Georgia, Michigan, Washington state and Wisconsin each have an FB4K site; Oregon has two.

Esau — who, like Cochran, likes to inject a little humor into his website — said his bike is worth more than his car, “though that says more about my car than my bike.”

The former television music producer and composer owns a Trek model with a carbon frame and electronic shifting that cost $12,000, but drives a 2008 Saturn, he joked.


Since refurbished bikes are given away each December, Esau also tweaked Clement Clarke Moore’s famous last line about goodwill toward men from the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to coin the website slogan: “Good wheel to all, and to all a good bike.”

“Yeah, that was me,” he confessed with a laugh.

Esau, who is scheduled to visit the Maryland operation soon, said he has set his sights on adding four or five more locations in cities across the country and also in London in 2020.

Hundreds of bikes are stored at the headquarters of Free Bikes 4 Kidz Maryland in Columbia.

As with the Minneapolis organization, local social service agencies in Howard County will determine who’s eligible to receive free bikes. The agencies will also work to match kids they’ve identified to the sizes of donated bikes that are available.

Not every identified child will get a bike this time around, as the nonprofit continues to get the word out about its mission.

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“It’s first-come, first-served, so there’s bound to be some disappointments this first year,” Cochran said of distributing the bikes, which volunteers work hard to make look and ride like new.


While Howard County has a bicycle master plan called BikeHoward that was adopted in April 2016, Cochran estimates that Maryland is 10 to 20 years behind Minneapolis in developing a bike culture.

Cochran lived in Minnesota when it was going through “a bicycling renaissance,” he said, creating a bikeway in a sunken railroad bed and connecting bike paths to create a network, among other components.

It helped that Minneapolis is a compact city and its residents are “hardy, outdoorsy folk,” he said.

As FB4K Maryland works to get more kids on bikes, Cochran stressed that distracted driving is a problem that must be solved.

It’s a never-ending cycle that must be broken, he said: The fewer bikes on roadways, the less patient drivers are about sharing the road. The less patient drivers are, the fewer number of bike riders willing to travel county roads.

“The more kids and adults there are biking on roadways, the more drivers will get used to them. When drivers get caught behind bikers, they need to pause and realize it’s just 20 seconds” of inconvenience, he said. “Drivers can make roads unsafe for bikers.”