Detroit's new bicycle economy

Like the growth of the monthly bike ride known as Critical Mass, the two-wheel economy has reached its own critical mass in Detroit. Though minuscule compared with Detroit’s car companies, the manufacture, sales and service of cycling is gaining legitimacy as an industry.

Perhaps most symbolic, two months after the 2012 North American International Auto Show, Detroit Bike City was inaugurated, the region’s first annual bike show and swap meet.

A century after Henry Ford transformed the quadricycle into an automobile, urban Detroit is re-discovering two-wheelers. Roads are becoming bike-friendly and people are taking cycling seriously as a means of transportation as well as leisure.

In the first floor of his carriage house in the historic Boston-Edison neighborhood -- two blocks from the original Henry Ford mansion -- Zak Pashak built the prototype for a bike he intends to manufacture for $500: one style, one color, much like Ford’s original Model T: a vehicle common folks could afford. Pashak’s company, Detroit Bikes, purchased a factory on the West Side and expects to begin mass production in late 2012.

Shinola, a national firm that makes fine watches, leather goods, and high end, stylish cycles, located its assembly facility in Midtown. The bikes will have a vintage aura with modern mechanisms, marketed in the range of $2,500 to $3,500. By coincidence of their shared location in the Argonaut Building, Shinola struck up a relationship with College for Creative Studies. One of the Shinola models, The Flattop, was designed by a CCS student.

The Detroit Bicycle Company, which builds high style, retro bikes fit for a gallery, reflects its founder’s trade. That's Steve Bak, a clay model builder in the auto industry. Currently based in Royal Oak, Bock is looking for a production facility in Detroit.

The aura of Autorama is reflected in bike tricksters like Danny Smith, who customizes bikes for show. Smith customized a bike for an Autorama event a few years ago and clients followed. By day he’s an insurance claims adjuster, but after work he's in his basement shop working on bikes. He's built or customized 12 bikes to date, ranging in price from $500 to $1,000, with some jobs falling into the $100 range. He plans to exhibit at the 2013 Detroit Bike City.

"The market is growing, and the culture is too," he says. "There are several classes of cyclist in Detroit: the young guys on the fixies (fixed gear bikes) and the guys who ride the old school custom bicycles, the road riders who are in the large groups, then you have your novices (and commuters) who just want to ride."

Cycling sales, service, and education

Kelli Kavanaugh, with partner Karen Gage, established Wheelhouse Detroit at Rivard Place on the Detroit RiverWalk at a time when there were few cyclists downtown, and even fewer bike tours or bike shops selling and servicing bikes. In its four years of operation, business at the shop has grown steadily. An organizer of the Tour-de-Troit, Kavanaugh says the ride, which drew 5,000 riders this year, has raised over $85,000 for greenway development in Detroit and has gained recognition among cyclists throughout the Midwest.

The Hub, a nine-member collective in the Cass Corridor, demonstrates how social entrepreneurship melds cycling education with retail. Back Alley Bikes, established in 2000, has been introducing bike maintenance and riding skills to young people for several years. It operates on the second level of a warehouse behind a the Hub retail shop. A gathering spot for urban cyclists, the Hub is the cash cow of the enterprise, nearly doubling its income annually since its inception in 2009.

Delivering court papers, hot food, and recyclables

Couriers are transporting legal papers, food, and even recycled goods on two wheels -- and making money. Rock Dove Couriers, founded four years ago, has profited largely from transporting legal documents. But email has diminished that market, forcing owner Joel Landis to consider collaborating with Shayne O’Keefe, owner of Hot Spokes, which transports edibles from 10 restaurants and food shops in the Downtown/Midtown area.

Bike culture drives the market and entrepreneurs, even a show

Gradually motor vehicles are yielding to other ways of movement in Motown -- not without tension at times, but a transition is underway. Following the national trend of eco-friendly options to getting around cities, Detroit streets are more bike-friendly than ever as the market for riding and acquiring bikes grows.

There may only be a few new jobs on manufacturing, customizing, repairing, selling, and showing bikes, and it probably won’t do much to stabilize Detroit’s budget, but the cycling culture has become a way of life for a lot of people.

Nearly all of the businesses interviewed have noted steady growth, and those who haven’t project a promising future. There’s some talk of collaboration, possible mergers, new businesses popping up and more people shopping for and buying more products -- the stuff of an evolving industry, as much a cultural statement as it is a symbol of economic vitality.
Most two-wheel entrepreneurs aren’t going to quit their day jobs any time soon, but they’re making money and expanding. Ideas are flowing, things are being made, businesses are being formed, finding success and improving the overall quality of life. Excitement is growing around designing, building, selling, and playing with machines that move people and products -- something very much Detroit in vision and practice.

Freelance writer Dennis Archambault is a longtime contributor to Model D. His last story was on a key Midtown rebuilding block. 

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.