Detroit was once known as the Paris of the Midwest; a city with tree lined streets, a cosmopolitan and vibrant mix of cultures and a city of innovators and risk takers. That was then.
Today the city is a shell of its former self. While once the fifth largest city in the United States with a population of more than two million, it now has less than half that number – leaving stretches of the city that are vacant. The decline in the auto industry also left factories in ruin. Yet the innovative spirit remains and the city once known for the automobile could be making a comeback as a bicycle friendly local.
While winters are rough, making cycling hardly a year round activity, the months from November to March are no worse than what cycling friendly cities such as Minneapolis or Chicago experience. In fact, the layout of the city is excellent for commuting by bicycle, and bike lanes are slowly being added and the city embraces alternative transportation options.
“This town has a lot of advantages,” said Marc Bay, co-owner/co-founder of the Detroit Cargo Company, which makes leather bike bags. “There is really a culture of cycling growing in the city, and outstanding stuff is happening in bicycle industry here.”
Part of the reason is clear. Innovation for bicycles can often come about from technology devised for the world of automobiles.
“In the last three to five years, a number of bicycle start-ups have emerged in Detroit, most recently, Shinola, a manufacturer of higher-end bicycles and watches, with stores here and in NYC,” said Paul Humphreys, bicycle and motorcycle marketing manager at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. “Detroit Bicycle Company and Detroit Bikes are producing small-volume urban bikes. AutoBike is developing an automatic transmission.”
Those companies see that it is hard to look past the connection to the automobile.
“It is the skilled workers, that and all the things connected to the auto industry,” said Steven Bock of the Detroit Bicycle Company. “Here we have access to any type of machining, the painting and plating. It is all here.”
The fact that much of the technology is coming from the automotive world only helps inspire those in the bicycle world.
“Not all of these companies come from the automotive industry,” Humphreys told BikeRadar. “Some of the founders are from the business, but the fact that Detroit has a tremendous base of skilled people, and local suppliers of manufacturing and technology are probably two of the big factors which make bicycles and Detroit a logical if surprising combination!”
Thus it is less trickle-down from the automotive product itself, but is more about the experience, processes and quality assurance, and more importantly the efficiency of the automotive business.
This is true of Saint-Gobain, and international company with a long history. The firm, which created the windows for the French palace of Versailles, adapted existing products to be more attractive to the bike industry.
“Suppliers to the auto industry may well be a source of support also,” added Humphreys. “For example, our automotive market share of the Norglide composite bearing business is around 85 percent. That helped us to prove ourselves as a competent partner when we started supplying the bike business around 12 years ago.”
“Reliability is attractive to the bike industry, flexibility and agility is needed to meet their deadlines and product requirements,” he said.
While Bay’s Detroit Cargo Company was homegrown, along with Detroit Bicycle Company, which makes custom hand-crafted frames in Detroit, some companies are looking to Detroit for the innovative spirit and reliability that the city still very much offers.
One such company was Shinola, which was conceived in 2011. The company, which also makes watches, leather goods and journals, moved to Detroit because of its manufacturing legacy. Shinola was looking for a place to set up shop where there were skilled workers, and it needed people who were qualified from a crafts standpoint. Detroit fit the bill as it had – thanks to the auto industry – a strong tool and die community.
Put simply, people in Detroit, and the surrounding area, know how to create things.
“We initially came to Michigan because we were attracted by its manufacturing expertise and long legacy of industrial innovation,” said Heath Carr, chief operating officer at Shinola. “When we came to visit, everyone we met kept asking us how they could help out.”
“It seemed like the people here sincerely wanted us to be successful, and were willing to do whatever they could to make sure that happened,” Carr told BikeRadar. “There is an absolutely incredible community here, and ultimately it was the community that really inspired us to move here.”
Detroit has another advantage as well, namely that because the city isn’t as well as established a bicycle metropolis it allows startups and smaller shops to better stand out.
“If you went to place like San Francisco or Portland you couldn’t stand out. Here it is still in the growth stage,” said Bay. “Labor is cheap, cost of doing business is cheap.”
Unlike those other cities Detroit – despite the rough times – still has a name that is known for quality products.
“The Detroit name has worldwide recognition as a manufacturing hub,” said Bock. “For me it is a great thing. I get a ton of overseas business. I’m shipping bikes to London and Hong Kong. It is definitely a positive thing.”
The city’s downturn could also be a benefit.
“There are enough people that aren’t working that could come in at a certain wage,” Bock told BikeRadar. “Space wise and incentive wise it could be economical for a larger company to come to town. Hopefully things keep picking up and we’ll get a couple more builders coming here.”
While the cycling industry probably isn’t enough to turn things around alone for the city, perhaps Detroit’s core industries should be looking at how cycling could help not just Motown but the rest of the country and beyond.
“Personally, I feel that if they are going to prosper; the auto manufacturers need to consider being ‘transportation providers,’ rather than car-makers,” added Humphreys. “Bikes could fit into a future strategy along those lines.”