Making Bicycles in Detroit Is an Uphill Ride

A welder puts together part of a bicycle frame at the Detroit Bikes facility. The upstart bicycle manufacturer is hoping to spur a revival of a made-in-America industry in the city. Credit Photograph by Ty Wright / Bloomberg via Getty

In 1896, the Detroit Wheelmen opened an ornate new clubhouse, complete with an auditorium and a bowling alley. The Detroit Free Press called it “the most modern club house of any cycling organization in the west.” Its forty-thousand-dollar cost (about $1.1 million today) was paid for by the club’s four hundred and fifty members, who included John and Horace Dodge, the co-owners of Evans & Dodge Bicycle Company, one of more than three hundred U.S. manufacturers during the bike boom of the eighteen-nineties.

The same year the clubhouse opened, Detroit’s first gas-powered car puttered down Woodward Avenue, with the inventor Charles Brady King at the wheel. Pedalling behind, on two wheels, was King’s protégé, Henry Ford, a former bicycle mechanic who was working on his own automobile at the time. The image presaged the shift that was about to take place in Detroit and around the country. John and Horace Dodge soon sold their shares in the bike company and began to build engines; they founded Dodge Motors a few years later. Across the city, bicycle-repair shops were converted into gas stations. Within a decade, annual bike sales tumbled from 1.2 million to a hundred and sixty thousand. By 1928, when Ford completed construction of a huge new plant in the suburb of River Rouge, America was producing four million cars a year. The industry’s success in the ensuing few decades is well known; so, too, is the shift in manufacturing to Southern states and overseas factories, a change that hollowed out the factories and jobs in Detroit. When the Rouge plant closed, in 2004, Michigan’s auto-industry workforce had already shrunk by two-thirds, and Detroit had become synonymous with urban decay.

Now, an upstart manufacturer, Detroit Bikes, is hoping to spur a made-in-America revival of sorts in the city, by leapfrogging back to Detroit’s roots as a cycling town. In 2012, Zak Pashak, a thirty-six-year-old businessman from Calgary, Alberta, paid around two hundred thousand dollars for a fifty-thousand-square-foot manufacturing facility for his new company-enough space, on its own, to double American bicycle production. Pashak, the son of a magazine publisher who won a large settlement in a divorce from an oilman, parlayed his family money into successful investments in night clubs, concert promotions, and Sled Island, western Canada’s answer to South by Southwest. It wasn’t until 2010, though, when he made a run for Calgary’s City Council, that he discovered cycling. “I got really interested in transportation policy, and I just wanted to go buy a bike so I could live the way I was speaking,” he said.

After finishing second in his ward, he decided to take a trip to Detroit, a place of childhood fascination, to get over the disappointment. He’d been planning only an extended visit, but, inspired by the possibilities he saw in the city, he decided he wanted to invest there. At first, his idea was to open a bar, but he had retained his fervor for urban cycling, and he thought he saw an opportunity in Detroit. Ninety-nine per cent of the eighteen million bikes sold nationwide in 2014 were imported, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association, and the number of bikes made with mostly U.S. parts is well below half a per cent. The promise is that Detroit’s vast industrial capacity, combined with a revitalized urban-cycling movement and rising manufacturing costs overseas

, could resuscitate a dead domestic industry. To grow anew, Pashak believed, the U.S. bike industry needed to shift its focus from racing and technology and concentrate on converting people to become riders. “This is potentially hundreds of millions of bike riders, if all the urban areas switch the way people get around in them,” he said.

If Pashak’s optimism about the hordes of would-be cycling enthusiasts seems a bit dreamy, it was nothing compared to the difficulty of creating a real American-made cycling industry. At least seven Detroit manufacturers have been trying to restore the city’s status as a bike capital, with limited success. Pashak launched Detroit Bikes with an investment of two and a half million dollars, hiring a staff of forty people at an average wage of fifteen dollars an hour. The plan was to produce two thousand bikes in year one. He solicited a design from a custom-frame builder he met online, sourced some local chromoly steel for the frames and forks, and arranged to import the other components. One of the early challenges was the inexperience of his initial hires. “We couldn’t go down the street to some other bike factory to see how they were doing things, or hire people with any experience,” Pashak said. Still, the company’s first bike, the A-Type, an upright model with a matte-black coat, rolled off the assembly line in the summer of 2013.

Mike Duggan, who was in the midst of a successful mayoral campaign, was on hand to receive the very first bike. Then, as now, civic leaders were championing the bicycle’s potential. The number of bike commuters in Detroit has quadrupled since 2000, according to data analyzed by the League of American Bicyclists, and the city, which has thirty-four registered cycling groups, has painted a hundred and seventy miles’ worth of bike lanes in the past decade (albeit largely unprotected and poorly connected ones). Duggan’s administration is also halfway to completing the Inner Circle Greenway, a thirty-mile loop connecting Detroit and three suburbs. In April, the city’s new planning director, Maurice Cox, promised that “Detroit will be America’s best city for bicycling.” Cox told me that Detroit’s affordability, high car-insurance premiums, and depopulation constitute advantages where cycling is concerned. The city’s road network was built for a population more than double its current seven hundred thousand. “We have so much space in our roads that if we came in and laid down a network of protective bike lanes, the motorists wouldn’t even notice the day after,” Cox said.

Detroit Bikes jumped on these efforts. Pashak has been working with St. Clair Shores on a proposed bike lane that would connect the suburb to Detroit through Grosse Pointe Shores, while employees participate in rides and bike clubs. The company’s master builder, whose name is, fittingly, Henry Ford II, has become a minor celebrity in Detroit, appearing in Microsoft and Apple commercials online leveraging the city’s bike renaissance. He’s one of the original participants in Slow Roll, a weekly summer gathering that has attracted as many as five thousand riders.

The environment could not have been more welcoming, but Detroit Bikes struggled. The A-Type was priced at seven hundred dollars-more than most locals could afford-and was perceived as an artisanal product by most retailers. The company cut its daily output from thirty bicycles to ten and laid off half its staff. By the time it released its second model, the B-Type, in 2014, it was selling a modest thousand bikes per year. Other domestic bike companies were encountering similar problems. A few, like AutoBike and Zen Bicycle Fabrication, closed after only a few years, while others have had to focus on expensive, small-batch bikes, or to compromise on sourcing materials. The similarly named Detroit Bicycle Company sells a copper-plated fixie for more than four thousand dollars, while Shinola, which markets popular “Built in Detroit” vintage cruisers for three thousand dollars, sources frames from Wisconsin and other components from overseas.

Detroit Bikes’ response to its own troubles was to implement a national sales strategy, open a flagship store downtown, and expand into custom builds for corporate brands. It also recently landed an important new client: Motivate, which operates bike-share services in a dozen cities. Motivate hired the company to assemble three thousand heavy upright cruisers for the expansion of New York City’s Citi Bike program. This summer, Detroit Bikes will also begin selling the C-Type, a lighter, single-speed bike without fenders or chain guards, for six hundred dollars-on par with similar models produced by Linus, a popular California company that fabricates its bikes in China. Detroit Bikes now projects that it will sell seven thousand new bikes this year, enough that it is employing fifty people.

This modest success is a long way, of course, from a wholesale revival of the domestic industry. Pashak would like to manufacture more of his bikes’ components in Michigan, and has been in discussions about making cranksets (the ring to which pedals and chains attach) locally. But the problem of scale remains: no domestic manufacturer produces bikes at the volume required to make wholly made-in-America ones affordable.

However, economic forces like rising Chinese wages apply to the bicycle industry, no less than to the car and appliance manufacturers that have begun to bring jobs back from overseas. In October, 2014, a new plant opened in Manning, South Carolina, with the aim of building mass-market bikes that sell for two hundred dollars or less. The Bicycle Corporation of America factory, which is operated by Kent International, was supported by the state government, and bolstered by a sales relationship with Walmart’s two-hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar buy-American initiative. Though the facility will only assemble the bikes, using parts imported from Shanghai and Shenzhen, the company plans to begin fabricating frames in Manning next year. With as many as three hundred thousand bikes set to be produced there in 2016, and a 2017 target of half a million, the Manning plant could increase the number of American-made bikes tenfold almost overnight.

Jay Townley, an industry analyst and former executive at Schwinn Bicycles, told me that Manning could well have spillover effects. “If the low-cost producer, Kent, selling to low-end retailer, Walmart, can come up with a viable way to make money while making bikes in America, you’re going to see more and more of the manufacturing done here,” he said. Townley estimated that sales of a million bikes a year would be required to create a market for a domestic-parts industry.

Recently, Pashak went to Manning to visit Kent’s C.E.O., Arnold Kamler, to pitch him on sourcing additional components in Detroit, which Pashak hoped would resurrect the domestic-parts industry. “Why do you need Chinese companies to do that?” Pashak asked Kamler. “We have the people looking for jobs who can do this very well. Not only that, but we have the factory space.”

Kamler told me that he hopes that a revival of domestic-part manufacturing will happen soon. “If we can bring the costs of production in South Carolina to the same levels or lower than China, we can up our volume to two million or three million,” he said. “If this is going to grow like I hope it does, we’re going to need a better supply chain.”

He did say, though, that he wants that to happen in South Carolina, and responded to Pashak’s pitch by encouraging him to move his operation south, much as car companies did decades earlier. Pashak, for his part, told me that he’s eager to collaborate with Kent, but that he’s firmly set on Detroit. “My dream,” he said, “is to build a bigger factory that’s somewhat of a tourist attraction, too. It would be cool if when people came to town one of the things they thought of was bike manufacturing.”

Sign up for the daily newsletter.Sign up for the daily newsletter: the best of The New Yorker every day.

Watch: Andrew Low, a bicycle-frame maker, talks about crafting the body of a bike.

Read more on th new yorker

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s