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Cycling Out of Recession with Detroit Bikes

Can a bike company help revive one of America’s poorest cities? Detroit Bikes is trying.

By Jason Daley

If you want to build something out of metal, Detroit’s a pretty good place to do it—there’s used industrial equipment, super-cheap factory space, and a skilled workforce seeking a paycheck and some pipe to bend. It’s like a city-sized MakerSpace, without all the luxurious handlebar moustachios and Dr. Who T-shirts.

And building is why Zak Pashak relocated to the Motor City in 2011 to open a bike factory. It was a strange choice for the west Canadian festival promoter and nightclub owner who headed south after losing a bid for Calgary City Council. Pashak didn’t know much about cycling before launching Detroit Bikes; rather he had a passion for urban renewal and wanted to be part of Detroit’s “indiepreneur” scene. Transportation, he reasoned, basically runs urban life, and bikes are becoming a bigger part of that transit.

After rounding up investors, Detroit Bikes now runs multiple assembly lines in a 50,000-square-foot factory with 50 employees, some of whom are former autoworkers. So far, they’ve built roughly 3,000 branded commuter bikes and another 2,500 for New Belgium Brewing Company. More recently, Pashak signed a contract to assemble rigs for Motivate, the bike share company that runs Citi Bike in New York, Capital Bikeshare in D.C., and 10 others, from Seattle to Chattanooga.

Detroit Bikes might sound like a tiny company, but in the U.S., it’s news. In 2015, America produced only about 200,000, mostly custom, high-end bikes. It’s a small number compared to the 17.8 million bikes imported mostly from Taiwan and China each year. But even the flicker of new industry is a boon for Detroit’s still struggling economy, which, in 2013, when the city declared bankruptcy, had a population under 700,000, down from nearly 1.85 million in 1950. Globalization and downtimes left the city dotted with more than 70,000 abandoned buildings and blighted structures. But today, Pashak and entrepreneurs like him are resuscitating crumbling neighborhoods. In a joint effort, city boosters are encouraging an exodus of artists from Brooklyn (someone recently spray-painted “Move to Detroit” on the Brooklyn Bridge) and other creativity havens, hoping to transform Detroit into the new Bushwick.

Most of those businesses hew jewelry and furniture in ventures straight out of “Portlandia,” but Pashak isn’t the sole bike builder: Shinola assembles urbane bikes made in Wisconsin at its storefront boutique, and 313 Bicycle Works crafts custom steel frames here, too.

And in a strange twist, as the cost to produce goods in China and the rest of Asia has increased, it can now make economic sense to produce bikes in the U.S. again. Detroit faces bike manufacturing competition from Manning, South Carolina, which in 2014 underbid China for Kent International’s new 200,000-square-foot bike manufacturing plant. That facility now produces about 1,000 budget bikes daily for Walmart.

Pashak, who estimates he’ll build 8,000 bikes in 2016, says he probably won’t be at that scale anytime soon, but Detroit Bikes is growing fast. The end result, he hopes, will be the continued reinvigoration of Detroit. It seems likely—if the following sentiment proves correct anyway: “More and more customers are wanting to connect with where their stuff was made, while assuring American workers are paid a living wage,” says Pashak.

From our High Summer 2016 issue. 

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