Electric bikes are creating a new economy in Detroit

Thousands of electric bikes are being hand-built at the Detroit Bikes factory on the city’s west side, bringing more jobs to Detroit and shepherding in a new era of affordable transportation. 

The company’s new electric bicycle, the Detroit Bikes-Electric, or DB-E, is the first being manufactured at its 50,000-square-foot facility in Detroit, an anomaly for an industry where the majority of e-bikes are made abroad. 

Demand for e-bikes is skyrocketing; they’re cheaper than cars, easy to ride and better for the environment. In the United States, more electric bikes were sold than electric vehicles in 2021, and globally, e-bikes are on track to surpass the sales of all cars by the end of the decade.  

In Detroit, the bikes are gaining a foothold with manufacturers like Detroit Bikes as well as retailers and bikeshare services. For some Detroiters, e-bikes have become a car replacement, to commute to shops and to work, but with less cost. With the growth in local interest, transit advocates are hoping to move the needle on establishing an e-bike rebate through the state or city government, like other cities including Austin, Denver and Boston.

“E-bikes are going to double the size of the bike market in the U.S.,” said TJ Karklins of Cardinal Cycling Group, the company that purchased Detroit Bikes last year. 

Detroit Bikes expects to manufacture 5,000 bikes in 2023, more than half of which will be electric. The company leases space in its 50,000-square-foot factory on the city’s west side to several e-bike makers based outside of Michigan. Company leaders expect partnerships with even more this year. About 90% of Detroit Bikes employees are city residents and the company plans to hire about 30 more in the near future. (Detroit Bikes Facebook photo)

Masquerading as a regular bike, the battery of an e-bike is hidden in the hub of the bike’s rear wheel, enabling riders to pedal up to 35 miles per charge. As the brakes are used, the battery is recharged and connects to Wi-Fi for speed and pedal-assist. It also weighs just 32 pounds. 

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing a lot more bicycle assembly in the United States,” Karklins told BridgeDetroit during a recent tour of the Detroit Bikes factory, pointing to the market growth in Eastern Europe and Asia. “We should have that here.”

Last month, bicycling industry expert Jay Townley called Detroit Bikes “the largest bicycle frame manufacturer in America,” in an article for Bicycle Retailer, based on the company’s factory size and capacity. 

Detroit Bikes hopes to grow even larger in 2023. The company expects to make 5,000 bikes, more than half of which will be electric, according to Karklin. The number of employees could potentially grow from around 20 to 200 in the next few years as well. Currently, he said, 90% of employees are Detroiters and the company is seeking to employ 30 more city residents in the near future. Detroit Bikes is leasing factory space to three other electric bicycle manufacturers based outside of Michigan, and expects to add others this year, creating more jobs on top of the 200 anticipated. 

“We’ve definitely seen the demand go up [for e-bikes] this year,” said Jason Hall, founder of Slow Roll, owner of  RiDetroit, and a store manager at Trek Bicycle Detroit Midtown. 

Trek first opened in 2019 as Electric Avenue Bikes, before being purchased by Trek Bicycles last year. Half of the Woodward Avenue shop is lined with 30 to 40 types of e-bikes, many of which look like traditional bicycles. Most customers that the store sees are Detroiters, Hall said. 

Hall bought his first electric bike five years ago. His electric cargo bike can carry 375 pounds. The Detroiter said it’s become like a car, enabling him to grocery shop, commute to work, and do other activities. 

Half of the bikes at Trek Bicycle Detroit Midtown are electric and most customers are Detroiters. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker)

“It’s changed my life. I used to weigh 240 pounds,” he told BridgeDetroit. “I’m down to 185.” He’s saved an untold amount of money too, from less car repairs and not buying gas as much. 

“When we’re talking about e-bikes a lot of people think we’re talking about a bike replacer. We’re actually talking about a car replacement,” Hall said. “That’s where we come from. We want you to get out of your car, and onto your bicycle as much as possible.”

David Gifford, the creator of a popular transit guide to Detroit, agrees. 

“Not every trip requires a car, whether it’s going to the grocery store for a gallon of milk or going to another city that’s nearby,” said Gifford. 

Transportation is the biggest source of harmful greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change in the United States. Half of all trips are made less than three miles away, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation data – trips that could easily be done on a bike. 

Although Gifford is a huge e-bike advocate, he doesn’t own one yet, partly because of the cost. E-bikes cost an average of $1,000 to $3,000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The lowest cost e-bike at Trek is $1,550, while the new e-bike at Detroit Bikes is $2,599. 

To address cost barriers, some cities and states across the country have implemented rebates or credits for e-bikes, similar to credits for electric vehicles. In California, a single person making less than $51,000 can receive a $750 voucher for a regular e-bike, or up to $1,500 for a cargo or adaptive bike. 

Nearby, Ann Arbor launched an e-bike rebate program two years ago to offer a $100 discount on two models of e-bikes, and a $50 store credit. Beyond Ann Arbor, Michigan doesn’t have much in the way of e-bike rebates. 

Detroit’s Office of Mobility Innovation could not be reached for comment about the possibility of an e-bike rebate.  

Todd Scott, executive director of the nonprofit Detroit Greenways Coalition, said he’s advocating to have rebates for e-bikes included in the Michigan Healthy Climate Plan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposal for 100% clean energy in the state. The initiative lays out plans for electrifying the state’s transportation sector, including electric vehicle rebates and grants for building out electric vehicle charging infrastructure. 

“If you’re going to give someone a credit to buy a $50,000 car then you gotta give something for someone that can’t afford that,” said Scott, calling it an “equity issue.” 

To date, nothing has passed in the state Legislature, but Scott said having Detroit Bikes manufacturing e-bikes in Detroit could help progress the issue. 

“It’s easier to get purchase incentives for EVs when they’re made in Michigan and create jobs in Michigan. Having a bike manufacturer in Michigan, better yet in Detroit, it’s much more likely that the Legislature will have an appetite for purchasing incentives for e-bikes,” Scott said. 

Scott leads group bike rides for the Detroit Greenways Coalition and said he’s seeing more and more e-bikes, and interest. 

Federally, a bill to offer an e-bike rebate was scrapped from the Inflation Reduction Act, but proponents still hope to pass legislation. 

While Detroiters wait on that, bikeshare organization MoGo has a number of e-bikes for rent and says they are used three times as much as the rideshare group’s non-electric bikes. Last fall, the nonprofit added its first e-bike charging stations in Corktown and the city’s North End. 

“These stations are the first of their kind in our system, and they’ll allow us to charge more Boost [e-bikes] without removing them from stations,” Jeremy Rosenberg, director of marketing and community outreach for MoGo told BridgeDetroit. 

Gifford said having locally made e-bikes also increases access for people that need to have those bikes serviced, and for jobs. 

As Gifford weighs what e-bike to buy, he said that most he’s considering are made in other states and countries, which could be an issue for servicing them. 

“I’m sure I could do most of the maintenance myself but motors/batteries are another issue,” he said. “There aren’t many bike shops that work on these specifically and few that sell them. Knowing there was a local supply of parts and service would go a long way.”  

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