Bicycles help keep Michigan's economy rolling

Rene Wisely
Special to The Detroit News

The Motor City may have put the world on wheels, but pedal power is helping to keep the state's economy rolling.

Bicycling pumps an estimated $668 million per year into Michigan's economy, according to a recent report from the Michigan Department of Transportation

That figure factors in the nearly 800 people employed in bicycle-related jobs, along with retail revenue, tourism expenses, lower health care costs and a boost in productivity.

The study, "Community and Economic Benefits of Bicycling in Michigan," put the spotlight on five communities to gauge how the sport affects their bottom line.

Michigan's second-largest city, Grand Rapids, benefited most from cycling. It earned $39.1 million, nearly double the $20.7 million Detroit brings in.

Ann Arbor easily grabbed second place with a $25.4 million boost.

Zak Pashak, owner of the 20-employee Detroit Bikes, manufactured 1,000 commuter bikes in the first year in business. His goal for the second year is 5,000, “We’re helping redefine the way people think about cycling,” Pashak said.

Detroit is making inroads, though. Detroit Bikes, Shinola and Detroit Bicycle Co. — all of which produce their own two-wheelers as part of the $6 billion U.S. bicycle industry — have opened in the past few years.

Kris Spaulding, co-owner of Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, can appreciate that. She sees profits roll in on bicycle wheels daily, with more than 20 bikes parked at her microbrewery throughout the day.

"Bicyclists do tend to like beer," Spaulding said, and they often come in groups to socialize.

Spaulding and her husband, Jason, seized on the needs of their clientele and added 12 bike racks, an air compressor to fill flat tires and a bike repair stand with tools affixed. "We started carrying bike tubes in our retail shop because so many people asked for them," she said.

Their employees like to bike to work as well, so Brewery Vivant has on-premise showers, a bike helmet reimbursement program, a loaner bike and a quarterly safety workshop.

The League of American Bicyclists recently recognized Brewery Vivant's forward thinking with a Silver Bicycle Friendly Business award.

"Because 43 percent of our staff lives within a mile of work, we know it's good to invest in them and consider their needs," Spaulding said.

Grand Rapids began adding bike lanes on city streets in 2010 and now has 55 miles of bike lanes with more planned. It has a cycle track, hundreds of bike racks and an extensive trail network in the suburbs, said Suzanne Schulz, Grand Rapids' managing director of design, development and community engagement.

"We are really trying to take a more holistic view of transportation infrastructure for the entire community because a lot of people don't have cars," Schulz said.

That philosophy will pay off, said Glenn Pape, a government and public policy educator for Michigan State University Extension.

He cites a Portland State University study that indicates that while people who arrive by car spend more per trip, cyclists visit more frequently and spend more per month on average.

Pape is pleased to see communities and companies adopt bike-sharing programs, in which members borrow bikes from kiosks throughout the city.

Ann Arbor recently launched ArborBike, a sharing program overseen by the Clean Energy Coalition. In its first four days, it signed up 100 members who made 240 trips.

General Motors Co., following Quicken Loans and DTE Energy's lead, became the first automaker to adopt a bike-share program. At its 330-acre Warren Technical Center, employees can grab a bicycle instead of their car or a shuttle bus to travel to the 61 buildings on campus. It already has 1,400 participants and an average of 80 riders a day.

"It promotes face-to-face collaboration and improves productivity," said Tisa Dee, a GM purchasing manager, who worked with Zagster, a bike-sharing pioneer, to take the program to the Tech Center.

"I had one employee tell me he had three face-to-face meetings in three different locations on campus — and he used a bike rather than making conference calls from his desk, so it got him moving around and collaborating with our employees in a very healthy way."

More than 6,000 cyclists participate in Tour de Troit as they start at Michigan Central Station in Corktown in September.

It's a way to challenge GM workers to look at the world differently, said David Tulauskas, GM's director of sustainability.

"Strategically, there are a lot of benefits to this program," he said. "We're getting our employees to think long-term and looking at new business model possibilities for a congested, urbanized world."

Detroit's bike builders are small-batch builders, assembling only a handful a year, but Detroit Bikes founder Zak Pashak is poised to change that. His 20-employee company manufactured 1,000 commuter bikes in the first year in business. Pashak set up shop in a 50,000-square-foot factory on Detroit's east side and plans to push out 5,000 in the company's second year, and ideally, 50,000 in the following years.

"We're helping redefine the way people think about cycling," Pashak said.

Rene Wisely is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Pedal power

How much impact can biking have on a community? The Michigan Department of Transportation studied five to discover which benefit most. They are:

Traverse City: $5.5 million

Holland: $6.4 million

Detroit (southwest Detroit and the Conner Creek Greenway area): $20.7 million

Ann Arbor: $25.4 million

Grand Rapids: $39.1 million

Source: MDOT