Can Motor City become Bike City? The reinvention of Detroit.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to visit Detroit. It is a fascinating city facing many challenges getting on its feet again, which makes it a really interesting place to visit if you want to study entrepreneurship and creativity. My reason for being there was to study the progress of a city trying to redefine its post-industrial self.

What I found in Detroit were super friendly people and a forward-looking spirit. If you don’t know much about the city, Detroit was the epicenter of the 20th century automobile manufacturing industry, with the “Big Three” (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) are still present in the city where Ford Motor Company more or less invented the assembly line principles that served as a cornerstone of the postwar mass consumption society. (It’s also notable that Detroit Electric produced a fully electrical car here between 1907 and 1939.)

The city’s population peaked in 1950 with 2 million inhabitants, and as car manufacturing became increasingly automatized and other work was offshored to other countries, the population declined year by year and is now around 700,000 citizens, with 75,000 dilapidated buildings and only 60 percent of the street lights in working condition. Last year the city declared bankruptcy and a couple of weeks ago while I was there, the city’s debts were restructured.

Many people have, of course, lost their homes, lost their jobs and suffered a lot over the past decades. But what is so interesting is that the destruction of the old Detroit has also fed a lot of creativity and new innovative businesses. Right now, for instance, there is a strong bike movement in the Motor City.

I met with Bike Detroit, a community-based non-profit organization focused on clearing and cleaning bike trails in Detroit and nearby suburban areas.  Slow Roll is another organization working to establish and develop a bicycle culture through group bicycle rides where several thousand people bike together slowly on new paths every Monday. Then you can also find craftsmanship companies like Shinola and Detroit Bikes that build craft bicycles in old factory facilities. It seem like the Motown is on its way to becoming Biketown.

What about the old motor industry? Read the rest of the port at the Networked Society blog.

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