If you rent a bike from Citi Bike in New York this week (and look carefully) you might notice something new: some of the bikes are now made in Detroit. The company that manages the bike-share program—along with many of the other major bike-share networks in the country—has decided to start manufacturing bicycles in the U.S.
In part, that's because bike share is growing quickly, and Motivate, the company that runs the programs, wanted to be able to respond equally quickly with production. As recently as two years ago, bike share was struggling; Motivate, then known as Alta, was on the verge of bankruptcy, and it wasn't clear if fledgling bike-share fleets would all survive. Executives from Equinox and Related took over the company, renamed it, and turned things around.
In New York City, Citi Bike will double in size by 2017. In the San Francisco Bay Area, bike share is growing 10-fold. D.C. is adding 50 new bike-share stations. Chicago's program has grown 60% this year. Smaller cities, such as Columbus, Ohio, are adding bike-share systems. The list goes on.
As cities expand their fleets, Motivate decided to revamp production. "We were looking for tighter quality control," says Jay Walder, the company's new CEO, who previously ran city transit systems in both New York and Hong Kong. "It's a heck of a lot easier to visit a vendor in Detroit than it is to visit a vendor in China. It actually saves us costs in doing it."
Detroit-made bicycles can also be made and delivered more quickly. Motivate is partnering with Detroit Bikes—currently the only large-scale bike manufacturer located in the U.S.—which set up a new production line just to handle bike-share bikes.
The factory is building a new version of the bike, designed by custom bike designer Ben Serotta, that attempts to address some of the problems faced by earlier designs. "I think the key component to think about in terms of bike share is the intensity of use that bicycles get," Walder says. A bike might be ridden as much as 15 times in a single day, by different riders, over different street conditions. Serotta spent time talking to the company's head mechanics in each major city to figure out what was breaking most often, and how to make it easier to fix.
"The idea that a bike will never need maintenance is not part of the question, the question is really about reducing the maintenance cycle, and easing the maintenance," says Walder. "Our goal is that if something goes wrong on the bicycle, we want to be able to fix it quickly and easily—often on the street without bringing it back to the shop—and to get it back in use right away."
The bikes are also designed to be more comfortable to ride, and customers seem to prefer them. Motivate started rolling out some the new bikes a year ago in New York (before the switch to the Detroit manufacturer), and customers have been choosing them almost twice as often when they're in a dock next to older Citi Bikes.
As the company expands, they're hoping to also help Detroit Bike expand and create more jobs. Equally important, they say, was expressing faith in local manufacturing. "I love the fact that people will look at the bikes and see this is made in the U.S.," Walder says. "But I also love the fact that this is a better product."