New Bike Shop Delivers Transit Option

By Travis Marmon

With a struggling bus system, the M-1 rail line a few years away, and the costs of car ownership beyond the reach of many average families, Detroiters are searching for, and in some cases creating, their own transportation alternatives.

Enter Southwest Rides. Located on Springwells Street, this newly opened bike shop and youth program had been an idea in the works since 2008 when Urban Neighborhood Initiatives discovered among its students a sudden interest in an earn-a-bike model of training.

“Really what we are is an entrepreneurship training center,” says Isaac Gilman, one of the store’s managers, “really offering young people the opportunity to learn how to run a retail business.’’

Photo courtesy of Southwest Rides.

Exterior photo of the bike shop. Photo courtesy of Southwest Rides.

At its start, Southwest Rides was little more than students working with volunteers and interns who had bike experience. A few years later, UNI moved forward with an Earn-a-Bike program, a growing international trend, in which kids between eight and 18 years old put in sweat equity to get a bicycle of their own. With the help of small grants, they worked out of a small garage during the summer, teaching kids how their bikes worked and how to practice proper bike safety.

In summer of 2012, the members of Earn-a-Bike formed a business plan for a bike shop in Southwest Detroit, and in 2013 they revealed the Southwest Rides brand at the Detroit Bike City event. Last summer, the program averaged 25 kids a week, and in the winter they secured a sizable loan from the Skillman Foundation as well as $10,000 from an anonymous local donor, which has been used to hire employees as well as rent out the space on Springwells for the next three years.

The Earn-a-Bike program teaches children the basics of bicycles as well as hands-on skills that they would be unlikely to learn elsewhere. Jason Fiedler, 29, and Antoine Hill, 17, teach kids (split into one group between the ages of 7 and 10 and one group of middle school aged children) about different bike parts each week, with the goal of having the kids build their own bicycle to take home with them at the end of the course. As kids come up through the program and get to working age, the program hopes to employ them and teach them business skills at the shop.

Hill, one of Southwest Rides’ first youth apprentices, got his start with the program three years ago when he was looking for youth employment through UNI. His interest in bikes earned him a job at Wheelhouse Detroit, where he learned about bicycle mechanics. He brought those skills back to UNI’s garage. On top of working with bikes, he also does social media and web design for Southwest Rides. Fiedler, a Roseville native, is the recently hired head mechanic at Southwest Rides. He brings expertise from several years working at Back Alley Bikes in the Cass Corridor, providing instruction to Hill as well as the children in the program.

New neighborhood bike shop opens its doors as a possible transit solution.

Both instructors feel that Southwest Rides and the Earn-a-Bike program have a positive influence on the area. “It keeps me out of trouble, says Hill. “This neighborhood in particular has a lot of bad things happening in it. … It’s good for youth employment to be around because it keeps kids active in positive ways, and it can also benefit the community in positive ways.”

“You’ve got to have a ladder,” Fiedler says regarding employment. “If you’ve got a group of kids who have the experience [with bikes] already, then you’re going to have interest. … Especially in this neighborhood, kids are like ‘what is a bike shop?’ They don’t know what that is, so how are they going to have interest in the job? You get them in [through the program], some buy in, some think ‘I can do this.’ Those are the steps along to getting yourself a job.”

Fiedler knows that making a difference in the community is something that can be done on a small scale, and that any nice addition to the area helps. “A kid could earn a bike here and they might never come back,” he says. “And that’s change enough for me. … In Detroit, there’s a lot of busted stuff here. When you grow up seeing broken stuff all the time, when you learn to fix something and not throw it away, that’s a valuable thing.”

Now a functioning bike retail shop, Southwest Rides opened for business in June, with a Grand Opening planned for August.

“We want to help young people, whether it’s by earning a bike or learning a new skill, such as running a cash register.” Gilman says that youth at Southwest Rides can learn business components ranging from bike mechanics to social media to budgeting. Although adults obviously make the key decisions regarding big expenses, Gilman says “we wouldn’t be opposed to teaching a young person how to put in an order from a distributor.”

Southwest Rides acquires its bicycles through donation and fixes them up before selling. Profits go directly into sustaining the youth program and the shop itself. The shop sells mostly adult bikes, saving children’s bikes for its programs. “I see bikes playing a big role in the future of transit in Detroit,’’ he says, “ A lot of young people prefer biking to driving.” Due to the amount labor that goes into refurbishing, Gilman concedes the bikes are not cheap and insists there is some room open to negotiate.

Southwest Rides also collaborates with many Detroit businesses. Their shirts, logo and posters were designed by various local organizations. Their helmets were donated from Slow Roll. On top of that, they have plans to work with Young Nation on skateboard sales and are in talks with Healthy Detroit to set up booths in Clark Park.

The goals of the shop go beyond just bicycle retail. “Eventually we hope to be able to hire more people based on scaling our business,” Gilman says, “whether it’s adults for volunteer coordination purposes or young apprentices to learn more skills…hopefully we can provide more jobs. One is better than none.” More immediately, Southwest Rides exists to provide affordable transportation to people. “We want to promote active living,” Gilman says, “in a neighborhood that is extremely walkable, extremely communal, and has a lot of potential for active spaces.” Southwest Rides currently employs two adults and two youth members, and is in the process of hiring a third youth employee. All are residents of the city.

In addition to selling bikes, Southwest Rides is planning to add a skateboard inventory in order to increase this activity. “I see bikes playing a big role in the future of transit in Detroit because a lot of young people prefer biking to driving…and when you have gaps in public transit and other public utilities, bikes fill a great niche in that market demand. If people can’t get from their work via bus and can’t afford a car, biking or walking are their next two options.”

Interested in donating or learning more about Southwest Rides? Drop by the store or send an email to [email protected].

About Travis Marmon

Born and raised in Clarkston, Travis is a recent graduate of The College of Wooster in Ohio, where he was Editor-in-Chief of the student-run newspaper, The Wooster Voice. A lover of sports and music, Travis has also served as a Sports Intern at The Oakland Press and an A&E Writer at The Good Men Project. In his spare time, he writes album reviews at Travis started working for Detroit143 in May 2014, on the morning after his graduation.

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