Southwest Rides was born in a garage in southwest Detroit out of grad student Isaac Gilman’s belief that a summer bike club could become something more.
In 2011, Gilman was volunteering his time running nonprofit Urban Neighborhood Initiatives’ bike club, which had started out teaching southwest-side kids basic bike mechanics and riding safety in 2008. When Gilman took the helm, the club had already seen great success, morphing into a legit program where young people were not only learning how to fix something, but they were gaining a sense of ownership and accomplishment. Here, bikes were a catalyst for instilling work/life skills and an entrepreneurial state of mind in neighborhood youth.
“We knew there was a clear demand for the program,” said Gilman, now one of six vested board members of Southwest Rides. “Every summer, bikes would be stacked in the garage. There would be kids all over the sidewalks and people would ask us if we sold bikes or could repair their bike. We started getting a sense that more was out there. We just had to figure out how we could go bigger.”
Gilman’s sixth sense was spot on. Biking was – and still is – trending up in Detroit. The city now has more than 125 miles of designated bike lanes. Similar to other thriving urban destinations, the number continues to rise each year. In 2013, for example, 70 miles were added to the city’s bicycle lane network. Southwest Detroit, alone, has some 20 miles of bike lanes, along with 40,000 residents. According to Gilman, a huge concentration of southwest-siders is under the age of 25, with many preferring bicycles to other modes of transportation.
“I see bikes playing a big role in the future of transit in Detroit. We’re a city that’s a natural fit for biking — flat with wide roads and great biking lanes,’’ he said. “We want people to look to Southwest Rides as the place that can provide them with this type of affordable, alternative transportation.”
The ride to making Southwest Rides a reality hasn’t been without its bumps. Gilman and other longtime club volunteers have pushed hard to make it happen.
Gilman, a New Jersey native who fell in love with Detroit after volunteering with Focus: HOPE, said the journey has been well worth it, “ You have to be willing to take risks, push envelopes and heed criticism as well as praise in order to move forward.”
Southwest Rides opened in summer 2014. Located in southwest Detroit, the full-service bike and skateboard shop is staying true to the mission of the summer bike club that inspired it. Employees are former bike club members and young neighborhood apprentices who are practicing their bike repair skills while learning how to run a successful business operation and become productive, self-sufficient adults.
“Southwest Detroit is a tight-knit community with such an entrepreneurial spirit, great vibe and family-centric culture. And I’ve never experienced such a supportive network of people anywhere else. In Detroit, the moral support is so strong, it pushes you to want to be here and want better for the city.”
Detroit’s bike lane network is larger than other Midwest-city hubs such as Indianapolis and Cleveland.