History of Cycling in Detroit (40 years)

Catarina Gutierrez
3 min readOct 18, 2016


Todd Scott, the Executive Director of Detroit Greenways Coalition, briefed us at Bike!Bike! 2016 on the rich history and I took notes.

There are lots of comparisons to cycling in Christchurch and our history with the automobile. This post will only recap history in Detroit.

Early on, the School of Traffic Engineering created legit roads, road signs, and traffic lights. Before cars, bikes got around just fine and didn’t really “need” these things. Traffic flowed just fine. Bikes certainly needed better roads but cars took the credit for all the “improvements” to the road. The automotive industry was the champion for all these inventions on how to improve our roads.

The 1st bike ride in Detroit recorded by the press was in 1868. At this point, people were riding velocipedes.

Hanlons’ Patent Velocipede

In 1877, the first bike builder in Detroit brought around the boneshaker (steel-wheeled bikes ow!). This is when poor roads became terribly obvious. Imagine riding a bike with metal wheels (no fancy rubber) on cobblestone roads!

In 1879, the Detroit Bicycle Club was founded. Penny farthings made a debut. This is when bike racing took off. In 1890, the safety bicycle and the Detroit Wheelman began hosting events and social rides.

Detroit Wheelman clubhouse, m-bike.org

By 1891, The League of American Wheelman hosted their first large conference. In 1893, Unique Cycling Club was founded, Detroit’s own women-only cycling club.

By 1895, Detroit Police were on bikes. Riding long distance became a more common outing at the time. In 1897, Detroit formed a marching band by bike. Detroit made a name for itself for cycling. They boasted to being a better place to bike than Brooklyn (closest competition at the time). They had 16 bike shops in the city, more than they have today.

By 1899, The Wheelman set up pavilions, modern-day bike co-ops/sheds. They offered more support for people biking long distances and it was common practice to bike to work. The Wheelman also competed against the local professional baseball team in fundraiser events.

John Dodge’s bike from 1898

Some significant bike peeps in Detroit cycling history:

Edward Hines: Father of concrete roads invented center lines on roads and snowplowing. President of the Detroit Wheelman cycling club.

H.S. Earle: “Good Roads” committee leader, created Michigan Dept. of Transport (MDOT). He truly believed cars took credit for what bicycles had done to create better roads.

Henry Ford: Made the first car of bike parts. First cyclist to share the road with a car. Worked in a bike shop before founding Ford Motor Company.

Henry Ford with his bicycle, 1893 (thehenryford.org)

Dodge Brothers: patented dust repellant hub and bottom bracket. Started a bicycle company that manufactured Detroit’s early bikes.

Louis Chevrolet: bike mechanic and racer from France. Later auto-racer and co-founder of Chevrolet Motor Car Company.

Before the car, the bike ruled the street. In a city like Detroit, it’s fascinating to see how things have progressed (or regressed in some cases). In the near future, Detroit hopes to be in the Top 5 cities in the US to have the most protected cycleways.

Listening to this talk made me think of the rich history of cycling in CHCH that I spoke about last year. I hope to make Christchurch the cycling capital of NZ again so the history nerd in me was in heaven at Bike!Bike!.



Catarina Gutierrez

espresso-fueled photographer. reader of all things art. drinking coffee and riding bikes on @meCatarina