Shortly after Joe Bike opened in Portland, Oregon, last November, a cyclist stormed in and challenged the owner, Joe Doebele, about why he was selling bikes made in China. “He wanted to know if the Chinese workers have pension plans,” Doebele says. “My shop was just getting started. We didn’t even have pension plans.”
The outburst surprised Doebele. He assumed it was common knowledge among cyclists in Portland—where 8 percent of the population commutes by bike—that most bicycles come from factories in Asia.
It’s been 20 years since most bikes sold in the United States were also made stateside. Some dealers and brands do a small amount of domestic manufacturing, and there’s a growing sector that skillfully hand-crafts a few hundred high-end bikes each year, but the demand is overwhelmingly for mass-produced, affordable bikes made in China and Taiwan. The United States imported 200 times more bicycles than it exported last year; 95 percent of the 13 million imports were shipped from China.
But the factors that favor manufacturing abroad are changing and the trade imbalance is about to shift again, says Jay Townley, a prominent industry analyst and 52-year veteran of the bicycle industry who is based near Madison, Wisconsin. He predicts that large-scale bike manufacturing will return to the United States “in a bigger way” sometime within the next three years.
Rising oil costs over the long term are making overseas shipping less economical, and consumers (and therefore retailers) increasingly want to add custom options to the mass-produced bikes they buy—with faster turnaround than overseas factories can meet. At the same time, an increasing focus on climate change and the emergence of a recent “buy American” sentiment stemming from the global financial crisis could create a much larger U.S. market for bikes.
The move back to the United States is becoming financially feasible for both American and international companies, but only if the location also makes economic sense. Portland, bike mecca that it is, will have to work hard to prove it’s the right place. Ranking 13th in the nation for the number of manufacturers, Portland has an established supply chain for metals manufacturers and a growing “bicycle-industrial complex” that could provide the foundation for a large bicycle manufacturer. And in their port city, Portland manufacturers can readily receive parts and materials from overseas. However, Portland’s roads and railways are not placed as favorably for a distribution center for the U.S. market as those of a Midwestern transportation hub like Indianapolis or Nashville.
On the other hand, Oregon’s green business incentives, such as a 35 percent business energy tax credit, are among the biggest in the nation. The right combination of tax breaks and other incentives could offset shipping costs and other imbalances. If the state rallies behind the effort and attracts a major bicycle manufacturer, perhaps one day the angry cyclist storming into Joe Bike will instead demand to know which Chinese-brand bikes are made in Portland.
Excerpted from New Internationalist (June 2009), a magazine that reports from the front lines of the world’s many struggles for social justice—from Antarctica to Zambia. This article is a collaboration between BikePortland.org and New Internationalist.