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Tracing’s bicycling’s resurgence (in the U.S.) almost a century later

In the bowels of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. there are several photos of John D. Rockefeller. He was, after all, the richest man in America in his time, and one of the first major tycoons. In a full size 1913 portrait you find him gently smiling next to his shaft drive bicycle[1]. Second only to golf, cycling was a primary leisure activity for Rockefeller. Rather than walk the golf course during his later years, he reportedly mounted a bicycle to allow caddies to help push him[2]. Seeing world’s greatest oil tycoon juxtaposed with a bike—the travel mode that, in that in current-day dialogue prides itself as being oil-free—is ironic. Rockefeller’s participation in cycling is emblematic of cycling’s “golden age” during the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century.


Starting with its popularization in the mid-1880s, bicycle technology quickly progressed worldwide. In the U.S., Albert Augustus Pope commandeered the bicycle industry by storm via mass production[3]; the original “boneshaker” and “high wheeler” models morphed into the “safety bicycle” and American factories were producing two million of them per annum[4].


The improvements and availability of the bicycle timed perfectly with the women’s emancipation movement in the U.S. The safety bike provided women with unprecedented mobility and personal freedom. Cartoons of the day drew depicted women becoming so attached to their bicycles that they neglected their “traditional duties.” The independence that bicycle travel provided spurred one of cycling’s most enthusiastic endorsements, hailing from Susan B. Anthony, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”


Cyclists still had to push elbows, not with cars, but rather with the antagonism from horsemen, wagon drivers, and pedestrians. Rutted roads of gravel and dirt posed other challenges. Improving riding conditions to enable cyclists to relish in their newly discovered sport became a priority; subsequently, more than 100,000 cyclists from across the United States joined the League of American Wheelmen to leverage their collective strengths. The league claimed Rockefeller as a member and to this day, they celebrate him as one of their most famous. Near the end of the roaring twenties, The Nation ran an article “An Echo of Wheels.” It talked of an era when “the world was awheel, men, women, and children” and “every town had a bicycle club”[5]. Cycling was, at no other time in history, at the top of its game.


Relegated to toy status


However, Black Tuesday eventually struck and cycling’s climb out lacked staying power. Here’s how the stage was set, at least in the U.S., for cycling’s largely forgotten status over the next century. Here’s why the status of the bicycle was quickly relegated to being little more than a children’s toy.


By 1918, Henry Ford was rolling a Model T off the assembly line at an unprecedented rate, every fifteen-minutes[6], allowing the commoner to gather a car with four months worth of paycheck. More than a dozen U.S. Housing Acts spread over the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s made it easier than every before to buy the pristine suburban home[7]. Dwight Eisenhower, while serving as Supreme Commander during WWII witnessed the Autobahn in Germany and recognized its military value; upon assuming Presidency, he helped marshal resources for the U.S. to build a comparable system. Coupled with policies in 1949 to stimulate “urban redevelopment,” later broadened in 1954 to “urban renewal,”[8] monumental changes were taking place in cities. Focus was on anything but bicycling.


Transportation planning priorities


Priorities for various transportation planning followed suit[9]. The 1950s created the institutions and the financing mechanisms needed to greatly expand transportation infrastructure[10]. Efforts in the 1960s focused on the largest single public works program in the history of the world, the U.S. Interstate Highway System. The 1970s version of the Clean Air Act focused on mobile sources, namely the environmental costs of cars. Efforts to beef up public transport received a large nudge. Not surprisingly, transportation planners in the 1980’s were vexed with suburban congestion. They subsequently spent time chasing relatively less expensive strategies based on travel system management and travel demand management. These notions were broadened to growth management and concurrency, the buzzwords in the 1990’s.


The landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act (ISTEA) of 1991, for the first time, gave a nod to intermodal transportation policies and granted new powers to Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Funding became available for bike paths and cities began enrolling the services of the token bike planner. For cycling specifically, the passing of ISTEA was analogous to a terrier circling your ankles yapping for attention, “Look at me, I’m environmental, inexpensive, good for the lower class, and healthy.” What amounted to probably a dozen bicycle plans in the early 1990s blossomed to hundreds within the decade. But efforts continued to be largely steamrolled by engineering departments or other standard practices. Ambitious, goal-heavy non-motorized plans were relegated to the proverbial status, “sitting on the shelf collecting dust.” Pro-cycling arguments were not so much disregarded wholesale; they just were not considered to matter.


Acute criticism at the time articulated cycling a fringe mode[11] whose purpose was mainly for social and recreational activities and its use in cities was limited owing to heightened crime rates; subsequently, bicycling’s ability to become a “player” in mainstream transportation circles was limited[12]. There were bigger fish to fry. The turn of the century witnessed a declining federal role and subsequently fewer resources. There was an increased focus on maintenance, managing roads via Intelligent Transportation Systems, and fixed system transit forms of streetcars and transit oriented development.


Climate change and a recession


A few years following the turn into 21st century, two things collided for transportation, generally speaking, and bicycling, specifically. First, the wears that climate scientists were pedaling were increasingly gaining currency. Both the scientific community and popular culture became fixated on climate change. The famed “hockey stick graph,” showing a spike in temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, gained endorsement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Transportation was targeted as a major contributor to greenhouse gas production; cars were primary culprits. A rally cry was out.


Second, the Great Recession yielded fewer resources and diminished transport demands. Focus shifted to cutting back on the transportation building agenda; it became more important to intelligently manage a decline in transport demand. Combined, the increased global attention to greenhouse gas emissions with a need to and manage a decreased demand for transport provided a powerful, and organizing narrative for urban planning in the 21st century. The narrative provided an increased role for bicycling that appears to be much welcomed.


In recent years, bicycling has received a stiff wind of support from many walks of life that has catapulted it into the forefront of discussions about transport and cities. Just as the British Crown required a cathedral for a community to achieve “city status” in medieval Britain, any present day city worth their weight in salt seems to want to include bicycling in its portfolio. Mayors in cities of all sizes are actively engaged in a national “arms race” to make their town the “best” bicycling city in the country[13]. And, these cities appear to need a bikesharing system to boot. In five years since 2008, the number of worldwide bikesharing systems increased from 213 to 535[14]. Politicians found that catering to bicycling is synonymous with being “hip;” being “hip” is seen as being friendly to start up businesses; start up businesses stimulate economic development in a post recession period[15]. Companies are increasingly weaving cyclist’s needs into their designs for new developments[16]. Not one, but three powerful national organizations now exist in the U.S. to advance cycling issues and lobby for their efforts[17]. The previously innocent bicycle has even “come of age” in another dimension surrounding security. In Kolkata (India), the assistant traffic commissioner of police reported that the city is banning bicycling on key corridors citing security concerns: “bicycles are often used to plant bombs”[18].


Trends in research activity also following suit. The Transportation Research Board (TRB), one of six major divisions of the National Research Council, is the primary worldwide outlet for such. In the early 1990’s, their database spit back around 30 papers per annum on bicycling; by 2012, this number surpassed 200[19]. Over the past two years, researchers from more than 80 papers have applied to present their cycling findings at TRB’s annual meeting; 20 years ago you could count the number of people wanting the same on one hand[20].


Even pop singers (I am thinking of David Byrne of the Talking Heads) have passionately published books about cycling in cities. My own New York Times news alerts (keyword: bicycling) now notifies me of several stories week compared to one a month a few years ago. Even its fashion section runs specials on cycling oriented shoes, pants, earings, helmets, and other accessories.


The sociologist Quentin Bell is largely credited as being the first to identify cycles in the fashion industry[21]. Some fashions take short time to peak; others longer. Fashion cycles tend not follow measurable time tables. A rise of bicycle activity at two points in time separated by a century hardly comprises a cycle. But its recent rise in popularity begs the question if it is a fashion. The following is more certain: the formerly yapping terrier now resembles a mature dog with hopeful eyes as its owner prepares to throw the frisbee.

[1] Shaft drive bikes were employed as an alternative to using a chain. But owing to decreased mechanical efficiency and higher cost, its widespread use was limited.

[2] Ron Chernow (1998). Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. (Random House)

[3] Albert Augustus Pope, see ‪Bruce D. Epperson (2010). Peddling Bicycles to America: The Rise of an Industry. McFarland and Company.

[4] Two million per year, see:

[5] For an “Echo of Wheels,” see:

[6] Model T’s coming off the assembly line, see: Georgano, G. N. (2000). Vintage Cars 1886 to 1930. Sweden: AB Nordbok.

[7] Kenneth T. Jackson’s (1985) book, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, is arguably the best account of this phenomena.

[8] Redevelopment to renewal, John T. Howard, The Role of the Federal Government in Urban Land Use Planning, 29 Fordham L. Rev. 657 (1961).

[9] The following transportation planning priorities were arrived at via useful email exchanges with David Levinson (University of Minnesota) and Brian D. Taylor (University of California Los Angeles) on October 11, 2013.

[10] The Highway Revenue Act was passed and the Interstate Highway Act was out of the starting blocks.

[11] Gordon, P. and H. W. Richardson. Bicycling in the United States: A Fringe Mode. Transportation Quarterly, 52(1), 1998, p. 9–11.

[12] Granted, the author’s perspective was largely based from Los Angeles, not exactly the bastion of supportive cycling environments, but many of the points made sense.

[13] Such claims have been recently documented to come from mayors in Seattle (Washington), Chicago (Illinois), Minneapolis (Minnesota), Long Beach (California), Portland (Oregon), Boulder (Colorado), Chattanooga (Tennessee), just to name a few.

[14] There were reportedly 213 systems operating in 14 countries with 73,500 bicycles in 2008. This climbed to 535 systems in 49 countries with 517,000 bicycles, see:

[15] Synonymous with startups, see:

[16] Cyclist’s needs being recognized by developers, see:

[17] In February 2012, the three largest bicycle advocacy organizations in the US—consisting of the League of American Bicyclists, the Alliance for Biking & Walking, and Bikes Belong (henceforth labeled PeopleForBikes)—issued a communiquéabout their intention to unify and become one organization with one board of directors[17]. Discussions have since broken down and each exists but with intent to leverage collaborative opportunities.

[18] Bikes used to plant bombs, see:

[19] Email conversation (21 October 2013) with Ralph Buhler, chair of TRB’s committee on bicycle transportation: “A search for the term ‘bicycling’ in the Transportation Research Board’s TRID database yields an annual average of 29 peer-reviewed papers, government reports, and other published ‘gray’ literature between 1990 and 1992. The annual average rose to 64 between 1999 and 2001, and jumped to 212 for the years 2009-2012. Thompson’s Web of Science focuses more narrowly on peer-reviewed academic journal articles and shows an increase from an average of 1 peer-reviewed paper per year including the terms ‘bicycling, transport/transportation, and travel’ in 1990-1992 to 44 in 2009-2012.”

[20] Email conversation (21 October 2013) with Ralph Buhler, chair of TRB’s committee on bicycle transportation: “The number of papers submitted to the bicycle committee of TRB increased from about 3 in the early 1990s to approximately 15 in the early 2000s and roughly 80 papers for each the 2012 and 2013 annual meeting, placing it among the top tier of all TRB committees.”

[21] Quentin Bell noticing a cyclical flow in dress change in Western society since at least the thirteenth century, see: On Human Finery: The Classic Study of Fashion Through the Ages. Allison & Busby (originally 1976)


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