Considering the interest generated by Lance Armstrong's ride towards a seventh-consecutive Tour de France victory, one might assume that Americans have a love affair with the bicycle. Of course, that would be a wildly misguided assumption. Today bicyclists are rarely seen on U.S. roads, and motorists generally regard cyclists with contempt—an inconvenient and irritating obstacle that slows a trip to work, school, or the shopping mall.
The irony is that America would be a better place if its citizens substituted a bicycle for a car whenever possible. Among other things, there would be less congestion on roadways, cleaner air, and a fitter, more physically attractive population. Yet even rising gasoline prices and consistently hellacious traffic haven't motivated Americans to being pedaling.
To get a fresh perspective on this state of affairs, I interviewed David V. Herlihy—author of “Bicycle: The History” (Yale University Press)—about the rise and fall of the bicycle and the prospects for a cycling resurgence.
The bicycle promised to revolutionize transportation and recreation. Now it seems to be marginalized—left behind. Are the bicycle's best days in the past?
To some extent the bicycle did revolutionize transportation, and it has retained a popular recreational allure ever since the 1890s. While no realist would ever predict a return to those heady pre-automobile days when the two-wheeler ruled the road, the bicycle is hardly irrelevant. It has always addressed two basic needs: the utilitarian (cheap and efficient transportation), and the recreational (a fun, healthy way to exercise). It still delivers admirably on both counts. That said, it is surprising how even those who appreciate one aspect of the bicycle's bounty often fail to exploit the other.
Leaving aside poor countries, where Cadillac Escalades are out of the question, usage of the bicycle for transportation varies widely. For instance, bicycle trips account for thirty percent of all trips in the Netherlands, twenty percent in Denmark, ten percent in Sweden, five percent in France, and just one percent in the United States. Is this a function of government policy?
Government policy certainly affects bicycle usage. In Europe, gas is two or three times as expensive as it is in America, which makes you think twice about running an errand in an SUV. But there are other factors at work as well, including cultural acceptance (commuting bikes have long been appreciated in Europe) and geographic constraints (there's often a lot more ground to cover in the U.S.). But there's no reason why Americans can't make much better use of the bicycle, perhaps with a little more enlightenment and encouragement.
What else explains the variations in usage? Is gas most expensive in the Netherlands? Are the Danes that much more culturally attuned to bikes than the French, who line the roads for miles, ten deep, for the Tour de France?
It does seem that northern European countries are particularly receptive to cycling—and not just Denmark and the Netherlands. During World War II, Sweden was widely considered the most bicycle-friendly country on earth. Curiously, although a Dane has won the Tour de France, none of these countries is especially renowned for producing cycling champions. So I do think a certain cultural acceptance of utilitarian cycling is at work here—something quite distinct from a popular interest in the competitive sport. How transferable that is to other cultures is open to discussion.
What role have political processes played in the success (or lack thereof) of the bicycle?
Lobbying for cycling rights has always been part of the cycling movement. The League of American Wheelmen, founded in 1880, was instrumental in securing the right of cyclists to use public roads. They succeeded because they managed to convince the general public that cyclists were a large and generally responsible group, and that bicycles were no more threatening to the common good than were other vehicles in use at that time. The rise of mountain biking in the past thirty years or so has opened up a new front in the ongoing battle. The irony is that the bicycle—now widely perceived as an ecologically friendly vehicle on the road—becomes an invasive force off of it. How successful mountain bikers are in gaining trail access is likely to hinge on popular perception. If other trail users see mountain bikers as responsible citizens who, like themselves, are out to appreciate nature, they'll be accepting. But if mountain bikers are perceived to be reckless racers with little regard for their surroundings, opposition will continue and even intensify.
In China, a society where the bicycle has been a mainstay of transportation, people are trading their bikes for cars as the country grows richer. In fact, the city of Shanghai is banning bikes from certain roads in favor of motorized traffic as a congestion relief measure. Can we expect this pattern to happen in other developing countries?
I suppose Chinese authorities equate growing motorized traffic with industrial progress—and they feel the need to take proactive measures to accelerate the transition from rotary pedals to gas pedals. No doubt the Chinese people will become increasingly reliant on motorized vehicles of some sort, as will other developing countries. But ironically, these same cultures—where the bicycle is perceived as strictly utilitarian—might well take a greater interest in recreational cycling as per capita income rises. I also suspect that once the euphoria of mass motorization fades, city officials will recognize that encouraging commuting by bicycle is still a sensible policy.
The juvenile market has always been a mainstay of the U.S. bicycle industry. But fewer and fewer kids are riding. Will lack of exposure, not to mention premature death from obesity-related disease, kill off the next generation of American cyclists before they even get rolling?
If children are cycling less these days—as appears to be the case—that is in fact a serious long-term threat to cycling. Conceivably one could take up cycling as an adult. I know a few who have. But no doubt those who enjoyed cycling as children are more likely to practice the sport or to cycle for everyday transportation later in life. True, family cycling activities—such as weekend rides on cycling paths or cycling-oriented vacations—could take up some of that slack. But for kids to truly enjoy all that cycling has to offer, they need to experience the independence and freedom that goes along with striking out alone. And it wouldn't hurt the kids to get away from computer screens now and then to exercise and explore the great outdoors. All in all, I think it would be a great thing if kids cycled more to wherever they have to go.
Herein lies the rub. Parents, teachers, and communities don't do much to make cycling a realistic option for kids, or anyone else. Roadway planning doesn't consider bikes since “everyone drives,” and everyone drives since roadway planning doesn't consider bikes.
Maybe there's some hope here. Florida has mandated that cycle paths be incorporated into new roads wherever possible. It's an ongoing battle, however, to convince Americans that the bicycle is a serious road vehicle that should be accommodated in the interest of the general community.
The right car can get you a date in this country. The fact that they give you portable canoodling space doesn't hurt. Can a bicycle get a guy or girl some nookie?
In the early days, a velocipedist certainly drew looks from all sorts, but I doubt his noisy contraption doubled as a chick magnet. Later on, a guy on a high-wheeler did cut a dashing figure. But a favorite comical theme at the time was the image of a natty cyclist falling off his high-wheeler just when he was about to impress some lovely lass passing by. In the 1890s, having a shiny nickel-plated safety bicycle probably did impress the ladies, but in general I don't think you can count on your bicycle to enhance your sex appeal. After all, I had a DeRosa with Campy 50th-anniversary parts when I was in my mid-twenties and that didn't seem to make a difference in the romance department. If you're sinking money into bikes you've got to figure you're doing it to please yourself.
Was Sheryl Crow's attraction to Lance “about the bike?”
I think for Sheryl it wasn't about the bike. But I see where you're going with this—the bike as a romantic enabler. No question that was part of bike lore from the start. But it really wasn't until the 1890s and the advent of the modern safety bicycle that romantic getaways on cycles became a real possibility. Social guardians of the time were very concerned about cycling couples that escaped into the countryside without chaperones. One of my favorite images is a German drawing from 1897 depicting a couple in the woods, their bikes leaning against trees in the foreground. He is sitting up rather stiffly puffing a cigarette, while earnestly inquiring about his marriage prospects. She is sprawled in a rather provocative fashion, and coyly dismisses his overtures. “Engagement?!,” she exclaims, “why that's far too conventional for me.”
John Stesney is a longtime cyclist and bike geek. His writing has appeared in Cycle California! and Bike magazine.
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