David Herlihy's book, “Bicycle: The History” (Yale University Press), is a love letter to the humble two-wheeler. It’s a long letter, since the bicycle has a long and surprisingly influential history. In fact, bicycles were one of America’s first high-tech industries. They went from curiosity, to plaything of the rich, to King of the Road, to ... well, where they are today.
In 21st-century America, bicycles are generally considered to be the province of kids, bike messengers, and lycra-clad Lance Armstrong wannabes. The once-King of the Road has been marginalized, pushed to the road shoulder—figuratively and sometimes literally.
On a certain level, it doesn’t make sense. To quote one bicycle commuter: “What if I could offer you a vehicle that costs nothing to run, is relatively fast, you don’t have to worry about parking, [and] it will help you lose weight and add years to your life? You'd be nuts not to take advantage of it.” * But we don’t. Americans drive their SUV’s to the gym, fight for parking spaces, then stand on line for Spin classes led by instructors who don’t even own bicycles.
As a true blue bicycle loyalist, Herlihy doesn't see the bicycle’s best days as being in the handlebar-mounted rearview mirror. Nevertheless, his book hints at the factors that led to the decline of the bicycle as a transportation and recreational tool.
Fast … and Faster
People love speed, and bicycles are fast. Depending on the distance, Armstrong-level racers can maintain a speed of 30 miles per hour (for one hour), and 45 miles per hour (for 15 seconds). Point your bicycle downhill, and you can clear 80 miles per hour. No sheist. On German TV, a bicyclist with a specially outfitted mountain bike beat a World Cup downhill skier at that speed. (Don’t get any ideas.)
But if fast is good, faster is better. Your boring Toyota can go 100 miles per hour. (I repeat: don’t get any ideas). Airplanes go about the speed of sound, limited mostly by the price of fuel and complaints about those annoying sonic booms. And bicycles? While elite racers can get above 40 miles per hour, you'll be lucky if your doublewide butt goes half that fast.
Exercise vs. Television
Sure, bicycles allow you to get around and exercise at the same time. But let’s face it: most people don’t like to exercise. Many gyms owe their existence to people who buy memberships but never show up, allowing the gym to sell many more memberships than it can actually accommodate. Of course, when you realize that your gut has gotten as big as a movie star’s ego, there are diets, diet pills, and even gastric bypass surgery to help you slim down. Exercise, though, requires you to breathe hard and work up a sweat. Worse yet, it takes up time that could be spent on more important things like watching television or playing video games.
Herlihy periodically alludes to the fact that bicycle buyers are often dismayed to find out how much exertion it takes to get somewhere. This has led to lighter, faster bicycles with features like gears and the ability to coast. But none of those developments has ever led to the ultimate in low-exertion transportation: going 120 miles per hour in your Porsche while screaming at your stockbroker on a cell phone.
Big … and Bigger
If you ever wondered why American motorists are enamored with SUVs it really comes down to the notion that bigger is better. Not just in the sense of phallic symbol psychology, but in terms of the cold, hard laws of science. When two objects collide, all things being equal, the bigger one receives less damage, and the smaller one more. Of course, when everybody drives a big vehicle, your advantage dissipates, and the game starts over. Hence the Humvee.
Since a decent bicycle weighs twenty-five pounds or (a lot) less, they are at somewhat of a disadvantage in the throw-weight competition. This is an unpleasant fact motorists remind cyclists of with some frequency. In his autobiography, “It’s Not About the Bike” (Penguin), Lance Armstrong recounts being deliberately run off the road in Texas. More than once. Herlihy talks about periodic efforts by the bike industry to reassure people that cycling is safe. Nonetheless, cyclists fear cars, or more accurately, incompetent or malicious motorists armed with cars.
Perhaps more importantly, heavy traffic, drunk drivers, the fear of pedophiles, and general parental protectiveness are making American parents reluctant to put their children on bicycles. This could have serious implications in future years.
The Threat of Prosperity
As people get wealthier, they want to show it off. At one point, that human behavioral quirk helped the bicycle. At first, only the rich owned them. But in the late 19th-century, mass production made it possible for the merely prosperous to own bicycles as well. The result was the original “Bike Boom.” Nowadays, you can get a bicycle for a few hundred dollars at Wal-Mart. Yes, there are more expensive models, but even a carbon fiber/titanium pro race super bike costs less than a new Kia.
As Herlihy points out, there are parts of the world, such as India and China, where the bicycle is a real player in the transportation system. But that is starting to change. Growing prosperity is making these society move away from bicycles, to you guessed it, cars. God help us when personal aircraft become semi-affordable. Think cars take a lot of space to park?
Believe it or not, the bicycle was once a tool of sexual liberation. Let’s forget about the hard seats for a moment. Before bicycles became popular, women stayed home, and appeared on the street covered, and with escorts. Not quite as oppressive as, say, the Taliban, but the same general concept. Bicycles put an end to that, offering the ability to go where you wanted under your own power. Women gladly snapped them up. Of course, it's hard to pedal in a heavy skirt down to your ankles, so women went to shorter skirts, and even pants, to facilitate riding. The ultimate result? Spandex shorts. Men of America owe the bicycle (not Richard Simmons) our undying gratitude for that. Under their own power, men and women had more opportunities to mingle together. Prudes of the day were scandalized.
Life in the Minority
Bicycles are likely to remain a minority transportation vehicle, at least in the United States. Most people drive, and despite activists’ hopes for more bicycle-friendly government policies, most politicians don't want to offend such a large percentage of their constituency. Even off-road, where bicycles only recently became common, other trail users (represented by entrenched interest groups) want to keep the trails for themselves.
Increasing gas prices may one day make driving so expensive that more people will leave their cars at home, but for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about fuel prices in the last year, people aren’t even slowing down on the roadways, let alone leaving the gas guzzler in the garage. As for government policy, Herlihy notes how the Germans have made a real push to get people to use their bikes for transportation. For over 20 years. Usage has risen from eight percent of trips to just twelve percent.
Cars as Cowbirds
Ever hear of cowbirds? They have a remarkable, if ignoble reproductive strategy. Adult cowbirds find active nests made by other species of birds, and add an egg or two of their own to it. The nest owners come back and hatch the eggs. The baby cowbirds are bigger than the baby birds of their hosts. They grab the food and eventually push the other chicks out of the nest, killing them.
Cars piggybacked on technology derived from bicycles, such as the assembly line, gears, service stations and roadways. Judging by old bicycle advertising posters featuring scantily clad women, they even piggybacked on the “sex sells vehicles” strategy. Cars are large, and now they’re in charge.
Of course, bicycles are unlikely to disappear: they’re too useful. But Herlihy’s work will probably remain the definitive history of the bicycle for quite a long time. Despite Herlihy’s optimistic stance, bikes are unlikely to be shaking up the world again in the foreseeable future.
* Michael Nance, quoted in the Los Angeles Daily News.