David Herlihy on the rise and fall of the bicycle.
Written by HistoryFiled under
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.