Sunday, May 31, 2009

The View from a Moment, 1945

In 1945, the Schwinn Company, then at its zenith, produced a 50th Anniversary book to commemorate its first half-century in business. It was an interesting moment for the American bicycle industry. The first bicycle boom of the 1890s and early 1900s had died away by the 1920s, when the automobile became the new must-have item for middle class families. Although not quite yet relegated to the toy chest, the bicycle during the 1920s became an accessory, rather than a mode of transportation.

By the 1930s, as the excerpt below points out, more adults returned to the bicycle as a useful vehicle during the Great Depression. In 1945, with the war either just over, or soon ended (there is no indication when in 1945 the book was printed), the future of American transportational bicycling was by no means certain. The era of expressways and freeways and urban centers hacked-up with on- and off-ramps and overpasses was still to come. There was, in the moment this book was produced, a real potential for the bicycle to return to the center, or at least closer to the center, of American life.

At the same time, Schwinn and other manufacturers knew that the juvenile market was their largest and most consistent. Driving a car was already seen as a badge of adulthood, and bicycling was becoming widely regarded, as the excerpt also points out, as a sort of apprenticeship for the greater responsibility of driving a car.

What emerges is a curious combination of optimism about the future of bicycling in America (it is a Schwinn publication, after all), and a sort of grudging acceptance that the first real age of the bicycle has well and truly ended in America.

From 50 Years of Schwinn-Built Bicycles: The Story of the Bicycle and its Contributions to Our Way of Life. Chicago, IL: Arnold, Schwinn, and Co., 1945.

"The bicycle with the big basket has long been a familiar sight in our streets.  This short distance delivery is inexpensive; it requires no motor fuel; its tires last so long they are discarded because of age deterioration more often than because of wear. The investment in the cycle is small and with reasonable care it lasts indefinitely...

The bicycle is the transportation of our children and our youth... It is cheap, pleasant, safe and healthy transportation. But for the youngster, it is far more than that. Every normal boy and girl wants a bicycle... In our age of mechanization, mechanical devices have a constantly increasing interest for our children, and nothing satisfies that interest so much as the bicycle... It teaches children the rules of traffic control and safety and conditions them for the greater responsibility of driving a motor car later on...

The great depression of the 30's brought a re-awakening of adult interest in cycling, born perhaps of a desire for simpler, saner living after the strain of the frantic 20's. That interest has grown constantly and bids fair to become an important factor in adult recreation and transportation. Factory yards, like school yards, have ever-increasing numbers of bicycles, during work hours. Workers who live within cycling distance of their work, are beginning to realize the folly of driving their motor cars comparatively short distances to and from work, and subjecting them to deterioration brought about by standing out in the dust and baking heat of summer...

Cycling for health will do much toward relieving the nervous tension of modern living and overcome the debilitating effects arising from the convenience of modern, mechanized transportation, both public and private...."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Comedic Interlude, 3 of 3

The Bicycle in the Role of "Home Exerciser" -- 3rd of 3 in a series.

7. "Now it is plumb and everything is well."
8. "But he has had enough exercise for one day and it's too late to go out."
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 20 June 1897

Friday, May 22, 2009

Comedic Interlude, 2 of 3

The Bicycle in the Role of a "Home Exerciser" --2nd of 3 in a series

4. "The saddle must be lowered."
5. "While I am about it I might oil the chain."
6. "Harder to replace than I thought."
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 20 June 1897

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Comedic Interlude, 1 of 3

The Bicycle in the Role of a "Home Exerciser" -- 1st of 3 in a series:
1. "Now I'm ready for over the hills and far away."
2. "I ought to have done this pumping last night."
3. "Are all the nuts tight?"
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 20 June 1897

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ride of Silence?

I have essentially the same question as in my post below. Does the "Ride of Silence" to honor bicyclists injured or killed while riding on public roadways actually marginalize the bicycle as a legitimate form of transportation? If we act like an oppressed minority, do we not just confirm our status as an oppressed minority? Do such events (and Ghost Bikes, too) actually do anything to reach out to the non-bicycling public, or are they events that the bicycling community does for itself? If the latter, does it only further isolate, embitter, and/or enrage bicyclists, perhaps encouraging them to take their next negative encounter with a driver to the next level?

Further, these events bring accident victims posthumously into a bicycle "community" that they may not have been a part of when alive. Does making them martyrs to a cause they may not even have believed in (one doesn't need to be dogmatic to get killed while riding a bicycle, after all) really do proper justice to their memory? Wouldn't that time and energy be better spent volunteering for the local bicycle advocacy organization or bike kitchen?

My question at the end of it all is just this: Why are we doing this? We say we want bicycling to be inclusive, but don't such "nation building" events by their very form and function create insiders and outsiders? Us and Them? Us versus Them?

You can perhaps discern my own leanings on the issue, but the questions posed are genuine. What do you think? Reasonable disagreement is encouraged. Poopy-pants-ness, not so much.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bike to Work Day?

I can guess that this post is going to cause a hubbub amongst all three of my readers, but I'll pose the question anyway. First, a little context.

In my life as an academic, I work mostly on the history of race in the nineteenth century. I read a lot of what used to be called "Black History," and more recently, "African American History." I don't find these categories particularly useful, since I think they unrealistically separate (or segregate, you might say) historical human experience based on race. Some scholars of like mind have made the argument that Black History Month (February) has outlived its usefulness because it encourages the view that the history of black people is somehow separate or distinct from "regular" history. I have similar opinions about Women's History Month (March).

So, here's the question: does designating a Bike Month (May) and Bike to Work Day similarly segregate bicycling as transportation from our idea of "regular" transportation? Shouldn't every day potentially be Bike to Work Day? In other words, does the profile-raising potential of a Bike Month/Day outweigh the implicit marginalization of bicycling into just one specific timeframe? Or is the concept of bicycling as transportation still "new" enough that we need a month specifically to highlight it? Watcha think?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Our Crumbling Infrastructure

A report out today by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials offers a grim report card on the state of the nation's roads. My hometown of San Diego, California ranked near the top for poor road conditions. Here's a link to a rather large PDF of the full report.

A full 84% of San Diego's roads were classified by AASHTO as "Poor" or "Mediocre" and only 10% as "Good." I can attest to this dismal state of things with a vengeance. Driving or riding, the roads around here are shameful. Our car is going to need suspension work soon, I think, and I don't believe I've been on one single ride in this city that I didn't have to dodge a pothole, crack, sinkhole, ridge, bump, blob, or some other type of yawning crater that could either break an axle or untrue a wheel. Not to mention all the smaller ones I've had to just suffer through.

A few months ago, I decided I would ride around just my neighborhood and plot on a Google map all of the horrific stretches of road and dangerously neglected intersections, specifically from a bicyclist's perspective, with a view toward presenting my findings to my local city councilman. After two outings, I realized that futility of this task. All of the streets were in need of something, so pointing out just the worst trouble spots wouldn't fix the real problem. In fact, the way they "fix" potholes and other roadway damage around here, it probably would have made the worst spots even worse.

In the 1890s, when bicycling really took off, bicycle clubs were at the forefront of the push to pave the nation's streets and roads, years before automobiles would become prevalent. Today, while safer streets continue to be a focus of bicycling advocacy organizations, the simple maintenance of the roadways seems to have taken a back seat to sexier issues like protected bike lanes, bike/pedestrian boulevards, traffic calming, etc.  But damaged roads are far more dangerous to bicyclists than to motorists, and those of us who ride need to be vocal in pointing out problems and fighting not only for improvements to the transportation infrastructure, but for simple maintenance of what already exists. We tend to look down the road to solve problems we perceive in the future (increased congestion, pollution, etc.) with an eye toward progress, and rightly so, but in doing so, we ignore the potholes right in front of us at our own peril.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Snapshot from Bicycle

"Sixth--Fall scene. Snapshot from bicycle while running swiftly. Unsuccessful. Too realistic for amateur. Decides not to photograph any more for thirty or forty years."

A lot of bicycle bloggers and friends on Flickr favor the "panda" photograph, or a snapshot taken while riding your bicycle, which includes you and/or your bicycle in the shot. Now, it's usually all I can do to keep upright and in a relatively straight line while riding, so I've never attempted, and probably won't attempt, any panda portraits anytime soon. They're neat to look at, but boy-howdy, seems like an accident just itchin' to happen. Incidentally, I love this cartoon because of the convergence of two kinds of revolutionary technology: bicycle and snapshot camera (that box at the bottom of the frame). Seems folks set about finding new ways to fall off of bicycles and/or break cameras almost immediately after their invention. 

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 30 September 1900

Sunday, May 3, 2009

On Maintaining Silence

I don't do a lot of deep thinking while I'm riding. Some people use riding time to think about other things, but I find it enough just to experience the physical sensations of moving through space on a bicycle. I also think about the street ahead of me, traffic, the route I'm taking, the scenery (if I can look away from traffic), and I'm always tuned-in to my bicycle. This last is especially important for me, since all of my bikes are older than I am, and tend to develop little eccentricities. It's good to know which noises are okay, and which are new and potentially alarming.

So far, my "new" daily ride, which is almost 55 years old, is a super-star. He's quiet, smooth, and comfortable. So quiet, in fact (knock wood), that I've started thinking about the noise levels around me, instead of worrying about the noise levels beneath me. What I noticed, more than anything, is how bloody loud our auto culture is. Car alarms, horns, bad transmissions, brakes, squealing tires, car stereos, and just regular engine noise comprise a huge percentage of the daily noise we encounter as we travel about.

A friend of mine recently posted a video of film footage from Barcelona circa 1908. The camera was mounted on a streetcar and recorded its progress through the city. There are a lot of bicycles, a lot more pedestrians, as well as some horse-drawn carts. While there is no audio with the clip, we can imagine that the primary noise, aside from the streetcar itself, was human-generated. Conversation, music, laughter, shouting, even arguments, would have risen above the noise of horses' hooves, and the clanging of the streetcar. The reason there would have been so much human noise is two-fold: first, the people were actually in the streets, instead of inside cars; and two, there was no roar of traffic to drown them out.

Now, unlike a lot of bike bloggers, I'm not anti-car. We have a car. I'm not going to get into the relative virtues or evils of driving vs. bicycling, I think it's a waste of time; but I will say that this question of noise -- or rather, silence -- is the one thing that turns me off the most about cars. A silent form of transportation, or nearly silent, which actually places human bodies in the open, frees up a vast amount of aural space in the world. Imagine how we might connect to each other, to our communities, to ourselves, if we didn't feel like it was all we could do just to keep our heads above the noise.

By the way, except in rare cases, I'm going to try to keep my posts here as link-free as possible. If you want the link to the Barcelona video, just ask, and I'll provide it in the comments.

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 16 May 1897