Thursday, June 18, 2009

The View from the Sidewalk

Or, why Americans were once-upon-a-time in love with the bicycle, and why they should be again.

The argument that bicycles are not a viable form of transportation in our auto-oriented culture is predicated on one basic assumption: bicycles are car replacements. As such, they compare rather unfavorably: they can’t carry as much, they’re slower, they require more effort (there are at least twice as many good counter-arguments, but I don’t think I need to enumerate them here).

In all of this, we should keep in mind that bicycles, at the moment of their innovation, were not viewed as car replacements because there were no cars.  When bicycles came into widespread use, they were an alternative to walking, streetcars, horses, and horse-drawn vehicles.

Imagine that, by some quirk of fate, that all of the necessary technological convergences required to innovate the automobile never happened. The car was never invented, it never entered our culture, it never occurred to anyone. It’s a stretch, but bear with me.

Without our cars and buses, what options would we have for daily transportation? The lack of possibilities is somewhat startling. Walking becomes the cheapest and most accessible mode of travel. Horses are expensive to buy and maintain, and streetcars can only run on tracks, and thus cannot go everywhere. For a great deal of our daily travel, we’re left with only our own two feet to get around.

Imagine then, what an impact the bicycle would have on a pedestrian culture. Suddenly, our possibilities for independent travel seem endless. We might think something like this, which appeared in the New York Times in 1881:

“The Future of the Bicycle,” 26 June 1881

Upon the conditions of practice and fairly good roads the bicycle is a practicable and practical vehicle….  Its superior efficiency as compared with walking is also strictly under physical laws. It converts reciprocal into rotary motion…. The movement in walking is continuous only in one sense, being broken every time the foot strikes the ground; the wheel, on the contrary, has an uninterrupted motion…. The special heat and fatigue of the feet, noticeable most in warm weather, are also avoided, and the swifter motion produces a little breeze for cooling…. At first, the riding is itself the end sought, and the satisfactions and physical benefits therefrom are ample justification for seeking that end.  But the strictest utility is reached when, having to go somewhere, one chooses the bicycle as the efficient instrument for going.

Incidentally, and apropos of my earlier post about the state of our roads, the article goes on to conclude that increased advocacy for “very smooth roads” with be “one of the most valuable offices of the bicycle in America.”

If there’s a point here, it’s this: when you consider all of the modes of transportation available to you, stop thinking about it from only one point of view. Instead of comparing bicycles to cars, compare them to walking, which is pretty much the only option left to us if we take the automobile out of the equation. With rising fuel costs, crumbling infrastructure, and continuing economic downturn, a lot of people are finding that they’re using their car less, or that they simply can’t afford to drive or own a car at all. In fact, there are a lot of people, most of them hidden from those of us in a comfortably middle-class position, who are not a part of America’s car culture because they simply can’t own a car. These are the people we need to get on bicycles, because for them, for all intents and purposes, it’s still 1881.


  1. An excellent point.

    Meanwhile, I'm starting to party like it's 1881 (ignoring the fact that my marriage would be illegal in 1881...I think). It's a lot slower paced, but one I'm finding to be much more rewarding and meaningful.

  2. For a new world, toward 2081.
    Perhaps, without cars we would had been able to improve the efficiency of the bicycle.
    On the contrary we tried to focus on the performance of the bicycle rather than to look at the maximum efficiency.
    But world is changing and also the bicycle could evolve toward ..... Happyciency:


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