Bike Battles: A Conversation on the Road with James Longhurst
James Longhurst is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the author of Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road, published in 2015. He and CHE graduate student affiliate Jesse Gant recently discussed the book.
Jesse Gant: This is a book largely concerned with the question of who is—and isn’t—welcome on our roads. Why, in your view, does the history presented in Bike Battles provide such an important vantage point for addressing these questions?
James Longhurst: I’m going to be modest here and say that it’s not the history in Bike Battles, but just history in general, that gives us a new perspective of who is made welcome on the public road, and who is excluded. There are a lot of forest vs. tree problems that surround us and make it difficult to imagine different realities; the nation-state and the market and our definitions of nature leap to mind. But I think that our daily experience of the roadway in the 21st century is just amazingly pernicious in its ubiquity.
In the United States in 2015, it’s very likely that an adult will spend an appreciable percentage of their waking hours on or near a roadway. With an average commute time of about an hour, that’s like 5% of every work day on a road; if you’re unlucky or a Californian, it might get closer to 15%. That’s a powerful influence, repeated daily, for a lifetime. The landscape that we see more often than anything else is populated by stoplights and curb cuts and interstate signs. That experience of what the public road is like now is pervasive to the point that it makes it nearly impossible to imagine other possibilities; to imagine a public road that is not filled with personal automobiles; to imagine a city that does not dedicate a meaningful percentage of its acreage and budget to storing, moving, and accommodating automobiles.
So it’s an exercise in historical imagination to conceive of the urban environment—or to conceive of the lives we lead as Americans—without public roads dominated by the personal automobile. But we know that the automobile is really an amazingly recent innovation, with 19th century cities being largely walking cities relying on equine power. Roads—we know deep down—existed long before the automobile, and had a vast mix of uses and users. And we also know that through the 20th century, people proposed other ways of getting around and other ways of structuring the city. But it takes a bit of reminding of this thing that we really do know, and I hope that Bike Battles and history like it spurs that kind of imagination. My intent is not to turn back the clock—I’m not a great horseman—but instead to say that the public road is a negotiated space with a mix of many different users that constantly shift over time, and we probably shouldn’t be thinking that one type of user will dominate forever.
JG: You illustrate that two earlier bicycling booms—one during the 1890s, and another beginning in the 1970s—have shaped and reflected profound, if overlooked, policy and environmental debates in the U.S. Why have historians and scholars from other disciplines in the United States been so slow to take bicycling seriously?
JL: This is something I’ve been struggling with for a while. I actually think that there’s been a lot of scholarly writing about the first bike boom; but outside of the fields of technology, or gender, or sport, not a lot of academic historians have taken it seriously. The neglect of the subject is what is surprising; many of us working on it now share the opinion that the best academic history of the 1890s boom is an unpublished and largely forgotten Harvard dissertation from 1956. It’s instructive to see how little of an impact that work had; it just disappeared. It shows that academia largely dismissed the 1890s bike boom as a fad; a brief cultural obsession without impact on infrastructure or politics or national history, like a pet rock or Tamagotchi or disco. This is changing right now, of course. There’s a whole wave of historians producing work on the golden age of the bicycle at the moment.
On the other hand, I’m not entirely surprised by the lack of work on the 1970s bike boom. That’s still a bit recent for scholarly historians, and archival records are hard to come by. I speak as someone who has previously worked in the history of the seventies; it’s not for the faint of heart.
What I’m really more surprised by is what I call the “forgotten” history. At least people have written about the 1890s. But in researching Bike Battles I came across a number of topics where historians hadn’t really done much research at all; some of these made it into the book and some I’m still working on. The sidepath movement of the 1890s was largely unexplored, and the internal records of the Victory Bike initiative were just sitting in the National Archives, untouched. I spent months and even years looking through scholarly publications after I found these primary sources, because I just couldn’t believe that no one had written about them before.
But historians are people, too; and for most people, the bicycle is a toy for children and not a serious subject. So it’s logical that academic historians would be leery of investing their time and career in studying a subject that others instinctively consider unimportant. They’ve largely left the field to the enthusiasts, which is fine, but it means that the bicycle has been left out of scholarly journals, textbooks, and the narrative of American and urban and environmental history.
JG: Bike Battles demonstrates a lot of careful and thoughtful work in both historicizing and theorizing road spaces as a “commons.” More specifically, you encourage readers to think of roads as a “common-pool resource.” Tell us more about these ideas.
JL: This is a symptom of my biases and interests; I’m a historian of urban and environmental policy, and of course I think of the road in those terms. Someone else would approach the road as an object, or a technology, or a center of social interaction. I think of it as a managed and exhaustible resource, and tend to apply the ideas that other people have come up with to understand pollution and resource extraction and forest management.
I didn’t start out with this goal, though. I thought I was just going to write about the bicycle when I started doing research. I actually can remember the day that I figured out I was going to apply the ideas of environmental and urban history from my doctoral dissertation to this second project. I was in Rochester, New York, doing research in the local history room of the Central Library sometime in 2011. I’d been kicking around the idea of bicycle history for a couple of years, and had mostly been reading legal cases from the 1880s and 1890s since I thought that might be a new way to reconstruct bike history. But at the time I was mostly just thinking about the experience of bicycling as a rider, or about crash liability, and how it might have changed over time. So one day I’m reading newspaper stories from the 1890s that were ostensibly about bicycling, but where everyone was arguing over taxation and fair distribution of resources and the public good. And I stopped reading and said, my god, it’s not about the bike at all.
Of course I was predisposed to adapt Elinor Ostrom’s ideas since they were the tools I had at hand. I’d love to have conversations with other scholars who have different tools to apply to bicycling, and see what they come up with.
JG: You’ve mentioned in a few interviews that for years you never identified as a cyclist. Around 2008, however, something appears to have changed. Tell us about the recent circumstances and thinking that encouraged you to take this project on.
JL: I think it was when I moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin, and started to think of the bicycle as practical daily transportation rather than recreation. I’d ridden a bike as a kid; I’d had a mountain bike in college, and since about 2000 I’d spent several years as an unexceptional triathlete and roadie. But I moved to La Crosse in 2008, which is really an ideal biking city—it’s a flat, riverside town, with residential and downtown neighborhoods made conveniently dense by the boundaries of river and bluff. And there’s this real no-nonsense, practical biking going on; lots of seniors on 1960s Schwinns and trikes in the summer months. There’s a great bike community, but there’s also these city residents who would never use the words “cyclist” or “bike community” or “carbon.” They’re just heading to the tavern or over to the grocery store or downtown to Riverside Park.
And so I became a bike commuter and everyday cyclist myself, and that’s when I started becoming aware of the road as a contested space. La Crosse is great to ride in, but it’s also a city, and so cyclists aren’t always made welcome in the public space which is supposedly their legal right. I tell people that riding a bicycle in an American city is a radicalizing experience; it might make you angry, or scared, or make you want to change things. To begin with, I just wanted to understand what was going on, and why it was so complicated; eventually I figured out that it might be a good research topic.
JG: There have been some creative (and fun!) approaches on display with the Bike Battles book tour. What has the tour involved to date? Any favorite stories about the places and people you’ve encountered since the book’s release you would like to share?
JL: So far this year, I’ve spoken about the book in Washington, D.C.; Wilmington, Delaware; Rochester, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; Chicago, Illinois; Seattle and Bainbridge Island, Washington; and of course La Crosse. To get to these public talks, I’ve driven, flown, taken trains and (wherever possible) ridden my bike.
Well, the most important thing I’ve learned is that while it might sound like a fine idea to combine bike touring and book touring, those are two great tastes that don’t necessarily taste great together. What I love about bike touring is the sense of freedom from deadlines and schedules; you get there when you get there, and any given day of riding might cover 100 miles or zero miles, depending on weather and tires and traffic and whatever. But book touring has deadlines; you have to be at certain places at certain times in certain non-sweaty clothes, so it kinda spoils the freedom of bike touring when you’re riding to these events. It’s hard to schedule book events in different cities so that you have enough time, and enough safety buffer, to ride your bike to get there.
I think that the most amazing thing I’ve seen so far has to be the ferry between Seattle and Bainbridge Island. There’s a whole population of daily bike commuters; they get off the ferry first, and it’s like a bunch-start race of a hundred or so riders as they go down the boat ramp and spread out into the city. Really an amazing sight.
The other great thing about bike touring is that you burn so many calories that you feel like you can eat anything you want without guilt. I’ve eaten my way from one end of Chicago to another. I’ve been in Portland and just had fantastic food truck meals; I’ve been in Seattle and had serious coffee. I was tempted to just send you photos of meals I’ve had along the way, but it felt very instagrammy so I didn’t do that. But it made me hungry just to look at them. I think I may have actually gained weight this summer …
JG: Thanks, James!
Jesse Gant is CHE graduate student affiliate, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Public Humanities Fellow with the Wisconsin Humanities Council. In 2013, he co-authored, with Nick Hoffman, Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State (Wisconsin Historical Society Press). Twitter. Contact.
For more information on Bike Battles, including details on upcoming author appearances, visit www.bikebattles.net.
 Dr. Elinor “Lin” Ostrom (August 7, 1933-June 12, 2012) was an influential American political economist and 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics.