Bicycling Renaissance: a Bike Boom of Old (With Lessons for the New)

CHE graduate student affiliate Jesse Gant discussed the recently-published book The Cycling City: Bicycles & Urban America in the 1890s with author Dr. Evan Friss, an Assistant Professor of History at James Madison University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Jesse Gant: Why have scholars overlooked the bicycle? Why have we overlooked its place between what you call the “walking city” of the 19th century and the age of the automobile that followed it in the United States?

Evan Friss: I think there are two reasons.

First, the cycling city was born, raised, and died in the 1890s. By historians’ standards, that’s an awfully short period of time and, consequently, many have dismissed the era as a fad with little lasting significance. What I try to demonstrate in the book is that just because the cycling city failed to endure in the United States, does not mean that it never existed. gant1People imagined and began building cities that would be designed around bicycles; those ideas, plans, and in some cases tangible projects were very real. This is not the same as counterfactual history, wondering what JFK would have done in Vietnam or what Reconstruction might have looked like under President Hannibal Hamlin. Although, I am trying to suggest that another path was possible. And it was the cyclists, for however brief a time, who were paving it.

Second, as much as we try to appreciate “the pastness of the past” (as my advisor used to like to say), historians can’t help but look at the past through the prism of the present. For much of the recent past, bicycles have been conceived of as a plaything for children, BMX riders, mountain bikers, etc. But it was not until the latest bicycle renaissance that many people began to (once again) take cycling seriously as a means to commute and as a tool for planning smarter and greener cities. Now that bicycles are conspicuous again, they have become fodder for artists, t-shirt makers, and, yes, even historians. While the community of scholars studying the bicycle and/or cycling is still terribly small, it is growing exponentially; the same thing, not coincidentally, can be said about the community of cycling commuters.

Drawing of an elevated bike lane over a train line. Review of Reviews, 1896. Public domain image.

Drawing of an elevated bike lane over a train line. Review of Reviews, 1896. Public domain image.

JG: Your book talks a lot about the revolutionary potential of the bicycle, a potential many people alive during the 1890s both recognized and celebrated. Why were these associations common during the 1890s?

EF: The 1890s has long been one of my favorite decades (right up there with the “Era of Good Feelings”). While historians toss the word “modernity” around like beanbags, I think the cornhole sits squarely in the 1890s. Urbanists, including me, love to talk about the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 and the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 as bold beginnings of a new era of city building and architecture. The rapid industrialization and urbanization, the flood of new technology and information, the growth of big business and big fortunes, and the ticking clock of a century’s end manifested in a palpable, and often chaotic, sense that society was changing quickly. Technology, of course, was at the heart of that transformation and Americans fell in love with more than one far-fetched idea about how a piece of technology would radically reorient their lives.

There is also, I think, long been a special regard for innovation when it comes to transportation. In some ways this has transcended time. For whatever reason people (and not just my four-year-old son) are fascinated by trains. Oddly enough, The New York Times still has an “Automotive” section. And Elon Musk’s Hyperloop has rekindled the imagination of transportation futurists. Although they don’t move as quickly as trains, cars, or pneumatic tubes, bicycles in the 1890s did hold great promise. Enthusiasts embraced a vision of the future in which bicycles made cities seem smaller, cleaner, and healthier and in which individuals felt liberated.

Byron Company, Boulevard near 60th St. NY, 1898. From the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Byron Company, Boulevard near 60th St. NY, 1898. From the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

JG: A lot of recent work on the history of bicycling has emphasized the role of race in the sport’s early history, particularly the 1894 ban on African Americans by the League of American Wheelmen. One of the more impressive aspects of your book is that it really showcases the complexity of the thing often called “the cycling community.” How does an historical emphasis on race complicate the question of who rode bikes, exactly, in the 1890s? And offer us some points on why this history is important to reflect upon today.

EF: The two most popular questions that people have asked me about my book are (I should specify that I mean non-academics, since no academic has asked me either one): “How long did it take you to write it?” and “Are you a cyclist?” I never know what to answer for the last question (or the first). I do still occasionally bike around Harrisonburg, the college town I now call home, but not as much as I did when I was living in New York City. I have completed a century ride, but only one. I wear a helmet, but never spandex.

Strangely, no one has ever asked me if I’m a pedestrian, even though I walk to work. But “cyclist” unlike “pedestrian” has become a part of the lexicon of twenty-first century identity politics. And the word connotes all sorts of things to people based on all sort of reasons. Without entering the debate about whether or not I, or the guy delivering pizza via a bicycle, is a cyclist, I do argue that our perceptions about who is included in, and who is shunned by, the broader cycling community and advocacy groups is critical to understanding the larger story. The same holds true for the 1890s. When women began to ride in significant numbers, they complicated the understanding of who a cyclist was and the meaning of cycling itself. African American riders, whether zooming around race tracks or simply riding to work, similarly panicked a group of cyclists who understood cycling as an activity for privileged whites. For some of these male early adopters, the popularization of cycling among women, African Americans, and the working classes, changed their ideas about cycling and cyclists and rendered the activity both less exclusive and less desirable.

Forever Bicycles installation by Ai Weiwei. Photo by flickr user Michael Jefferies [CC BY-NC 2.0].

Forever Bicycles installation by Ai Weiwei. Photo by flickr user Michael Jefferies [CC BY-NC 2.0].

JG: Bikes seem to be “back” in a big way. Cities around the world are seeing explosive cycling growth, and in many places, it is growth that has been sustained for a decade or more now. How optimistic are you that this boom will continue? Why?

EF: Historians are much better at writing the past than predicting the future. But for what it’s worth, here’s my take.

I’m not terribly optimistic that the current bicycle boom is sustainable over the very long term. I see the latest boom as inextricably tied to the new urban demographic. People are moving back to dense cities. More and more teens are delaying getting a driver’s license. Mayors, city councils, and developers—whether they are worried about climate change or merely want to attract those who are—are promoting walkable/bikeable, green, and smart communities. Bicycling has taken off in college towns, but nowhere has seen a greater impact than big cities. Look at what’s happened in New York City, for example. Not only has the number of riders mushroomed, but also the change in infrastructure has been astounding. Riding a Citi Bike on a protected bike lane in 2016 is a very different experience than dodging traffic in the Big Apple in the pre- Bloomberg/Sadik-Kahn era. The fall in cycling that I’m predicting, albeit rooting against, is simply a guess that cities will, once again, become undesirable places to live.

Part of me worries about the skyrocketing real estate prices that have already changed and promise to fundamentally alter places like New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Beyond the sad reality that many neighborhoods have become unaffordable for many, I’m not sure that even very rich people want to live in cities that can no longer sustain the grungy pizza point, the local bodega, the mom and pop dry cleaners. On this point, I think Jane Jacobs was exactly right. Cities thrive on diversity of building types and ages, businesses big and small, and, of course, people.

I’m not sure exactly why cities will fall out of favor, but it seems like they have to at some point. Maybe the cool thing to do upon graduation in the future is not to move to a big metropolis, but rather to a farm. You can see roots of this idea in the popularity of the craft and local food movement. In the future, maybe they’ll be a fear that land is becoming scarce and people will be desperate to own large chunks of it. Maybe telecommuting will become a reality and there will be no need for Wall Streeters to live anywhere near Wall Street. Maybe ocean levels will rise enough to the point that insurance companies balk at insuring properties near the coast. We’ll have to wait and see. So a note to future historians: even if cycling isn’t popular in your time, the bicycle renaissance of the early twenty-first century was very real. You should write a book about it.

Featured Image: Byron Company, Boulevard near 60th St. NY, 1898. From the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Jesse Gant is a CHE graduate student affiliate, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and 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). TwitterContact.

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