It’s the last day of National Bike Month. We’re getting to know a lot about the benefits of bicycle commuting.
“Health. Clean air. Efficiency and economy.” Sounds like the opening of a bike-to-work promotion? It is–only not about cycling in 2013. The quote comes from a booklet published by the Greater Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition (now Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia), in cooperation with C2E2 and the Delaware River Planning Commission, in 1983. That was during the third great American era of commuter bicycling. We’re now in the fourth. Here’s a rundown on how America fell in love with the bicycle.
The first cycling contraptions
We must look back about 150 years for the origin of our current two-wheeler. Originally made of wood and used mostly by men and for sport, the first bicycle depended totally on its rider’s balance to keep the machine upright.
These early velocipedes were called “boneshakers” for their rocky ride. The metal “penny-farthing” (big solid rubber wheel, like an English penny, in front to reduce pedaling rotation; tiny wheel, like the 1/4 penny, or “farthing,” in the rear) and the term “bicycle” came soon afterward.
The first heyday of bicycling
Bikes truly came of age in the 1880s and 90s with the creation of the current “safety bike,” with its same-size wheels, pneumatic tires, and gearing mechanism. Women–previously limited to tricycles–began to ride in large numbers for the first time. Cycle touring became fashionable, and many started using the invention to run errands or go to work.
But the widespread use of bikes only briefly presaged the coming of the automobile to “developed” countries. Immune from the elements, lacking the costly trappings of horse and carriage, powered by mechanical rather than human force, capable of higher speeds and longer distances, by 1920 the car had begun to triumph over the lowly bike.
Working bikes enjoyed a brief resurgence during World War II–the second age of the bicycle–when military needs diverted the nation’s other travel supplies. The end of the war brought unprecedented prosperity to the American nation, the renewal of an auto-based society, and the return of bicycles to younger people in the driveways and recreation areas.
Bikes re-emerge with critical environmental and energy concerns
Both environmental and political/economic events spurred a third surge of interest, which the baby boom generation and its elders remember today. First, the 1970s marked the first Earth Day and the environmental movement. The bike became a natural, local, and nonpolluting alternative to commuting by car.
And just a few years later, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo in reaction to instability in the Middle East and U.S. support of Israel. The embargo caused long lines at gas stations and soaring prices at the pump.
The late seventies and early eighties marked the true beginning of “another way to work.” Portland, Oregon, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Palo Alto, California, and San Diego, California, also provided key momentum. The Rodale Press published much do-it-yourself and bicycle commuting material, including Bicycling magazine. The advent of employee flextime (variable work schedules, now apparently losing favor among American employers) also increased opportunities.
The U.S. Congress and many state and local officials supported bicycle commuting activity at this time (see slides). The U.S. National Energy Conservation Policy Act of 1978 touted its usefulness and contribution to the economy. Local civic leaders like Philadelphia’s Richard A. Doran, City Representative and Director of Commerce, promoted the activity and practiced what they preached.
Bike coalitions in various cities pressed public transit officials to accommodate bicycles in a variety of ways, enlarging the possibilities of suburb-to-city commuting, and vice versa. Commuter rail lines could handle regular bikes, and city buses and the subway system offered transport for folding models. Corporations like Southland (home of 7-11 and still a major bike supporter) and pharmaceutical manufacturer SmithKline (now GlaxoSmithKline), government organizations, nonprofits, and other businesses sponsored on-site bike facilities for their two-wheeled employees.
Forgetfulness and remembrance
As the petroleum crisis of the 1970s eased, the less-developed nations in the world sped up their industrialization. Multinational corporations shifted operational focus to these newly developing countries, and the United States began to adopt conservative laissez-faire economic policies.
The Cold War ended, and despite the President’s environmental leanings, the Reagan presidency ushered in a bullish era in which product obsolescence was aggressively pursued. Style often seemed more important to manufacturers than substance. Environmental concerns withered. Quietly and forgetfully, America moved into the age of the three-car garage and the gas-guzzling oversize wagon, “mini” van, and SUV.
However, conflicts and resource scarcity began to re-emerge by the end of the 1990s. As the 21st century began, public interest in bike commuting revived with a global fiscal crisis and renewed health, energy, and environmental concern. Now, major cities across the U.S. and the rest of the world are creating bike lanes and paths and supporting huge bike sharing programs. It’s another new era for bicycle commuting. This time, let’s never forget the lessons of the past.
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert covers environmental, health, and energy issues. With John Dowlin, Ralph Hirsch, Bob Thomas, Nancy Drye, Bob Pierson, and Susan McInerney, she compiled the Greater Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition’s first handbook on cycle commuting. Sandy has also reported on fitness, auto, plane, ship, and train transportation and extreme weather disasters. She also detailed events and policy at last fall’s 18th UN climate change summit meeting in Doha, Qatar.
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