Evan Friss on Bicycling Through the Pandemic

In On Bicycles, Evan Friss fills in the missing chapters that bicycles hold in New York City’s near-miraculous transportation history and shows how the city’s streets are finally catching up with them.

~!Janette Sadik-Khan, Bloomberg Associates, former NYC transportation commissioner

Today we have a guest post by Evan Friss, an associate professor of history at James Madison University and the author of On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York City.

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We are living amid a bike boom. In the pandemic age, people look suspiciously at public transportation, as though it were one big disease vector. Even out in the suburbs, Americans are riding in cars less and bicycling more. Bicycle sales have risen to levels not seen since the 1970s oil crisis. Finding a new, reasonably priced bike is about as easy as finding bread flour and yeast. Cyclists have demanded a bigger slice of the street, and cities like New York have responded by pledging to close miles of urban streets to cars and trucks and open them to people—walkers, skaters, and cyclists. Seattle announced it would do the same along twenty miles of its streets, but with one big difference: the changes would be permanent.

This isn’t the first time that bicycles have been prescribed for ailing people and cities. But the booms generally don’t last long, forcing advocates to start again from near scratch. Today we live in a world fashioned by political decisions made in the past—sometimes cast in concrete. And the choices we make today will determine the future of cycling in the city.

And the choices we make today will determine the future of cycling in the city.

In the mid-nineteenth century, bicycles—then called velocipedes—were enjoying a moment in part because cycling was touted as a cure for the diseases of the city. Smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever raged in dense and dirty metropolises. Doctors suggested that the bicycle was the best defense, a way for city dwellers to “fly from infection.” The velocipede boom ended abruptly in 1869, but enthusiasm for bikes returned greater than ever in the 1890s, as Americans were desperate for ways to make their cities and bodies healthier. The bicycle promised it all. In 1896, the Journal of Hygiene declared: “Honestly, the bicycle has done more for the good of the human race than all the medicines compounded since the days of Hippocrates.”

Like the velocipede of the 1860s, the bicycle offered the principal benefit of a means of escape. Just as urban parks were built to bring nature into the city, the bicycle could take riders beyond it. Psychiatrists were diagnosing mass cases of neurasthenia—characterized by nervousness and depression—among city people. It was thought to be a consequence of the urban environment. Cities were too loud, too hectic, and too crowded. The cure was to get out every once in a while, preferably by bicycle.

Bicycle manufacturers and advertisers began to market bikes as health care products. One 1890s ad asked, “Is your wife an invalid? Are you constantly paying doctor’s bills?” Another featured a testimonial from an attorney, who lauded the bicycle as the perfect tool to counterbalance too much time spent in “ill-ventilated” rooms. Advocates pointed out that the bicycle could replace horses and the thousands of pounds of manure they dropped on the streets, purifying the air and stopping many diseases thought to be airborne. By reducing the need to take a streetcar, bicycles could alleviate the everyday racket that was increasingly thought to drive people mad.

By reducing the need to take a streetcar, bicycles could alleviate the everyday racket that was increasingly thought to drive people mad.

Even though cities remained as unhealthy as ever, bicycles fell out of fashion within a few years. But they returned alongside hard times. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, “Cycle Trains” shuttled urbanites to the country so they could ride their bicycles—box lunch included. In New York, Robert Moses started laying bicycle paths around the five boroughs, hoping they would provide a safe space for recreation (and keep bikes off the roads). But by the 1940s, Moses and most other Americans again lost the appetite for bikes.

By the late 1960s, the environmentalist movement was in full swing, and Americans began to realize just how polluted their cities were and just how much of the blame fell upon their cars. On the first Earth Day in 1970, New York Mayor John Lindsay shut down Fifth Avenue to cars for two hours. Cyclists were in heaven. They asked for permanent bike lanes. The mayor agreed, promising to build a new city in which bicycles were welcomed. But then Fifth Avenue merchants complained about bike lanes at their doorsteps, and Lindsay changed his mind. The bike boom of the early 1970s faded too.

When the strike ended, many of the new cyclists just kept on biking.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, rising crime discouraged a generation of New Yorkers from riding the subway for fear of getting mugged. Blackouts and labor disputes like the 1980 Transport Workers Union strike gave them no choice but to find alternative forms of transportation. Mayor Ed Koch, who didn’t actually know how to ride a bicycle, told everyone to cope by riding a bike. “We’d like to see New York City look like Peking in the mornings,” he said, referring to the mass of cyclists in China. With cones and spray paint, bike advocates created bike lanes overnight and established telephone hotlines to help rookie cyclists navigate the city. During the eleven-day strike, the number of cyclists commuting into Manhattan increased tenfold. When the strike ended, many of the new cyclists just kept on biking. The number of regular bicycle commuters doubled. But within a year, the transit strike was a distant memory, and again the bikes disappeared.

In August 2003, the Northeast blackout kept New York without power for a few days. A friend of mine with a tandem bicycle rented his back seat to desperate commuters (they had to help pedal, after all). Sweaty New Yorkers walked across the Brooklyn Bridge or rode bikes to commute. But then the power returned, and they went back to their normal ways of moving shortly thereafter.

…the bike booms have never lasted for more than a decade.

And so, while bicycles have been around for two hundred years—an amazing feat for a simple device that has barely changed—and there have been many periods of tremendous growth and optimism for a future city in which bicycles solved the transportation puzzle, the bike booms have never lasted for more than a decade.

Perhaps this time is different. For one thing, many American cities had already begun a concerted effort to encourage the bicycle as an antidote to climate change. It’s up to city leaders. If cities take bold steps to permanently change the landscape, permanently close streets to motor traffic, and permanently increase the rate at which protected bike lanes are being built, then maybe the bike boom could stick.


On Bicycles is one of the many books we’re featuring during the Brooklyn Book Festival Virtual FestBrowse our featured titles and save 20% with coupon code BKBF20!

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