At the beginning of his engaging history of bicycling, James Longhurst, “mediocre middle-aged recreational cyclist” declares a motive: “I have a stake in this topic because I wish avoid being run over.”
Modern-day wheelmen benefit from the dual interests of the associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who brings a keen, thoughtful and often amusing perspective to a topic at the forefront of governance today: the role of the bicycle on public roads.
To casual observer, the conflict that Longhurst dubs Bike Battles is a new one, emerging from a convergence of environmentally and health conscious cyclists growing in number and their presence on congested city streets. The casual observer, however, misses a lot. Bike battles go back to the early 19th century, when the invention of two-wheel transportation set off a continuing struggle that lands many cyclists in ditches, in morgues and in court.
In 1879, a British cyclist was charged and convicted with “driving furiously” – not the first documented incidence of road rage, but “riding a bicycle on a highway at a furious pace.” Then came legal tussels over whether a bicycle was to be considered a vehicle (yes, it was), whether or not U.S. states could ban them from public roads and private roads (many states and cities did) and whether a cyclist could be accountable if his chosen method of transportation frightened a horse, causing an accident that injured a person (depends).
With generous detail, Longhurst builds on the early legal battles of “the first golden age of American cycling” before vaulting into the changes wrought by the golden age of the automobile, which ultimately transformed bicycles from a pastime of patricians (a Chicago newspaper reported bicycling news under the heading “polite athletics” and its early devotees were typically male elites) to something that only children and strangely clad professional athletes.
Along the way, he meanders down fascinating corridors of policy, such as the occasional efforts to tax bicyclists and bikes, bicycle rationing in wartime, the early perception of salaciousness in women who dared to ride. (An enduring song, “Daisy Bell,” written in 1892, is remembered for its lyrics “You’ll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle built for two” but also had lines about Daisy’s suitor looking forward to taking her riding, “as man and wife, when the road’s dark” where there are no policemen or lamps.)
Bill Cosby, of all people, shares credit for the resurgence of bicycles among adults. The recently controversial comedian in 1974 narrated a educational film entitled “Bicycles Are Beautiful” in which he touted the wondrous benefits of bikes and bikeways, urging people to ride bikes because “Getting out in clean fresh air is good for your heart, your lungs, and your circulation, and your figure.” Bike “drivers”, he called them. Such public-relations efforts fueled a 1970s bike boom that also benefited from new technologies in the production of bikes, such as the development of what came to be known as the “10-speed”; the energy crisis; and an overall interest in health. (The 1970s also gave us the first running boom.) An appetite for bike paths was not new – in the 1800s, cycling enthusiasts lobbied for bike paths, that were then called “sidepaths” – but today’s increasingly sophisticated bike infrastructure had its beginnings when the Partridge Family was still on TV.
“The road,” Longhurst maintains, “is a commons.” And that commons is “based on thousands of years of tradition, law and legislation.” While the bike is back, it never really left, and when the driver of a car flips off a cyclist (or vice versa) he is re-enacting a scene that took place a hundred years ago between a wheelman and a wagon; and 500 years earlier, between a walker and a horse. “In the future, more than ever, we’ll need to share the road,” he concludes.
Intelligent, relevant and enlightening, Bike Battles is what all history should be. The reader needn’t be a policy wonk or a cycling enthusiast to appreciate the lessons, and its array of old photographs and sketches (bike commuters in 1902, “high riders” in Boston in 1880) are delightful. All in all, it’s a worthy ride.
Originally published in The Hippo.