In the coming months, we’ll be running a series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries. Each week, our writers will focus on a trend that is meaningful to them, sharing anecdotes, opinions, and real-world illustrations of urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Bike Politics.
There is nothing inherently political about a bicycle, you might think. It is merely a machine that happens to be powered by human exertion. And yet this humble vehicle has been the subject of controversy almost since its invention.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the bicycle became a medium for the liberation of women. Susan B. Anthony said, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” That thrilled some people, while others were shocked at the prospect of unaccompanied females wearing bloomers and pedaling wherever their inclination took them.
As the automobile gained unchecked supremacy in the cities of Europe and North America, bicycles were squeezed off streets, increasingly viewed as children’s toys or as a last resort for those too poor to drive. Bikes remained an important transportation mode in many parts of the developing world, most notably China. But even in that nation, as the economy liberalized, bicycles were steadily shouldered aside by fossil-fueled vehicles, with their aroma of prestige.
There were exceptions. In the Netherlands in the 1970s, citizens outraged by the deaths of children in traffic crashes demonstrated in the streets to reverse the dominance of motor vehicles. This catalyzed the construction of better bicycle infrastructure not only in Amsterdam, but also in smaller cities and towns. In combination with a national bicycle education program, these policies have resulted in a 27 percent bicycle-mode share for all trips nationwide.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, many people around the world who were concerned about climate change and the crushing effect of auto-centric development on urban life began to look to the bicycle as part of a holistic approach to mending the modern city. New York, London, Seville, and other cities turned to Amsterdam and Copenhagen as models for bicycle infrastructure, and many began installing hundreds of miles of bike lanes, as well as bike-share systems.
But in the United States, these changes were sometimes met with vitriolic opposition by drivers who resented the challenge to their dominance of urban streets. San Francisco’s citywide bike plan was stalled by a lawsuit for several years. Special-interest groups in New York succeeded in having bike lanes removed in their neighborhoods.
In Washington, D.C., Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere, debates over the installation of bike infrastructure took on racial overtones, as some people of color charged that bike lanes were symptomatic of culturally insensitive gentrification. The media, meanwhile, often portrayed bicycle advocates as out-of-touch elitists.
More recently, perceptions of bicycles around the United States and indeed the world have shifted again. Cycling is becoming more mainstream. Business owners are seeing dramatic increases in revenue on streets where protected bike lanes have been installed. Every year, more people are riding. And political candidates are increasingly seeing people who ride bikes as a constituency to be courted, rather than as a fringe group to be ignored or disdained. Maybe someday bicycles—and the freedom they represent—won’t be so controversial.
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Stereoptic card, c. 1900. Image: via Wikimedia Commons.