The History of American Cycling: From Boom to Bust to Boom Again?

Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling / (c) 2017 Carlton Reid, published by Island Press, 2017

In the 1970s, cycling had its moment in the United States. Manufacturers were churning out bikes and adults, not just children, were buying them. The nation was set to usher in a new era where two wheels trumped four, and the infrastructure was there to support this rediscovered mode of transport.

Look around in many cities today and you’ll notice cyclists whizzing by, at best in a bike lane, and more treacherously, weaving between cars and people. But despite appearances, the U.S. is not experiencing a bike boom. “Compared to the 70s boom, today’s is illusory,” author Carlton Reid argues in Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling.

So what happened to the bike-centric world that seemed so promising in the 1970s? Reid, a journalist and author of the 2014 book, Roads Were Not Built for Cars, revisits the promise of a fleeting, bygone bike-crazed era and then analyzes the history of cycling.

“After addressing an American Bike Month meeting on May 1, 1964, Dr. Paul Dudley White, second from the left, and Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall, right front, join with a group of congressmen riding to the Capitol in Washington. At left is Rep. Caton R. Sickles, with Rep. Dante B. Fascell riding between Dr. White and Udall.”  / Associated Press via Bike Boom

Reid weaves a data-heavy tale of nationwide booms and busts; city-scale success and failures; and character-driven movements and their sometimes lasting effect on the history of cycling.

Reid analyzes policy, infrastructure, and cultural acceptance of cycling in the U.S. and Britain, chronicling each country’s attempt to keep up with the Dutch, to no avail for decades. In telling these tales, Reid does not prescribe an specific remedy to revive cycling, but rather looks at lessons learned from attempts to encourage cycling in the past.

The Netherlands — where nearly 30 percent of all trips nationwide are by bicycle — is undoubtedly the longest-reigning king of bicycle infrastructure and cultural acceptance. Reid gives a number of reasons for this, one important one: they’ve been at it a long time. Compared to the mid-21st century beginnings of transportation agencies in the UK and US, the Dutch’s ministry of transportation and the environment was founded in 1798.

“The Chinese famously take the long view of history, and Dutch nation-builders take the long view of infrastructure,” Reid writes.

In 1973, at the peak of the U.S. boom, 15 million adult bikes were sold. “The bike was rural and recreational, but it was also urban and practical,” Reid said. In the U.S., the 1970s bike boom successfully linked biking with the rising environmentalist movement. Beyond a carbon-free commute, biking offered individual agency in movement and efficiency.

But with an uptick in urban cyclist came safety concerns and varying interests among enthusiasts, including vehicular cyclists. Reid devotes an entire chapter to the history of vehicular cyclists and the debate about where on the road, if at all, bikes belong.

Throughout the book, Reid cites separated Dutch cycle paths as a model for creating an environment where cyclists feel safe and comfortable, but that’s not to say other cities haven’t had their share of success.

Dutch cycle path / The alternative department for transportation

He goes in depth into factors that allow Davis, California, for example, to become an early and natural haven for cyclists, even when there weren’t separate cycle paths.

Cycling was popular in Davis many years before the installation of curb-protected bikeways in 1967.  / City of Davis, via Bike Boom

Also, cycle infrastructure is important, Reid writes, but that alone will not make people hop on the saddle. Take Columbia, Maryland, in the U.S. and the town of Stevenage in Britain. In both places, the cycle infrastructure was there but, given the option of a quick and easy bike ride or a quick and easy trip by car, people in both places chose cars.

Cyclists in Stevenage have their own route network / Bike Boom

What a robust, connected cycle infrastructure does show, Reid argues, is how welcome a city is that mode of transport. In seeking to replicate the Dutch model, Reid points to Meredith Glaser, a cycle-infrastructure consultant, who once told him that cities need to show their appreciation for cyclists by building “’wow’ infrastructure,” like the Cykelslangen, or “cycle-snake” bridge in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Cykelslangen / Dissing + Weitling

The fact is, we’re behind and we have a long way to go. “It will be tough to replicate what the Netherlands took more than a hundred years to perfect.” But of course, Reid says, that’s no reason not to try.

One thought on “The History of American Cycling: From Boom to Bust to Boom Again?

  1. George R. Frantz, AICP, ASLA 07/31/2017 / 1:27 pm

    As usual, no recognition whatsoever of the fact that US cities are so sprawled out compared to cities in Europe and China. American cities, with their very low population densities (1/5th to 1/10th that of cities in Europe and China) place most residents well outside convenient distances to destinations via bike. This is a huge obstacle to the bike becoming a major factor in transportation systems in the USA, and all the bike infrastructure in the world will not compensate for this fact.

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