THE BICYCLE DURING THE AUTO AGE

The bicycle catalyzed development of the car. A number of technical advances essential to the fledgling automobile industry, from pneumatic tires and ball bearings to factory-scale production en­gineering and a functional network of paved urban roads, owe their emergence to bicycles. No less important, the bicycle’s ethos of independent, self – guided travel helped to split open the railroad-based paradigm of travel as mass transport along a fixed linear track.

But once the car took hold, it imposed its own ideology, one antithetical to bicycles. For one thing, cars used the same roads as did bicycles (the very roads that were paved as a result of bicyclists’ campaigning), and through incessant noise and fumes, superior speed, and sheer physical force, cars literally pushed bicyclists aside. What is more, as recounted by social historian Wolfgang Sachs, the engine-driven car proved to be a more alluring cultural commodity than did the self-propelled bicycle. Although the bicycle leveraged bodily energy and broadened the individual’s arena of direct activity many times over, the substitution of mechan­ical power for muscular exertion conveyed a sense of joining the leisure class and became equated with progress.

Thus, the bicycle’s ‘‘defect of physicality,’’ as Sachs termed it, put it at a disadvantage compared with the new technologies of internal combustion, electric motor drive, and flying machines. Rather than defend their right to cycle, the masses aspired to abandon the bicycle in favor of the auto. And abandon it they did, as fast as rising affluence and the advent in 1908 of the mass-produced, affordable car, Henry Ford’s Model T, permitted. Although reliable data are lacking, by the end of the 1920s, bicycles probably accounted for only 1 to 2% of U. S. urban travel, an order-of-magnitude decline in just a few decades.

A similar devolution occurred in Europe during the long boom after World War II, albeit less steeply and with important exceptions. However, even now, bicycles outnumber cars by a two-to-one margin around the world, primarily due to economics. Cars cost roughly 100 times as much to buy as do bicycles and require fuel as well as maintenance, putting them out of reach of a majority of the world’s people.

Updated: September 27, 2015 — 7:37 am