Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Give Me A Brake! The Social Significance of Cycling

In 1884, Mark Twain wrote
“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it--if you live.” 

In an unpublished essay titled “Taming the Bicycle,” Twain details his daring efforts to learn to ride a large-wheeled “penny-farthing” bicycle invented by James Starley in 1871 (Levinson).

To Twain’s likely relief, Starley's nephew, John Kemp Starley, invented the first “safety” bicycle called The Rover a year later (“Icons of Invention”). His creation of a better balanced and chain driven bicycle propelled the product to become one of the most popular consumer goods of the next century.

Through the Gilded Age, public perception of the bicycle went from that of a dangerous play toy for rich daredevil men to a popular, practical device for the working class that everyone could use.

Bicycles were expensive at first and not available to everyone. Robert Smith, author of A Social History of the Bicycle, estimates that “any of the nearly two-thousand men employed in cycle plants in 1890 would have had to work nearly half a year at the prevailing wage to purchase one of the machines he helped assemble” (Smith 26).

Perhaps they were better off waiting. Early bike enthusiasts bought bikes before innovations like the invention of the pneumatic tire and the subsequent inventions of brakes and gears made the hobby safer. After possibly the scariest beta tests in history, bicycle prices began to drop in 1893, as a result of public pressure and overproduction on the part of the manufacturers (25).

Bikes became a popular form of recreation and a practical machine, stimulating many business innovations of the era. Bicycles provided an energy efficient alternative to horses and brought rapid individual transit before the mass production of affordable cars. The innovations in mass production--including mechanization, vertical integration, and aggressive advertising—would all become ideas that the automobile industry adopted soon. Many automobile makers began their training in bicycle plants.

The bicycle became a major consumer good. Major bicycle manufacturers spent between $4 million to $9 million a year to advertise bikes in newspapers designed to market the “identity” of a cyclist (Furness 17). 
Though early models of the bicycle were marketed towards the upper class (costing around $100 to $150), the bicycle had become affordable to working people by the turn of the 20th century (Smith 17).
In 1895, suffragist Frances Willard wrote in her book, A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle:
Tens of thousands who could never afford to own, feed and stable a horse, had by this bright invention enjoyed the swiftness of motion which is perhaps the most fascinating feature of material life (Willard 11).  
The president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union emphasized how important the bicycle had been in reviving her health and political optimism, using a bike as a metaphor for politics of action, stating "I would not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum"(“A Whole Philosophy of Life”).

Though the bicycle created some friction with the horse and buggy industry, it expanded possibilities for cities. Cycling created demand for suitable roads to provide ambulances, policemen, postmen, and other bicycle-savvy solutions to problems. The League of American Wheelmen lobbied for paved roads with the financial assistance of Columbia bike manufacturer, Albert Augustus Pope. They created pamphlets and magazines such as “The Gospel of Good Roads” and Outing, propagandizing the need to legalize biking, to build roads, and to implement safety features (Furness 18).

Businesses such as farmers, hotels, and inns benefited from tourism created by bikes journeying into rural areas (Smith 54). The bike boom brought about change by connecting communities closer together not only through building roads but also by emergence of amateur social cycling clubs and professional bicycle races (“Bicycling” 46). Bicycle culture created industries for accessories and uniforms associated with cycling clubs. The social benefit of the bike would soon quiet complaints from even the bicycle's harshest critics.

At the onset of the bicycle craze, physicians’ accused the bicycle of producing “chronic disease” while priests condemned it as “diabolical devices of the demon of darkness” (Smith 1). Cycling soon proved to not only to be beneficial for strengthening the lungs, improving circulation and building muscle tone but it also changed America's conception of moral propriety and social rules (67). The bicycle was touted as an alternative exercise for women to horse riding in 1890 (Tyng 61). Not only did the bike provide for good exercise but also many people argued that it also encouraged temperance because it deterred men from drinking so they could control their bicycle.

Though originally marketed to men, women began to use bicycles and it changed their fashion choices from clothing like the restrictive corset to more comfortable clothing such as bloomers. Though some would criticize bicycle fashion as a moral decay, most would welcome “rational dress” as a “reform that had been long demanded by common sense” (Smith 109).

Susan B. Anthony affirmed the progress the bicycle had brought about for women, stating in a New York Sunday World interview on February 2, 1896: 
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood (Bly 10). 

While the bicycle enabled greater freedom for the working class and for women, the bicycle's freedom on the roads became somewhat of a liability given its unique status.

Many people considered bicyclists menaces on the road. Taxi cab drivers and “teamsters” (previously used as a term for horse-and-buggy drivers rather than truck drivers) tried to have cycling defined as a “hazardous occupation” (Smith 198). Bicycles would be given the same rights as other vehicles in 1897 along with the restrictions and responsibilities that those laws imposed (197).

George Bernard Shaw would joke over three decades later, “newspapers are unable seemingly to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization” (Moyers 3). Sensationalist accidents and ensuing social stigma marginalized the cycling. Despite having literally paved the road for the possibility of other vehicles, the bicycle presence began to decrease as roads became more heavily populated.
The bicycle remains a fixture of American culture with approximately 16 million bikes being sold in the United States every year (“Facts and Figures”). Approximately 66% of the 130 million bicycles sold globally are made in China (Panday). However, its role in broader society has changed dramatically. The bicycle is still viewed as a luxury item of conspicuous yet pragmatic consumption. A bicycle provides still fulfills superfluous fashion goals of Gilded Age status seekers. Consumer marketing has changed from materialism to an identity of ideals. The bicycle still serves as a symbol of self-reliance to its current enthusiasts, while also representing an environmental and safer alternative to the automobile.

While cyclists relish in their hobby, the majority of society today looks upon them in a different light. Today, less than one percent of all commuters use bicycles to commute to work (Furness 30). Motorists consider bicycles a nuisance and an obstacle in the way of their road. Society still reveres bicycles as a form of recreation and exercise today, but mostly as a childhood right of passage. The motorist-cyclist reveals that many people may no longer view cycling as a legitimate adult form of transportation.

Zach Furness highlights in One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobiles how society perceives bicycles as a “childish” device. Furness cites an example of this trope in The 40 Year Old Virgin. Steve Carell's character, Andy Stitzer, rides a bike to work. Andy Stitzer's coworkers, friends, and girlfriend consider his bike  evidence of his childish inability to grow up, his virginity (Furness 111). Ultimately, his girlfriend buys him a bike, embracing his quirkiness but the damage is done; Stitzer’s bicycle is a silly remnant of his childhood to be tossed away, losing his innocence after he brutally wrecks in the road.

Just as bicyclists brushed off criticisms from detractors in the Gilded Age, bicyclists today reject the judgments from those that deem bicycling unworthy of their status on the streets. They have embraced their antagonistic role in the road while also asserting that they can abide by the “grown up” rules designed to ensure their safety. Bicyclists have successfully petitioned government to build bike lanes in many cities. Nevertheless, bicycles face a danger especially in urban areas. In 2009, 630 pedalcyclist deaths accounted for 2 percent of all traffic fatalities during the year. Seventy percent of those deaths occurred in urban areas (“Bicyclists and Other Cyclists”). When Mark Twain warned that you would enjoy a bicycle “if you live” he was commenting on the dangerous design of the penny-farthing he rode; today, after all the possible safety innovations created for and required of bicycles to legally ride, the external threat of the automobile poses the greatest threat to cyclists’ lives.

Many bicyclists consider themselves activists with a duty to highlight the injustices that car culture perpetuates. Cyclists have begun to use their bicycles as a method of protest. One example of this kind of protest is the recent series of naked bike rides that have occurred all across the country to promote awareness of how cars pose a threat to their safety, both on the road and environmentally. These naked protests share the spirit of disregarding dominant concepts of social propriety as their predecessors in the bicycle craze, while emphasizing the idea of positive body image that can be achieved through cycling.

Through bicycle activism, the bike has a chance to represent more than just sentiments about road safety, healthy lifestyle, and fashion; the bicycle has become a physical manifestation of individual power that accepts individual responsibility. At the same time, the egalitarian nature of bicycle culture welcomes both the amateur and the professional. Although the bicycle was designed for the individual, the roads bicyclists demanded demonstrate the possibility of collective effort in producing social benefits and bridging social connections.

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle."

-Ernest Hemingway