Is The Bicycle (A 19th Century Solution) Irrelevant Today?

Background Reading


Chicken and waffles: so delicious, yet so controversial. © Jennifer Yin

Chicken and waffles: so delicious, yet so controversial.
© Jennifer Yin

This is an older article that has some relevancy even today. The basic premise is as follows:

On my bicycle commute in high-tech Silicon Valley, California, I see up to 100 other bike commuters every day, most of whom are employed as chip designers, rocket scientists, robot researchers, high-energy physicists and biogenetic engineers. The biggest employer in North Carolina 10th District Congressman Patrick McHenry’s home in Catawba County, on the other hand, is the “retail trade” sector. Yep, the highest tech they have is the point-of-sale system at Burger King.

Streetsblog reports on North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry, who said regarding pending energy legislation:

The Democrats’ answer to our energy crisis is, hold on, wait one minute, wait one minute, it is promoting the use of the bicycle.Oh, I cannot make this stuff up. Yes, the American people have heard this. Their answer to our fuel crisis, the crisis at the pumps, is: Ride a bike.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the Democrats, promoting 19th century solutions to 21st century problems. If you don’t like it, ride a bike. If you don’t like the price at the pumps, ride a bike.

Streetsblog implies and commentors note that the automobile and the internal combustion engine is also 19th century technology, as are lightbulbs, phones, radios, railroads, guns, photography, refrigerators, stethoscopes, and even paved roads! Many modern bicycles, in fact, require advanced technologies, materials and manufacturing processes that did not exist in the 19th or even 20th centuries.

Whether or not I want to admit it this is the land of the following food stuffs:

  • Bacon by itself
  • Bacon on just about anything
  • Chicken wings and Beer
  • Waffles and Fried Chicken
  • Pork and beef and very little in the way of vegetables

And near as I can tell this food proclivity is shared by cyclists and non-cyclists alike. I mention this food issue because it strongly correlates with the views on cycling as a meaningful alternative to high gasoline prices across the great land of ours. If you find a map of the stroke belt you have found the places where:

  • People are unlikely to view bicycles in a friendly way
  • Convenience as represented by the automobile is a widely accepted as “Constitutional Right” as ownership of an assault rifle
  • Because most of the folks across the country who ride bikes to work as adults and are non-natives are usually Hispanic bicycles have taken on an edginess not really appreciated urban cyclists in the North.

We are as wedded to our automobiles as we are to:

  • Air conditioning
  • Microwave ovens
  • Eating animal-based products
  • Carrying cell phones and tweeting (or texting) while we either walk, drive or bike
  • Watching television or listening to music while either eating or drinking

Most cyclists are probably easily “guilty” of the first four on that list. Does that make them or their non-cycling friends “bad people”? No. But it does help to demarcate the problem of isolating the actions which can save energy an create a better world from those that won’t. The simple act of becoming meat-eaters creates problems for a sustainable world because of the increased water use required to raise animals versus eating a plant-based diet. Air conditioning is something that few bicyclists would ever wish to give up while at work or even at home. And I would think that microwaves are embedded in the American DNA as much as automobile use.

We are in essence a walking contradiction on the solutions for a sustainable future.

McHenry is probably buddies with Dr. David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who writes policy papers for the John Locke Foundation. Complete Streets advocates such as senior citizens and paraplegics, Hartgen says, “It’s really just arrogance and selfishness on the part of usually very small groups of individuals. They exert political power to ‘take back the street,’ but the street is not theirs to take back.”

Professor Hartgen needs a history lesson: The streets have always belonged to all the people. Longtime New Mexico bike commuter Khal Spencer is quoted in a recent edition of CenterLines from the National Center for Bicycling and Walking:

Our roadways have always been designed with the intention of being shared by multiple users. A road is simply a paved structure meant to accommodate a given width and weight of vehicle. The first paved roads were in fact lobbied for by bicyclists in the last part of the nineteenth century and were later shared by early automobiles. Since then, a myriad of ‘other’ users including Amish buggies, farm equipment, bicyclists, and other slow-moving vehicles have legally shared the road with motorists. While that has undoubtedly required the occasional patience and understanding, it has always been considered a mark of good citizenship to responsibly share the roads. The present animosity between a small fraction of cyclists and a small fraction of motorists is more personality driven and should not detract from the safe interactions among most adult drivers and cyclists.

The rise in popularity in cycling has indeed given rise to an equally popular cyclist’s lobbying movement to incorporate cycling-specific design into new roadway construction or renovation. While there are differences in details among various special interest groups, what virtually everyone, whether motorized or not, agrees on is to provide added width (shoulders, bike lanes, wide traffic lanes) so that cyclists and motor vehicles traveling at different speeds can get past each other without encroaching into oncoming traffic. However, while such improvements are wonderful, they do not detract from our present roadway’s ability to be shared safely by competent, compliant users.

Disparate views on road usage are going to continue. In fact some of the things that we as cyclists argue seem to be contradictory (at least to me):

  • We argue that the primary reason for introducing “protected bike lanes” and other exemplars of bicycle infrastructure is to increase the safety of road riding for everyone, especially “newbies”.
  • But then we turn around and argue that perhaps forcing folks to wear helmets is impeding the growth of the movement. The “helmet law” only increases the impression that cycling is unsafe, when it is not.

But these two arguments are too difficult to nuance for the uninitiated non-cyclist. Either (they reason) streets (and thus cycling are unsafe) or cyclist is safe enough not to require a helmet. But it cannot be both simultaneously. Perhaps we should reach some level of consensus in the cycling community itself before throwing harpoons at politicians in Red States who frankly represent the bulk of the potential newbies that we would like attract.

Just a parting note, the irony is that The South is the nicest place (in terms of weather) for cycling. We need to find a way to bring our message to these folks because they have the greatest potential to increase the numbers of commuters in our ranks.