Mainstreaming Bicycles

January 3, 2011 by William Lind

Source: American Conservative

Contrary to what most people think, the revolution in personal mobility did not begin with the automobile.  It started about two decades before Henry Ford’s first Model T, and it was based on a combination of the electric railway and the safety bicycle.

Electric streetcars and interurbans brought affordable, fast and frequent rail service to and between cities  –  –  every American city or town with more than 5000 people had at least one streetcar line.  The interurbans also tied towns and the countryside to the cities.  The safety bicycle  –  –  a bicycle with equal-sized wheels that was easy to mount  –  –  was the first bicycle women and less athletic men could ride.  It provided greatly enhanced local mobility compared to walking.  Together, electric railways and safety bicycles offered the middle and working classes the level of mobility previously reserved to those wealthy enough to afford a carriage.

Ford’s Model T short-circuited that revolution in personal mobility.  Had Ford been required to build and maintain the highways his cars ran on, the outcome would probably have been different.  But the government took over that job, while the privately owned electric railways were taxed and regulated out of existence.

Cars also drove out bicycles, to the point where they became toys for children.  In part, this was because driving a car takes less physical effort than riding a bike.  America did not become a nation of walruses because we like to exercise.  But cars also drove out bikes (and pedestrians) for a more basic reason.  In a collision between a bicycle and an automobile, the car gets its paint scratched but the cyclist is dead.

A verse from a delightful Edwardian collection, Wretched Rhymes for Heartless Homes, provides contemporary evidence:

I ran over a tripper in my De Dion Bouton
Knocked him flatter than a kipper
Aussi mort qu’un mouton.
What a bother trippers are
Now I must repaint the car.

Cycling has made a significant comeback.  But the incompatibility of cars and bicycles remains a major obstacle.  It may be the primary reason most middle class, middle age people, even those who cycle for recreation, are reluctant to see the bicycle as an alternative to the car.  Bike trails and lanes are of course a help, but there aren’t many of them and most are oriented toward recreation, not commerce (There are exceptions, of course.  Boulder and Denver, Colorado come to mind).

Is there a way we could make streets, at least some of them, safe enough for bicycles so that ordinary people, not just the young and adventuresome, might ride them?  Here’s an idea.  We have had gasoline supply crises, both local and national, in the past, and we are likely to have more in the future.  A supply crisis means the filling stations have no gas to sell.  To prepare better for such situations, DOT could require all metropolitan areas over a certain size to develop a plan which would designate a grid of streets “Bicycles Only” during the gas shortage.  Only local residents and businesses would be exempt.   The grid should be dense enough to permit bicycle access to most points in the city.

Then to test the grid and make people aware of it before a crisis, the plan could be put into effect on some holidays.  Think of it as a type of civil defense drill.  Once people who do not normally cycle on streets do so while the plan is in effect, they may become comfortable with it.  Potentially, they might press their politicians for a better urban cycling network that would always be available, not just in drills or fuel crises.

I ran this idea past Joline Molitoris of Ohio DOT shortly after Columbus had experienced a local fuel crisis, and she loved it.  She said she would have used her bicycle for many trips if she had known she could ride safe from cars.  I suspect many other people would have the same reaction.

Conservatives are believers in Murphy’s Law.  If something can go wrong, it will.  Prudence, the highest conservative political virtue (see Russell Kirk’s book The Politics of Prudence), suggest we plan now for fuel supply crises that are almost certain to come.   The approach I have suggested would cost little.  Especially where transit vehicles will carry bicycles, it would create, in an emergency, at least some small facsimile of that earlier revolution in personal mobility.  For people who can’t drive because they can’t get gas, some mobility is likely to be better than none.


Even in the days of the original safety bicycles, they did not serve as primary transportation for the general public. Then as now bicycles were either utilitarian in nature (transporting goods to and from customers) or recreational. By the time that bicycles were cheap enough for everyone to afford the economy was seeing the advent of the private automobile.

What however concerns me most is the incessant need to “force” the idea of cycling down the throats of those who might not agree. Whenever I read about someone who has plans to dump all the cars into a sinkhole and cover them up I recoil in horror. That same person would probably do the same if someone suggested the same for bikes and their riders.

Why can’t we all just get along?