Mainstreaming Bicycles

January 3, 2011 by
Filed under: Car Stop 

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.


39 Responses to “Mainstreaming Bicycles”

  1. Ken Dezhnev says:

    “The incompatibility of cars and bicycles” isn’t the only major obstacle. No less fundamental is the incompatibiity of bicycles and pedestrians, which should be manifest to anyone who has spent much time walking in a bicycle-heavy city like New York.

    The incompatibility is physical, as with the automobile: In cities, bicycles run on the sidewalks as much as on the roads, and in either case, unlike automobiles, they give no audible warning of their approach. That means they are a constant source of both danger and anxiety to pedestrians. In the case of a collision, the cyclist, like the automobile, can speed off. Unlike the automobile, the cyclist cannot be held to accountability by a license plate number.

    The anxiety is justified, because the incompatibiity is ideological as well as physical, as can be seen by anyone who has read much of the talk of of urban cyclng advocates. Dedicated urban cyclists can be aggressive both verbally and physically.

    In the Minneapolis area, where now live, I’ve seen cyclists aggressively making clear their dislike of pedestrians even in the suburbs. (This was in the wake of a period when cyclists in Minneapolis were banding together to deliberately block city streets.)

    Cycling isn’t going to work as a transportation alternative without a major legal and social readjustment that effectively holds cyclists accountable for dangerous driving and aggressively obnoxious behavior. And every tiniest element of those readjustments will be fought vigorously by cycling advocates, who are accustomed to getting at least half of whatever they ask for from New-Age urban governments.

    In other words, until metropolitan areas have (paleo) conservative governments, who will neither pander to noisy pressure groups nor sell the streets to the highest corporate bidder, cycling is not going to be a serious transportation alternative. That’s going to be a while, and in the meantime there are more urgent things to attend to.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Don Ahern. Don Ahern said: Mainstreaming Bicycles: It started about two decades before Henry Ford's first Model T, and it was based on a co… […]

  3. […] Mainstreaming BicyclesAmerican Conservative MagazineIt 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. … […]

  4. […] Mainstreaming BicyclesAmerican Conservative MagazineIt 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. … […]

  5. […] Lind: Bikes Could Prove Critical in Times of Emergency (American Conservative) […]

  6. Shannon T says:

    Sounds a lot like the “ciclovia” concept that many cities have been striving towards, but more functional. NYC’s Summer Streets, SF’s Sunday Streets, CicLAvia in Los Angeles, etc – close the roads on a Sunday to allow safe biking, walking, rollerblading, whatever, and help people feel more comfortable getting around under their own power.

    As a daily cyclist who most of the time feels comfortable with the risks of riding with cars, I further think there are incredible safety improvements to be made by getting more people who drive to experience what it’s like to ride a bike down the street. I frequently get buzzed by drivers who I’m pretty sure don’t want to kill me, but just don’t understand how scary it is to get passed closely (and how frustrating when the left lane is wide open!!). We definitely have some cyclist education needs as well, I hate seeing folks ride on the sidewalk or the wrong way down the street, but driving a car or truck is a privilege and I think drivers need to take more responsibility for driving in a way that does not endanger the lives of others on the street.

    Finally, re: pedestrian/bike conflicts – I ride a bike and I walk places in a major U.S. city, and rarely feel threatened by people on bikes when I am walking. There are rude people for sure, on bikes and in cars and walking too. But not every person on a bike is out for pedestrian blood, and honestly if I crashed into a pedestrian at 8mph or faster I would not expect to just ride away – falling off a bike hurts a lot, especially on pavement! Rude/dangerous behavior is inexcusable whether the perpetrator is cycling, walking, driving, or doing cartwheels, and we definitely need to hold people accountable for it, but not over-generalize.

  7. […] to make it clear that active transportation isn’t just for hippie liberals. There are serious conservative arguments to be made for keeping federal support for these programs. Let’s resolve to make […]

  8. Al says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that far more pedestrians on sidewalks are injured or killed by cars than by bicycles. If pedestrian injuries rule out cycling as a major form of transport, surely it would rule out cars too…

    Also worth considering is that if people are riding bicycles on the sidewalk, it’s probably because they feel endangered on the street. Where it’s safe and convenient to ride in the street, no one rides on the sidewalk.

  9. I’ve often thoughthat if more businesses had showers available, lockers, and a spot to park the bike, perhaps a small percentage of workers would bike to work. I know I would prefer it, since I like to bike 17 klicks/10 miles a day whenever possible. I can not run with my knes, but I can bike and swim with the best of them.

  10. Chad Rushing says:

    This article omits three major disincentives for using bicycles rather than cars for every day use. The first is that bicycles have no reasonable space for transporting other people or purchased goods effectively. It would be impossible for most people to carry home a week’s worth of groceries on a bicycle or take their entire family out to dinner at a restaurant.

    Second, there is the matter of braving the elements. Wind, precipitation, winter cold, and summer heat are rendered largely irrelevant by the climate controls available inside most air-tight automobiles which not even the greatest bicycle in the world will have. Who wants to show up at a job interview (or date) drenched in sweat or risk hypothermia from riding a bicycle in freezing rain?

    Lastly, it would not fesible to travel by bicycle the long distances required in large, pre-existing cities such as Greater Dallas area where one is expected to zoom from place to place at 60-70mph on six or eight lane highways and tollways. A trip that normally takes thirty minutes in a car would end up taking half of the day on a bicycle, and most people value their time far more than that.

  11. Matt says:

    I think it’s safe to say that a form of transportation that requires you to exert a lot of effort isn’t going to catch on. Bikes will remain a niche, and can be expanded somewhat, but unless you include mopeds most people just aren’t interested. Hit the gas and go, you know?

  12. Bob Wise says:

    Congratulations on a radically conservative proposal! I have a habit of putting the word “conservative” in quotes, because most of the people espousing this label don’t seem to be conserving anything. Not so this author! It’s a simple, potentially effective idea that could be easily put into practice.

  13. […] U.S. has become “a nation of walruses” and needs to make streets safe enough for bicycles, says The American Conservative Center […]

  14. KJMClark says:

    WRT Chad’s three omitted disincentives – there’s this amazing technology called a “bike trailer” that permits one to carry a week’s worth of groceries with a bicycle. There are also saddle-bags, or panniers, that let you carry everything you need on a daily commute. The cargo issue isn’t relevant until you’re talking about a pickup-truck load, though I’ve carried 8′ 4x4s in my bike trailer, and there are much bigger trailers available.

    WRT the elements, it’s a lot easier to dress for the weather than Chad seems to think. If you have the gear to walk out in the elements, you have most of the gear to bike in them as well.

    Distances, on the other hand, *are* a real problem. But if there were a “fuel crisis”, like the author discusses, you’d better come up with some solution to those long distances, since you certainly aren’t going to be walking them. And I’d rather not subsidize other people’s long commutes or move to rationing in that situation, thank you very much.

  15. […] not all conservatives have their heads so far up their own butts are anti-bike; a writer for the American Conservative suggests a creating network of Bike Only Streets to prepare for projected fuel […]

  16. David F Collins says:

    I wish to add two more disincentives, both winter-related. (I live in Chicago.)

    TIRES. On snow & ice covered streets, bicycling is dangerous. Lateral resistance to tire movement is similar to fore-&-aft resistance; simply turning a corner or braking, even gently, can result in a spill. In traffic, this can be fatal. QUESTION: How about studded bicycle tires?

    ELECTRO-GALVANIC CORROSION. We learned of the electro-potential series in high school chemistry. A bicycle has (a) an aluminum rim, connected to (b) a steel spoke by a (c) brass [copper-zinc alloy] nipples. A bike store owner once expressed puzzlement as to why bicycle messenger’s spokes always broke near the rim! No wonder! Could one get rims, spokes & nipples all of steel? Grease would make wheel building no big wow.

    Although modern sealing will work wonders, a duly winterized bicycle would still need regular cleaning, oiling, etc. And for starters, such as in the event of a fuel shortage in winter, daily washing and oiling, plus a (hopefully) limited duration of such a fuel shortage, would adequately minimize the electro-galvanic corrosion.

  17. John says:

    “Distances, on the other hand, *are* a real problem. ”

    These distances are a direct result of designing everything around a private cars-only model, which requires a lot more land. Because you have to widen roads and put parking everywhere things need to be farther apart.

  18. Some people will ride a bike to the train station or to a near by job, but biking in from from the suburbs is a fantasy. This is a big country. Things that work in the Netherlands just aren’t practical in Kansas.

    I do think that power assisted bikes or scooters would catch on if circumstances were bad enough. Sales of scooters do go up during gas shortages. The new three wheel scooters and cars might find more exceptance over the old Vespa type scooter.

  19. BPayne says:

    The original premise of this article seemed to be the utility of the combination of bikes and streetcars. WRT to the long distances being a disadvantage, this is where the streetcars, or their modern day equivalent – light rail – comes in. I live 50 miles from my job, and with a combination of bus, train, light rail and bike I get to work just fine without any personal fossil fuel inputs. And i’m in my sixties and ride an upright style old folks bike. The bike provides the connection between the other modes of transport in 3 easy 1 mile segments that include both street and bike trail riding. It does take about 2 hours more commuting time, but the two hours of train riding can be spent productively rather than staring at the bumper of the car ahead. And on Thursday and Friday nights, the trip home in a car takes about the same amount of time.

    Anyone who throws up a bunch of reasons for not doing something needs to try it first and give it a fair evaluation before discarding it out of hand.

  20. Gerald T. Carter says:

    Was this essay facetious?

    If return to the bicycle is a conservative idea (LOL, you can bet they’d be made in China) then it has taken 50 years to discover that I’m not actually a conservative.

  21. Dave Lea says:

    Just one thing to add to this admirable discussion. Light rail systems may have suffered some set backs by government “regulation and taxation” but their biggest nemesis was General Motors. In 1948 they were convicted in federal court of buying up and then destroying light rail and trolley systems all over the country in order to “incentivise” the public to purchase private transportation.

    Incidentally, they were fined $10,000! Wow, that must have hurt!

  22. Gerald says:

    BPayne hit the nail, regarding the long distance “problem”, although his commute is a bit crazier than most people’s would have to be (particularly considering the 50 mile distance between his home and work). Most people could use a bike with a combination of bus OR train OR light rail, rather than all three. It might or might not take much longer than driving, but chances are it would be cheaper. And it certainly would help in the case of even a moderate fuel crisis!

    I wholeheartedly agree that people need to try this, before they knock it. My bet is most would find it much more reasonable than their knee-jerk suspicions would predict.

  23. Paul says:

    The reason bicyclists ride on sidewalks is to avoid inattentive drivers or drivers who resent a bicycle on “their” roads at all. As far as hitting pedestrians, that might be a problem if I ever saw any. In my neighborhood, hardly anyone uses the sidewalk, which makes it a safe alternative to risking my life on the street.

    As for the notion that one can’t carry a week’s worth of groceries on a bike, first of all that’s not true. I can easily carry 40 or more pounds of food with my basket and twin panniers. Besides, where does anyone get the notion that a bike is required to carry “a week’s worth of groceries”? I ride to the grocery store every two or three days, buying moderate amounts of fruits and vegetables each time. The exercise is good for me. The food is always fresher. And my car can stay in the garage–one reason I haven’t had any auto repair bills this year.

  24. John says:

    One reason Americans are overweight compared to Europeans is that we drive everywhere. The simple act of walking or riding a bicycle can do a lot to trim off excess pounds.

  25. […] Interesting article on the history of the bicycle being used as transportation and an idea of how it can be brought back with “civil defense drills”.   Interested?  Check it out […]

  26. Dylan says:

    Nice article.

    The bicycle appeals to a lot of conservative values: self-reliance, economy, individualism, American tradition.

    I wish we took bicycles more seriously as a transportation mode. I would like to ride more, but there are so few places with legitimate space for bicycles on roads that I don’t feel safe (or welcome) doing so.

    More choices in personal transportation = greater freedom.

  27. John Laidlaw says:

    As a “vehicular cyclist” – just a dumb driver who uses his bike as if it were his car (and vice-versa) – I’ve been on our streets and country roads for – well, it’s just coming up on 57 years, now.
    While I have no difficulty in fitting in with motor traffic – no matter what city – I do understand the reluctance of many – even those far fitter than myself – to get out there, and “do battle”.
    It does take nerve, and sometimes the hide of a rhinoceros (and attitude) to succeed. However, in general, it is not too difficult, and it has certainly improved, over the last decade or so, in terms of the attitudes of local drivers. A scheme of streets designated cycle routes in times of fuel shortage would make sense, and might well – particularly if practiced, like the old air-raid drills of my youth – help more to become regular cyclists.
    I do take issue with the first commenter, Ken Dezhnev, about the risks of cycling with pedestrians. Primarily, my issue is with the assumption that the cyclist will switch between “driver” and “pedestrian” mode irresponsibly. The cyclist (if properly trained – and that is a real problem) should understand that, on his bike he IS a “driver” – that he assumes all the Duties and Responsibilities of a Driver, and will thus reap the Privileges – that our “rights” to use a road are limited by the rights of all the other road-users – and that includes the pedestrians on the side-walk. Incidentally, that was put there, not for the cyclist’s benefit, but exclusively for the pedestrian’s, to keep his clothing out of the mire of the (then un-paved) street, and incidentally, to keep the pedestrian out of the way of the wheeled road traffic (including the cyclist). Thus, jumping on to the sidewalk is actually an infringement of the pedestrian’s rights, rather than the exercise of mine, as a cyclist.

  28. Paul says:

    I have nothing against people who want to ride bicycles to work, whether alone or in combination with a streetcar, etc.; when one lives close enough to work, or to a station, for this to be feasible, it is certainly pleasant. When the weather is pleasant, and so on. I will say, though, that those who argue as if no important advantages are given up with a bicycle are either (a) very atypical, since most people would disagree, or (b) only give up these advantages when they feel like doing so, and don’t think about the matter deeply.

    The sad truth is that none of the three modes of individual transport discussed here — foot, bicycle, and car — are compatible on the same roadway when traveling at their respective optimal speeds. The exceptions are very low-traffic roadways (such as rural routes) and very low-speed roadways (as in residential neighborhoods and very small towns). The cycling advocates above correctly note that bicycles cannot and should not be ridden at otherwise reasonable speeds on sidewalks. Similarly, since their capacity to accelerate and decelerate, as well as their general visibility, are deeply incompatible with motor vehicles, bicycles are not appropriate for well-traveled motor-vehicle roads. An ideal solution would be the construction of dense and separate networks of foot trails, bike trails, and motor roads, with due consideration taken to matters of intersection, overpass, etc. Unfortunately, construction of infrastructure sufficiently dense to make all three modes equally useful would be very expensive. Wisely or unwisely, most local governments have decided not to incur this expense. Because the motor vehicle, in the judgment of the American masses, offers the best-available combination of utility, comfort, and expense for individual transportation, most governments concentrate on the construction of motor roads. To satisfy small but vocal constituencies for the other modes, they typically impose an unsatisfactory and dangerous pretense that bicycle traffic on major motor-vehicle roads is feasible. They can do this because bicyclists dedicated enough to ride motor-vehicle roads are generally rare. Were they very common, the practical costs involved would be more apparent.

    I, too, have lived in Europe, specifically in rural Bavaria. Bicycle trailers were a rare sight — rarer than walkers pulling wagons, which was itself unusual. Significant loads (beyond a couple of grocery bags) were usually transported by motor vehicle. To travel outside the village, people took the government-subsidized train, which ran right through town (just behind my home). I myself took this train sometimes, even to work (as it also stopped less than a mile from my office). In the rain and snow, I was much less apt to do this. That aside, the train did not carry enough passengers to support itself — this was obvious even to the casual observer. “Trunk” lines, and city trains, seemed to do so, but those were far away. For the US, I find it extremely improbable that any feasible public-transportation infrastructure would ease the need for individual transport sufficiently to render the country similar to Germany. We are just too spread out.

    It may be observed that this is due to a past history of government susidization of motor-vehicle roadways. This is probably true. But how much should we expend in the way of new government subsidies to forcibly alter the now-settled patterns of life of the population? Is that conservative? One might argue that a more humane life is available in more concentrated communities not enslaved by the automobile. Personally, I am inclined to agree. If individuals were to voluntarily found such a community, I might well go to live within it. But I cannot agree with what seems to be suggested here — making everyone go to live within it by fiat. Perhaps putting the federal capital in the District of Columbia, and laying it out as it was laid out, was a terrible idea which has had very negative effects on Maryland, northern Virginia, southern Pennsylvania, and Delaware. (No arguments here.) This doesn’t mean that I would think it wise to relocate the capital to Independence, Kansas.

  29. Rodney says:

    I have been an active commuting and utility cyclist for the over past three years. With the use of a child trailer and a flatbed trailer, I am able to transport my family around town with the utmost of ease. My wife and I use the flatbed to haul the dog to the dog park in his crate.

    Try it before you knock it is the most golden advice I can offer. Still hesitant to try? Many cycling blogs have mentor programs to help get you started. Not sure about handling your bicycle in the street? Take a bicycle education course.

    Many, if not all, of our students have ridden away much more competent, confident, and empowered bicycle driver after completion of this course.

  30. Thanks for posting this article. I am definitely tired of struggling to find relevant and intelligent commentary on this subject. Everyone nowadays goes to the very far extremes to either drive home their viewpoint of that everybody else in the globe is wrong. Thanks for your consise and relevant insight.

  31. […] You can read a little more about Lind’s thoughts on “Mainstreaming Bikes” at his American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. […]

  32. […] William Lind published this in January 2011 over at The American Conservative website in an article describing the politically conservative aspects of bicycles for transportation. Lind reminds us, for example: Had [Henry] Ford been required to build and […]

  33. In many European countries due to high tariffs on utility services, many citizens are already using solar energy, thus saving a lot of money

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