As Europeans strive to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, cities across the continent are promoting cycling like never before. Yet, most American cities lag far behind. Why is that? It’s not simply that Americans love their cars more and need them to navigate a large nation. Bicycles were once the future of urban transportation, before motor vehicles of all kinds disastrously supplanted them. If properly incentivized by building bike-friendly infrastructure and increasing the costs of driving, we might feel that way about bicycles once again.
Starting in the 1860s, Americans developed a burning passion for bicycles. New England was initially the center of innovation for this incredibly popular product. Bikes were a critical step in the advancement of the American System of Manufacturing because they placed unique demands on mechanics, leading to major improvements in skills such as sheet metal stamping and electric resistance welding.
The national obsession with these two-wheeled wonders provided an extremely large customer base, as many Americans discovered a passion for speed. In the 1870s, amateur cycling clubs were established all over the country. American Bicycling Journal wrote in its inaugural issue that cyclists could, “benefit themselves and posterity morally, mentally, and physically, by sparing a portion of their time for healthful exercise in the open air, expanding their chests and their hearts.” Millions availed themselves of these benefits as the velocipeding craze swept the nation. Soon bicycle racing became the nation’s most popular sport, drawing larger crowds than baseball or horseracing.
In the 1880s, it was bicycle, not automobile, enthusiasts who started the clamor for improved roads in America. Due to reliance on waterways and railways, politicians had long ignored funding for road construction. General Roy Store, first director of the Bureau of Public Roads, argued the United States had the “worst roads in the civilized world, [which was] a crushing tax on the whole people.”
The League of American Wheelmen, a bicycling group, hoped to change that when they began the Good Roads Movement. Within a decade, several states had passed legislation to help fund construction of such roads. With more than a million bikes being manufactured every year by the end of the century, the future of this mode of transportation seemed bright.
Unfortunately, the age of the bicycle was short-lived. Early automobile manufacturers soon adopted key cycling technologies, and the roads that had been championed by wheelmen became clogged with cars in the 20th century. The middle class developed an early appetite for autos because of their speed and the romance of the open road, and it had the money to reject bicycles and streetcars in favor of these conveyances.
Over time it became clear that this transition had many costs. One negative outcome was the steady loss of human-scale cities, as cars took over every aspect of urban growth. Rather than maintain the compact, mixed-use development that had produced our vibrant early cities, the mass adoption of automobiles led to suburban and exurban sprawl. Twentieth century planners like New York's Robert Moses cared little for the communities that were devastated as highways came to crisscross the urban landscape. As the wealthy fled to exclusive suburban neighborhoods, the economic and social fabric of entire regions began to fray and collapse.
At the same time, as people walked and biked less, human health suffered. Even more significantly the environmental damage resulting from the adoption of motor vehicles was immense.
The climate crisis provides us with a reason to bring back our compact cities and restore our national love for the bicycle. And we can learn lessons from the very organizations and institutions that initially launched the bike’s popularity more than a century ago.
The Good Roads Movement was propelled by public sentiment, and it successfully petitioned for better road infrastructure. Today, there is an opportunity to create a modern-day lobby that will promote the bicycle. Many young Americans believe that we have allowed cars to dictate the shape of our urban lives far too much. In recent years, there has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the number of 16 year olds who seek a driver’s license. Half of young people between ages 22 and 37 say that car ownership is too expensive. Given that there are other mobility options available, such as ridesharing and car sharing services, the desire to purchase a car has diminished considerably.
This movement also showed that if the public demands space for bikes in cities, urban leaders will listen. Over the past two decades, city planners have been working diligently to undo Moses era mistakes and plan for a return to compact cities with investments in streetcar systems and bike lanes. Even in the suburbs, walkable and bikeable communities are increasingly a selling point.
Technological innovations in the bike sector must also continue to develop. In the late-nineteenth century, improvements in sheet metal stamping and electric resistance welding made bikes cheaper and more accessible. Today, the most exciting advances are in commuter bicycles, where dozens of companies are reshaping our perception of individual mobility with the introduction of cargo bikes that provide serious carrying capacity, foldable bikes that can be easily stored at work and home and family-friendly bikes that can transport kids about town. Perhaps most importantly, there are scores of electric bikes being produced that provide an assist to riders traveling long distances and/or over hilly terrain. Progress in cycling technology means that for the first time in more than a century, bikes are a real alternative to cars within compact urban environments.
To incentive a transition from cars to bikes, American cities should adopt the best practices of their European counterparts. To be clear, this will be a decades long process. We know this because in the friendliest cycling cities in the world, which had also been crazy for automobiles, that is how long it took to change attitudes and develop needed infrastructure.
In Copenhagen, where more than 60 percent of daily trips are made by bike, leaders began transitioning away from cars nearly a half century ago. They began by slowly but steadily increasing the costs of driving — mostly by raising automobile and gasoline taxes, but also by reducing parking availability —and using the revenues to create bike-friendly infrastructure, which includes miles of uninterrupted and separated cycling lanes, as well as dedicated bike tunnels, bridges and traffic lights. These “complete streets” and “cycling superhighways” evolved over time to reduce the space available for cars and also the speeds at which they could travel. As driving became more frustrating and cycling became more efficient, the number of daily trips made by bike increased significantly.
While rekindling Americans love for the bicycle may seem far-fetched today, gradual policy changes, along with a return to human-scale urban design, would make this revival possible over the longer term. The embrace of the automobile at the expense of the bicycle shows that such a transition is possible: if Americans come to believe that a different mode of transportation will improve their lives, they have proven willing to junk a widespread, popular method.
And the case can already be made for the bicycle over the automobile: they’re better for the planet, our health and our cities, and speeding around on two-wheels can provide a profound sense of joy and social connection. While it will take many years to change cultural attitudes and build the needed infrastructure, there is ample evidence that young Americans are ready for policymakers to help the nation revive its past love for cycling.