Jody Rosen is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a bike nut who has just published a rousing new book called Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle. Today, he takes us on a rollicking ride through the two-wheeled revolution, revealing the surprising ways that bicycles have shaped the world in which we live. Listen to his appearance on the Next Big Idea podcast below, or read a few key highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for behind-the-scenes looks into the show.
The bicycle was only invented in the 19th century. Why did it take so long?
Rufus Griscom: You point out that we had the technology to build bikes hundreds of years before the bicycle was actually invented. The steam engine was actually invented before the first bicycle. Why on Earth did it take so long?
Jody Rosen: It honestly is a great mystery. Humans had both the parts and, in some sense, the knowledge to create this thing, but it was a matter of fate and fancy aligning to bring us the bicycle itself. The crucial insight was to line up one wheel in front of the other, as opposed to putting them on either side of an axle. There’s no good reason why someone shouldn’t have come up with this sooner, but it took one man’s eureka moment to bring us the actual bicycle, or the proto-bicycle.
Rufus: And that man was Karl von Drais, who invented the first proto-bicycle in 1817.
How the bicycle created a moral panic.
Rufus: By the 1890s there was bicycle mania around the world. People were going nuts for bicycles. Can you describe what bicycle mania looked like?
Jody: The bicycle produced nothing short of moral panic akin to those that have accompanied such things as the advent of jazz, rock ’n’ roll, or hip-hop. If the bicycle in its various iterations prior to the 1890s was a fad, like a hula-hoop or a pet rock, when the bicycle hit the 1890s, it was kind of like the internet has hit our era. It was a completely transformative technology.
“It was thought to be a short step from riding a bicycle to literally becoming a prostitute.”
Suddenly, you had this thing that was efficient and safe—a means of personal mobility that was available to millions, not just the wealthy. Prior to the 1890s, if you wanted to move around fast over land, you had to have money in order to have your own horse or or hire a hackney cab. If you’re in a city, most people moved around on foot. Well, suddenly more or less everybody had a bicycle available to them, and this ran across class lines, and it ran across gender lines. Middle-class Anglo-American women, whose personal mobility was very circumscribed prior to this point, suddenly had a means of personal mobility that could get them wherever they wanted to go—unchaperoned. This was perceived as a great threat to the social order, so you had people decrying the bike as a threat to the nuclear family, causing divorces. It was turning children out into the streets. It was thought to be a short step from riding a bicycle to literally becoming a prostitute.
Moralists of all kinds were decrying bikes on just about every possible grounds, including that they were ruining every other possible business. It was thought that people weren’t going to smoke cigars anymore, or go to bars or libraries, or attend church because they were too busy riding bicycles.
There are more working cargo bikes in the world than there are cargo ships, trains, trucks, and planes.
Jody: In the West we think about the bicycle as a lifestyle choice. It can be a leisure device. It can be something you exercise on, maybe a utilitarian vehicle to commute here and there. But in much of the world, the bicycle is defined by labor. There are literally tens of millions of people who make their living peddling around stuff. These are often on three-wheel pedal-driven devices, kind of like tricycles. You find these all over the Global South in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. There was a recent study of cargo cycling in China, which concluded that there are between 40 and 60 million working cargo tricycles in China alone. That number exceeds, by many times, the total number of cargo vehicles everywhere else in the world. That is to say, if you add up all the cargo ships, trains, trucks, and planes, that number doesn’t even come close to the 40 to 60 million cargo tricycles that are schlepping around raw materials in China, to say nothing of the various other kinds of [pedal-driven] cargo vehicles that exist in many other places in the world—including the human cargo vehicle, as it were, which is the pedal-driven rickshaw, the taxi cab in many of the megacities of the Global South.
“There are literally tens of millions of people who make their living peddling around stuff.”
What would it take to turn New York City into a mecca for bike riders?
Rufus: When you look at the data, there’s been a huge increase in bicycle usage in New York City to over half-a-million bike trips per day. So there’s progress, but there’s still a long way to go. What do you see as the future? I mean, there’s potential in New York to create Copenhagen on a larger scale. We have 10 times the population of Copenhagen. It’s a flat city. It’s dense. We should be able to bike everywhere with the right infrastructure.
Jody: 100 percent. It’s really a matter of political will.
If we want a Copenhagen-like environment, you need to have very little parking in the city, and that’s what’s going to take political will. The smart people whose work I’ve looked at say the way to make cities healthier, saner, more habitable places is to have a lot more bikes and other alternative transportations, and a lot fewer cars. Full stop. How do you do that? You make it incredibly inconvenient to have a passenger car in the city.
If you get rid of parking altogether, suddenly the situation becomes a lot better. That’s what they’ve done in lots of places in Northern Europe. In Oslo, for instance, they simply got rid of parking spaces. You don’t have to say cars are banned, which would be a very politically controversial proposal to get passed. You start doing things piecemeal, hopefully systematically.
“A city that’s less hospitable to cars and more hospitable to bicycles is a safer city for people of color and low-income people.”
Another example we can look to is what’s going on in Paris now under Mayor Anne Hidalgo. She is a zealous cycling advocate, and she took the opportunity of the pandemic—and this has happened in cities around the world, where a lot of infrastructure went up on the fly because people needed a safe, socially-distanced way to commute. Suddenly, there was this huge pandemic-era bike boom. Smart policymakers and municipal leaders around the world threw up temporary bike lanes, and then made them permanent. Anne Hidalgo is basically saying that they are banning cars and through traffic by motor vehicles in a lot of the central arrondissement in Paris. Yes, it’s controversial, but people over there are discovering, “Wow, it’s pretty nice here with many fewer cars and a lot more bikes.”
Now, of course, there are tons of issues that arise around this, including issues of class and race. Bicycle advocates need to do a much better job around those issues. We don’t want to make these cities that are just for rich people with bikes. They don’t have to be that way. Studies show that like the biggest victims of unsafe streets, by far, are people of color. A city that’s less hospitable to cars and more hospitable to bicycles is a safer city for people of color and low-income people.
Rufus: I saw a proposal to build a series of narrow suspension bridges just for pedestrians and bicycles that would arc from Lower Manhattan to Governors Island and Brooklyn and New Jersey. To me that looks like a bike-topia.
Jody: I’ve seen some of those plans, too. The idea that you could bike across these waterways is very seductive. That vision of suspension bridges jumping over the East River? I mean, we have suspension bridges that jump over the East River, but ones that are purely for pedestrians and bicycles? Wow. I hope I live so long.
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