The position of the bicycle on American roads: An enlightening policy history

Duncan R. Jamieson
Ashland University

James Longhurst
Bike Battles: A history of sharing the American road
294 pages, paperback, ill.
Seattle: University of Washington Press 2017
ISBN 978-0-295-74266-3

Wheeled vehicles have been available in Western cultures for millennia and brought about the need for wider paths we know as roads or highways. These were open to all comers, to be shared equally. For centuries, it seems that a variety of conveyances shared these public roads, and while accidents, disputes over right of way and other disturbances took place, no one mode of transit dominated. Then, in the early nineteenth century Karl von Drais built a wheeled device in Germany that over a couple of generations morphed into what we know as the bicycle. Quiet and faster than many of the other road vehicles, it soon resulted in restrictions as to its status and where it belonged. Pedestrians complained they could not hear it approach which resulted in their being run down and injured. Teamsters complained it scared their horses, causing them to run amuck. Such accusations and complaints led to government controls on its use. Thus began government regulation that led, ultimately, to the road being the province of the automobile. James Longhurst, an avid cyclist and a policy historian, addresses three overarching questions in Bike Battles: one, how did the common road, free and open to all for millennia, come to be seen as the sole property of the automobile; two, what is the place of the bicycle in the United States (and to some extent Western Europe); and three, is the bicycle a child’s toy or an ecofriendly vehicle for today’s society?

When Longhurst (Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse) became more serious about bicycle commuting as a result of the higher gasoline prices in 2008, he first thought that motorists were out to get him, but soon he came to understand that while they might be the precipitating cause of his demise, the clash between cyclist and motorist is far more complicated. His book title refers to the conflict between road users and the government agencies and policy makers who oversee highways and byways and, more to the point, dictate who may and may not use them. An early example of such policy took place in late nineteenth century New York City which banned bicycles from its Central Park. Colonel Albert Augustus Pope, an early proponent of the bicycle and a leading manufacturer, invested a huge amount of time, money and legal talent to overturn the ruling and allow cyclists access to the park and its pleasures.

Undoubtedly before the late nineteenth century, conflicts arose between pedestrians, teamsters, hackneys, and horsemen (and horsewomen), but for our purposes the major conflict was between this new two (and sometimes three) wheeled vehicle and everyone else. Longhurst is right that those associated with horses resented the appearance of cyclists. To cite just two examples, in 1884 when Thomas Stevens reached western New York on his way to becoming the first to bicycle across the United States and then around the world, a woman teamster struck him across the face with her whip for startling her team. Around the same time in London, England, hackney drivers took umbrage with Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell as they began their tricycle pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Municipalities passed laws requiring cyclists to dismount and walk their wheels in the presence of a horse and rider, or at the least, as they approached to ask the rider if their horse feared cycles.

The introduction of the automobile only exacerbated an already difficult situation. A heavily loaded freight wagon outweighed the bicycle as did the automobile, but the wagon did not move as fast as the cycle. Automobiles quickly became several times faster than cycles, giving them the advantage in any automobilist-bicyclist encounter. To cite two examples from the interwar years, as the Danish cyclist Kai Thorenfeldt approached Montreal nearing the end of his around the world bicycle journey, a driver hit him from behind at thirty-five miles an hour. Fortunately, the only injury was to the bicycle, which the driver agreed to pay for. A decade later Jim and Elisabeth Young rode their tandem, “The Spirit of Fun,” from California to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the famous Civil War battle. On their way home a truck passed them too close in Wyoming, knocking them from their tandem. Though neither were seriously injured, Jim had multiple scrapes and bruises and Elisabeth was knocked unconscious. As the carnage continues today, scattered across the United States and around the world are hundreds of “Ghost Bicycles,” memorials to cyclists killed in automobile-bicycle accidents.

During the interwar years roads were being built or rebuilt solely for automobile use. Together this created an “us versus them” environment between the driver and the cyclist.

As a policy historian, Longhurst focuses on the government actions that directly impact bicycles and their riders. First and foremost, from a legal perspective, what is a bicycle? Specifically, is it a vehicle? If the answer is “yes,” then the government has the right to control its use. In 1879 several people reported Charles Taylor for riding his high wheel bicycle at a “furious rate of speed” over the English countryside. His solicitor argued that since the statute referred to vehicles it did not impact his client. The court disagreed, ruling the high wheel a vehicle. The decision crossed the Atlantic and resulted in numerous laws controlling or prohibiting the riding of bicycles on public roads. A shift came a decade later when the New York State legislature passed the Liberty Bill, which stated that neither park nor highway commissioners could discriminate again cyclists by banning their vehicles, a view taken by other states.

Given their status as vehicles, municipalities banished them from sidewalks. Because of the poor condition of the roadways, cyclists began organizing to build side paths for their exclusive use. The side path movement gained momentum in the 1890s as the “bicycle boom” took off, especially in the Northeastern United States. Built and maintained through user fees, the money slowed to a trickle once the “boom” subsided. Then the increasing number of automobilists took over the Good Roads Movement begun by the League of American Wheelmen. City and state governments began funding paved roads, which grew wider and consumed the side paths. As to the loss of side paths, many cyclists never completely embraced the concept, fearing it could lead to their banishment from the road. This divide continues today with some favoring the Rails to Trails movement[1] in the United States while others continue to assert their rights to the road.

The rapidly expanding use of the automobile in the United States led to a nationwide Uniform Vehicle Code which set out rules for the road. During the interwar years roads were being built or rebuilt solely for automobile use. Together this created an “us versus them” environment between the driver and the cyclist. At the same time, the bicycle’s status as a vehicle was being undermined as American society began viewing it as a child’s toy. Programs reinforced this attitude by inculcating the idea that the bicycle was simply a stepping stone to the all-important driver’s license.

During World War II the bicycle made a small comeback due to the need to conserve oil and steel, though European technology had far out-paced the Americans when it came to bicycles. When the Englishman Bernard Newman, who had ridden through every country in Europe, came to the United States he found little available except heavy, one speed balloon tire bicycles. This remained the sad state of affairs until the 1970s when once again the bicycle began making a comeback. As Longhurst notes, bike lanes and bike sharing programs are proliferating in American cities as planners are returning to the idea of the road as a commons, open and available to all.

Well written, chronologically organized with many period illustrations, Bike Battles is essential reading for all interested in the role this incredibly efficient and simple machine has played in the development of highway policy in the United States.

Copyright © Duncan R. Jamieson 2017

[1]rail trail is the conversion of a disused railway track into a multi-use path, typically for walking, cycling and sometimes horse riding and snowmobiling; (Editor’s note)
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