By Evan Friss
The bicycle first appeared in American cities 201 years ago. Americans first began worrying about how bicycles would ruin their cities 201 years ago. In the intervening years, those fears have shifted but never disappeared. What’s so scary about these relatively simple, two-wheeled devices? What’s so scary about the people riding them? The answers, of course, vary based on place, time, and perspective, but there have always been answers. The bicycle, despite its relatively small presence in the United States, so often found itself at the center of controversy. Serving multiple purposes and with multiple identities, the bicycle and the cyclist have prompted Americans to reconsider their notions about transportation and mobility, to reevaluate the infrastructure and layout of our cities, and to reconsider the relationship—real, possible, and imagined—between how we move and how we live.
In the early nineteenth century, when pre-bicycle bicycles arrived in East Coast cities (without pedals, riders moved by pushing off the ground like today’s toddlers do on balance bikes), pedestrians thought them dangerous, the elite thought them silly, and lawmakers banned them from popular riding spots. During the velocipede craze of the late 1860s and the high-wheeler era that followed, it was primarily carriage owners who complained that the streets were not built for bikes and that the parks were meant for people, horses, and peace and quiet—not bicycles that traveled too fast, spooked horses, and ruined the tranquility. Cyclists simply didn’t belong.
By the 1890s and as the modern bicycle design was popularized, cycling was celebrated by an increasing number of riders and city leaders as a salve to urban ills. Bicycles could, they cheered, replace manure-dropping horses and polluting trains, shrink the city, and afford new social opportunities. Cycling was itself widely perceived as healthy, namely because it gave people a way to escape the city, even if for a few hours.
But bicycles would soon fall out of favor, just as bicycles began to occupy a more visible place in the city (new bike paths and lanes and new traffic laws) and just as the cycling community was becoming more inclusive. Bicycle prices dropped steadily throughout the 1890s, making the promise of affordable private transportation closer to reality. Women, embracing the bicycle as a means of freedom and emancipation (or just a fun way to get around) rode in increasing numbers. When the ranks of cyclists diversified, the elites stopped riding. Soon, so did everyone else.
Cars wouldn’t be popular for another two decades, but once automobiles arrived, they would dominate the city forever after. In most cities and for many decades, that meant affording little to no space on the streets to bicycles. No bike paths and no bike lanes. One rare, and notable, proponent of the bike path was Robert Moses. Yes, that Robert Moses. In 1938 he proposed one of the most ambitious (on a relative basis anyway) bicycle infrastructure plans of all time: 58.75 -miles of new paths. By its own generous count, the City of New York contained just 5.5 miles of paths at the time.
But the plan’s true beneficiary was not to be the cyclist. As Moses wrote in his Program of Proposed Facilities for Bicycling, bicycles are “a hazard to motorists.” Cyclists were dangerous obstacles to drivers who expected spacious avenues, boulevards, and parkways to unfurl in front of them. Bicycles were playthings (mostly for children) that belonged in playgrounds and on recreational, twisting paths. They did not belong on the streets.
Moses’s plan included new paths in each of the five boroughs. The program, to be funded by Works Progress Administration dollars (see figures above and below), was mostly unrealized as New Deal monies soon dried up. New York City Department of Parks, Program of Proposed Facilities for Bicycling (New York, 1938).
In the 1980s, there were even more examples illustrating how cyclists didn’t belong in cities. Serious recreationalists (some fell under the derisive category of “yuppy”) were expected to drive out of the city with bike racks atop their Volvos to find suitable riding country. Some of those that rode were cast as gentrifiers. In Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing (my personal favorite in the Lee canon), it’s a clumsy white man with a bike who represents those who don’t belong in Bed-Stuy.
At the same time, commercial cyclists, better known as messengers, became more visible and more critical to the industries—banks, publishing houses, modeling agencies, architecture firms—they served. Teenagers around the country dreamed of becoming one (think of the 1986 film “Quicksilver,” which might be Kevin Bacon’s least favorite film in the Kevin Bacon canon). But most adults living in American cities didn’t think so highly of the messengers. In fact, the messengers were largely unwelcomed—on the streets, in the corporate offices from which they shuttled documents and parcels, and in the city as a whole. So much so that New York’s colorful mayor, Ed Koch, even tried to ban them from the heart of Manhattan.
In the twenty-first century, American cities witnessed another bicycle renaissance—bike sharing, more bike lanes, and more cyclists. Newly attuned to the dangers of climate change and with swelling urban populations and snarling automobile traffic (recently exacerbated by the popularity of rideshare), certain city leaders proposed that the bicycle could play a role in solving these crises. What followed in New York, San Francisco, and countless cities in between was a “bikelash.” Critics came from the left and the right. Some pilloried the bicycle and its users and advocates as a group of car-hating liberals “intent on foisting its bipedalist views on a disinterested or actively reluctant populace.” Others blamed cyclists for “hyper-gentrification,” and saw bike lanes as vile “green veins that stream gentrifiers into low-income neighborhoods.”
The notion that bicycles and bicyclists don’t belong—on the streets, in this or that neighborhood, here or there—is a near permanent phenomenon. Bicycles have long been seen as invaders, occupying foreign territory, and cyclists as symbols of unwelcome change, whether disrupting the serenity of nineteenth-century urban parks, taking up valuable space on twentieth-century auto-centric streets, or symbolizing the hipsterization of twenty-first century communities. All the more remarkable is that this symbol of change, the bicycle, has in fact changed remarkably little and has been around for more than two centuries. It has had, despite all the fits and starts, staying power, and continues to appeal to a slice of city dwellers and to fulfill an array of needs—commuting and commerce, exercise and play, and, in the age of coronavirus, a perceived safer alternative to mass transit. The bicycle’s versatility is why it has persisted so long, but it is also why critics have feared it for so long.
Evan Friss is an associate professor of history at James Madison University and the author of two books: On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York City (Columbia University Press, 2019) and The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s (University of Chicago Press, 2015). He was also the guest curator of “Cycling in the City,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.
Featured image (at top): Street types of New York City: Messenger boy and bike, c. 1896, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
 New York City Department of Parks, Program of Proposed Facilities for Bicycling (New York, 1938).
 John Cassidy, “Battle of the Bike Lanes,” New Yorker, March 8, 2011, https://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/battle-of-the-bike-lanes.
 Jeremiah Moss, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 324.