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Bicycles paved the way

I promised an article on cycling history and here it is. One of my motivations for this article was a comment from a reader that roads were “built for cars.” But before I get into that, let’s talk about the early history of cycling. Did you realize that the bicycle has only been around for about 250 years? Those films showing DaVinci on a bike – fiction. There is not a lot of certainty about who actually “invented” the bicycle, but the French “velocifere,” with rigidly mounted wheels that were incapable of being steered, was popular in Paris in the late 1700s with clubs formed and races run along the Champs Elysees. In 1817, Charles, Baron von Drais created a front wheel capable of being steered and added a padded saddle and armrest. He patented it under the name “velocipede.” In the U.S., W. K. Clarkson, Jr. of New York was granted a patent for a velocipede in 1819. Americans began to show an immense enthusiasm for the velocipede, but this was short-lived since these two-wheeled contraptions were quite heavy and cumbersome.

In 1869, the word “bicycle” came into use. At that time, lighter weight bicycles and tricycles using wire-spoked wheels, including “high wheelers” (like the Penny Farthing), were commonly seen, and bicycling popularity rose. Designs continued to improve, and by the end of the 19th century, 1 million bicycles per year were being produced. Not many automobiles were being produced at that time and those were expensive. The bicycle was, by contrast, an inexpensive form of individual transportation. The bicycle quickly became the ultimate “must-have” - most anyone could learn to ride and almost everyone did. The bicycle also became the symbol of the “New Woman,” who was independent, progressive and wanted a political voice. “I think bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” Susan B. Anthony said in an interview with the New York Sunday World in 1896.

This leads me to the nexus of roads and bikes. It was mainly cyclists, including the League of American Wheelmen, who first advocated for cities in the U.S. and Europe to pave their streets and build new roads. They advocated for paving roads to connect rural communities, where roads were dirt or gravel, muddy in the winter, and dusty in the summer and where travel by bicycle was slowed. By 1910, automobile lobbies such as the American Automobile Association joined the campaign, deemed the “Good Roads Movement.” After that, of course, the focus was on the automobile, travel by bike decreased, and the role of bicyclists in building our road network was forgotten. That is, until the 1960s when interest in cycling as a non-polluting, non-congesting and inexpensive means of transportation was rediscovered, along with an interest in bicycling as recreation, which resulted in a resurgence. In 1965, world production of cars and bikes was essentially the same, with each at nearly 20 million. Interestingly, as of 2003, bike production had climbed to over 100 million per year compared with 42 million cars. By 1970, cycling was the number one outdoor recreation for Americans.

During the pandemic, bicycle sales soared – after all this was the perfect socially-distanced activity. Bike sales are still going strong. A bike shop manager just this week told me he is taking orders for bikes out to 2023, with many desirable models not expected to be available until then due to the backlog. With the popularity of e-bikes for both green transportation and providing increased accessibility, this trend will probably continue and become part of our “new normal.” So it is time to figure out how all the road users can safely and effectively co-exist on our roads, where bicyclists paved the way.

Thoughts or questions about cycling in Sonoma County? Contact me at bridgettedeshields@sbcglobal.net.

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