Monday, September 20, 2010

The Bicycle - Whence & Whither

When I was a child growing up in the 1950's, most kids had bikes. Boys more than girls, I suppose, but any child who wanted one could get one. I got my first bike for my 8th birthday, a great big wide-wheeled green monster with a beeping horn, bell, front and rear fenders, a riding platform on the rear, and a spring suspension on the front wheel. It was pretty heavy. We lived in the suburbs of a small Northern California town, Napa, and typically we were allowed to ride around in the neighborhood without supervision from a very early age, and by the time I was 10 I was riding all over town on weekends or during the Summer. When I was 11, I took a job as a paper-delivery-boy, 110 papers seven days a week, roll-em up and pedal around an eight block area. That lasted four years, and by the time I gave it up, I was already in high school. That was my first real job, and it taught me a certain application and duty from an early age. I think in some respects it might have been better if I had spent a little more time socializing and traveling in those years, but we were so poor we could hardly have afforded much real recreation. It was both a way of earning an allowance, and of getting good regular exercise. My heavily-muscled thighs testify to that. In those days, the narrower-wheeled "Schwinn" bikes were a novelty; eventually the wider-wheeled bikes would disappear entirely, only to be "re-introduced" as "trail bikes" and "off-road" wheelers later. Today, there are many variations, even fold-up versions which commuters can carry onto trains or busses.  
I mention this because bicycling seems more and more to be at issue today. When I was a boy, grown-ups didn't generally ride bicycles. In America, bicycles were for kids. Almost no one rode bikes competitively, or as a sophisticated recreation, the way they do today. People didn't commute on bikes. Bike racks were confined to school-yards. If you'd suggested to either of my parents that they ride a bike, they'd have thought you were nuts. 

But today, bicycling is growing in popularity, for a number of reasons. Automobiles have never been cheap, and the price of operating a four-wheeled vehicle is becoming comparatively inconvenient, especially in (bigger) cities--not least because of the cost and inconvenience of storage and temporary (or longer term) parking. 
Eastern Seabord cities weren't originally laid out for motorized vehicular traffic lanes, but have had to be adapted. In the Midwest and West, most towns and cities grew up during the advent of cars and busses, as well as rail, and hence are in fact designed primarily for automobiles. With the rise of two-wheeled vehicle use, natural conflicts of access and right-of-way have begun to occur. In California where we live, they've begun to create "bike lanes" between the automobile lanes and sidewalks. This has put additional pressure on parking. 
In principle most people favor bicycling as an alternative to automobile usage, since it's cheaper, healthier, cleaner, and lest wasteful. In Europe and part of the Third World, bicycles are much more ubiquitous. You can see the consequences of widely expanded bicycle use in places like India and China, where the streets are clogged with them. In cities where this occurs, major safety and congestion issues have developed. I'm not sure why it should be, but bicycling seems to encourage a flagrantly cavalier attitude towards rules of the road. 
When I was a kid, most people didn't get their bikes licensed, and laws governing usage were typically ignored. Today, in California, helmets are required by law, something we would have thought quite unnecessary in the 1950's. But today, bicycle riding is serious business. 
Though as I say public opinion is generally in favor of encouraging cycling, there are a number of problems associated with their increased usage, and they're only going to get worse. Controversy has heated up over the last few years in West Coast cities, involving militant advocates of expanded bicycling lanes and bike parking. In cities where parking has already become quite difficult, further restrictions on automobile access and parking are regarded by the business community with a raised eyebrow. 

American cities have been designed to accommodate movement primarily through automobile usage. The American suburb paradigm was posited on the prevalence of the car. Attempts to force people out of their cars, and into public transportation or onto the streets, on foot, have been largely unsuccessful. Inner city planning has misapprehended the European pedestrian model, creating downtown wastelands in some cases, where no one but bums and delinquents go to loiter or kill time. The mercantile core of our cities was not helped by the design initiatives intended to "revitalize" our cities by forcing cars away from the city centres. 
If anyone thought seriously about the actual effect that widespread adoption of the bicycle in American cities might have, enthusiasm about the bike might be muted. Bicycles and automobiles sharing the same street is a recipe for problems. The more bicycles there are per block, the more dangerous things generally become. On a typical day, one may encounter a half dozen bicycles pedaling along the right-hand edge of the road. Imagine what it might be like if that number were to increase a hundred-fold. Navigation by bicycle is typically less controlled laterally than with cars, and when several bikes are lined up, they can effectively take over a lane. Then there's the matter of safety. For each additional bike on the road, the stakes go up. Many bikers seem to regard their unfettered right of way as a cardinal virtue, mocking or sneering at traffic, violating every principle of courtesy and every rule of the road. Most laws governing bicycle use are designed to protect the biker, who is nakedly exposed to every kind of physical hazard, with or without a helmet. There is something about the casual, recreational quality of bike use that encourages riders to think of biking irresponsibly. 
I won't live to see the death of the automobile as we have come to know it, but it seems safe to say that, even with the transformation of fuels which will doubtless occur in this century, the four-wheeled vehicle isn't going away. One must view with trepidation the coming impacts of increased mixed-use vehicular thruways and streets in 21st Century American cities. My guess is that bicycling will become less and less fun; and driving in town will become very hazardous indeed.          



J said...

You are correct that the western cities were designed with autos in mind, and not-bicycle friendly. Bike lanes and paths are not so horrible however and rather superior to commuting on surface streets (like in the Valley...but similar around bay area), and really the health benefits a plus (wifey, galpal or significant other will probably appreciate the physical ...rewards... of bicycling). Henry Miller putted around on a bike until his 90s or so.

But a hassle, and in many non-gentrified areas---say a Palmdale rush hour--still a bit hairy. Nothing like dodging drunken good ol boysheaded home from the muffler shoppe in their fords --or a monte carlo packed with illegals-- on highways with no bike lanes.

Anonymous said...

The unfettered right of way, as you call it, happens to be in accord with California law. The pedal-powered two-wheelers have as much of a right to be on most roads as any internal combustion vehicle.

If (when) bike use increases (and even now), drivers will be required to adjust, or will face legal consequence. You may not like it, think it appropriate, etc., but if so, go get the law(s) changed.

There is a tit-for-tat: bikes must obey all traffic laws. As such, the common practice of fixed or mechanical stop signs should subject such scofflaws to legal consequences.

jh said...

america has built its roadways to be acutely inhuman
and the bike as samuel beckett knew
was a very human contraption
i live in a place that' is perfect for short and long bicycling

and am now commandeering a dilapidated old trail bike with big tires and a bold rectangle frame

one great civility this country could incorporate is making big cities bicycle friendly
i hear tell portland has gone a long way in this
as has seattle
winnipeg MB i saw bicycles everywhere

one great idea that never stopped being a great idea
the bicycle


Curtis Faville said...


I don't know why you'd choose to post anonymously about this. Are you ashamed to be associated with the issue you seem so concerned about? How unAmerican that seems.

I guess my point is that now we're in a transitional state, in which there are relatively few two-wheeled vehicles on American roads, in American cities. It's quite likely that the human-powered, two-wheeled vehicles will increase in usage. Has anyone really thought how dramatic a change this will bring to our driving habits? We tend to favor trends that "seem" friendly or "nice" without considering far-reaching consequences. When bike usage was once considered a toy for children, it was limited. But look at India and China, where bikes are ubiquitous. It's possible that our cities may come to resemble those. Is this desirable? Understand, I'm making no judgments about it, just asking whether people understand what's coming. It may be that the character of the American landscape is changing. For those for whom bikes are a preferred mode, this may be encouraging. For others whose lives have been centered around automobile vehicular access, this will be a revolutionary change.

My own shopping habits, for instance, have been built around my ability to travel between 5-30 miles between points. Our whole economy has been built around commuting to and from work. Previous attempts to "limit" auto access and passage have been largely unsuccessful--based on older, pre-vehicular urban paradigms--they end up destroying the very mercantile and social conditions they were intended to replace, and leaving cities with "carnival" or "novelty" circus downtowns. Teenagers sitting outside sipping sweet coffee doesn't necessarily signal economic prosperity.

J said...

after a couple of decades of 405 jams consisting mainly of SUVs, bimbos in benzes, hick-zombies in Fnords, a flock of proletarians pedalling cheap commuter bikes doesn't seem so bad. Really downtown brokers lawyers and executives should be on bicycles---they need the exercise, and they'd also save a few fifties a day in parking fees

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need, Comrade Faville. Hill climbs for the peoples!

Curtis Faville said...


Again, I'm not taking sides here, as you seem to think.

None of us has the influence to change history, as these trends are much too large too control. My concern, however, is that people may not realize the reality of widespread bike usage, just as they didn't anticipate widespread automobile usage. The car has brought many wonderful things, but it's also created many new problems. Certainly we wouldn't want to go back to the horse.

But people here do need to see and understand what happens when a large segment of the population is biking. The streets become nearly impassable to automobiles. This notion I see clearly stated in street signs which say "Share the Road" don't begin to acknowledge how bad this may eventually become. An odd bike here or there is no problem, but put 10 or more bikes per block, and driving a four-wheeled vehicle becomes problematic. Today, most bikers don't follow the law, are often poor navigators, and seem to have a cavalier attitude towards their own safety. In places where bikes are numerous, in my experience, it doesn't get better. More bikers doesn't necessarily mean better bike manners, or better bike behavior.

If, as some bikers believe, biking will overtake much automobile usage, we all need to think about that future.

J said...

that may be the case in some bay area locales, but hardly the case around Ellay, where the relatively few cyclist-commuters on surface streets dodge SUVs, sedans, buses on a daily basis (some of us gave up on commuting on surface streets in LA/valley after too many near death situations..this ain't Portland, or even north byeeach).

I read something similar to what you are saying a few years ago though--a few bicyclists were blocking traffic on one of the bridges and a bunch of SF commuter guppies were having a fit--spittakes with the latte, so forth. Poor babies.

Yes the cities and towns may have to be replanned if the cycling masses get rolling. On the other hand, given the rise of the Tea party types and anti-environmentalis the automotive business-- and the automotive dystopia-- will probably remain in force for some time, at least until the oil reserves are tapped out.

Craig said...

While riding the bus in Seattle thirty years ago I saw a bicycle rear-ended by an automobile. Couldn't really see how far the bicyclist flew, but the bike itself flew high and far enough to have cleared the bus with a half dozen feet to spare. The bicyclist got away with a few bumps and bruises. When the bike finally landed it no longer looked like a bike.

Kirby Olson said...

Bicycles were THE hippy vehicle. In Amsterdam the Provos made them free of charge, and people stole them. In Mao's China, which is somehow linked to the hippy movement, or at least to the extreme political wing of the 60s revolution, they were big.

They are an ideological vehicle for the far left. Curiously, I don't hate them.

Kirby Olson said...

P.S. I read a neat novel by a Portland novelist -- Wire donkey, by Charlie Dickinson. It's about a bicyclist who rides around Portland, Oregon. Apparently the Hungarians call bicycles wire donkeys.

It's a very charming novel, by the way. I recommend it to everyone I meet.

Ed Baker said...

when I was riding about 125 per week training rides for triathlons and various bike races

a Specialize Sirrus
this model:

I was on the way back in coming down Sligo Creek Parkway when a police car in back of me turned on his flashing lights and pulled me over. This officer comes over and says: Sir, do you know how fast you were going?"
I said: "about 22 miles per hour"

He said "I clocked you at 27 TWO MILES ph OVER the speed limit. I'll let you go... this time"


Have not been on a bike since 2003 since my stroke. NO BALANCE


My friend, Joe Anderson, many years ago designed the bike ways in Portland early 1970's before so doing here in Montgomery County for Park and Planning...

cars, around here HATE bikers... honk at them squeeze them off the road, run 'em down... a gal training for a triathlon just last week was run over and killed...she was out before the sun came up about 5 a.m. without reflector vest or lights... still, there was no excuse for the run-over.

I was once out on a ride alone
comes up on me from behind a peloton just like in this picture

VERY AGRESSIVE riders took over the entire road!

I, competitive as I then was fell in behind as they passed me...
the slowest rider must have been doing AT LEAST 35 mphs! Dropped me like I was some old man!

In 1992 I was doing lots of triathlons and got in enough TriFed sanctioned races to be nationally ranked in my age group (50-54) I was in a group ranked #24 th NATIONALLY just about 10 points above the top 12!

If people worked within say 10 miles from their work there would be more bike-riders as it is now

riding to work is little more than a political statement...

pee est I am not that "anonymous" person


Curtis Faville said...


People seem to think I wrote this post "against" bikers and biking.

Not at all. My trepidation arises from seeing how a plethora of bikes can make an urban context pretty daunting. In places like India and China, bikers overwhelm the other transport where they're allowed to.

Personally I love biking, but haven't ridden one in--I think--about 7 years. I have a straightforward wide-tired bike in the garage, tires flat. At my present weight, I'm not sure the bike wouldn't collapse under me! They now require you to wear a helmet, which I really dislike. Whenever I ride, I actually obey the road laws, which most bikers around her largely ignore. I was crossing a four-way intersection in my car a year ago, when this lady bicyclist suddenly ran the stop sign to my right, causing me to brake hard to avoid hitting her. I hit my horn. Pedestrians walking on the street all gave me the finger and yelled complaints. This is pretty much how it goes around here; bikers "challenge" cars all the time, scoffing, oblivious to their own safety and your convenience.

In the country, this can be a problem, too. Occasionally I go over to Marin County--a part of the world dominated by weekend- and serious sport-biking. Five to ten "speed-bikers" (with their funny outfits and shoes) will hog the road, refusing to go far enough over to allow you to pass. I've followed groups like this for 5 miles or more at 20 mph, before finding a place in the road wide enough to get by. These roads were designed for cars, but the bikers think they have a superior access, I guess. It all seems kind of pretentious.

If I were a serious biker, would I have this "attitude"? I doubt it. I usually like to let cars pass when I'm a pedestrian, I see no point in making a "point" about my privilege as a pedestrian, especially when doing so causes me no inconvenience. Making a single car wait for one dumb pedestrian always seems wasteful to me.

Ed Baker said...

when my little band of serious bikers went on training rides some-times 50 mile rides (we usually did about 125 miles per week

We ALWAYS went single file
using ONLY the two feet or closer to the left of the right-hand line.

stopped for ALL traffic signals
and NEVER EVER challenged a car or a truck... they can kill you.
our long rides would be Saturday and/or Sunday morning as soon as daylight came up before traffic got going

In the fifties I used to ride my bike to and from school EVER-DAY both on the sidewalk and on the street..

even then, we stopped for stop signs and red lights even walked out bikes across the busiest streets

that bike in your essay the silver one a girl's bike

we would never ride a bike with a luggage rack or fenders or that chain guard or have a kick-stand

unless it was one of those super-duper Schwinn's

J said...

Whenever I ride, I actually obey the road laws, which most bikers around here largely ignore

Rules are made to be broken, Sir F. Nothing like just coasting through stop signs in the 'burbs or red lights, weaving around some fat wifeys in their sedans or phamilies in their Yukons. With some aggressive riding you can keep the automotive zombies at bay (excepting the redneck sorts in Fords, on harleys, so forth definitely want to avoid them...and they still "gun" for cyclists even in Kalifornia).

That said. I agree the spandexed sort of road biker guppies can be bothersome. Around valley, or coast roads they get real thick--you just gotta give 'em a little brushback with your vehicle, say 6 inches or so. Try not to send offroad, down some canyon on their 3000 dollar bianchi or whatever. Ouch.