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.