As part of a series on the State of America, the BBC is profiling small businesses that have stories to tell about the way they work, and which say something about a wider national trend.
Towards the end of the 19th Century America was in the grip of cycling craze. Women in particular embraced the freedom it offered, and the humble bicycle became one of the most powerful symbols of female emancipation.
More than 100 years later, the bicycle is at the centre of another social revolution, challenging the dominance of the car in American cities and even changing the way urban areas look.
According to a report from the Alliance for Biking and Walking, there has been a steady increase in biking across the country over the last 10 years. In large urban areas like Washington, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, it’s risen by as much as 71%
“Washington has become one of the leaders in the US for bicycling,” says Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicycling Association.
“We’ve added between 600,000 and 700,000 people to the city in the last decade. What’s remarkable is that the level of traffic over that time has remained essentially flat because people are walking and biking more.”
But while the bicycle liberated women in the 19th Century, today women make up just 29% of people who use bicycles to get to work.
“One of the reasons is risk aversion,” Billing says. “Men are more willing to undertake a risky activity and there is a perception that biking is unsafe.”
There were more than 38,000 traffic fatalities last year in the US, and roughly two cyclists are killed every day. While the total number of cyclists killed may seem low in comparison to motorists, those riding bicycles are more likely to be hurt.
The death toll among both have led many cities to adopt Vision Zero, a Swedish initiative that aims to end all traffic fatalities by 2024.
Making roads safe for bikers makes them safe for everybody, says Alex Doty, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists.
“We often talk about a standard we call 8 to 80 – does a grandmother feel comfortable riding on a street with her grandson? If they do, then that’s a street that’s got it right,” he says. That has spurred a big increase in bike lanes and cycling networks that are transforming the way people navigate cities. Los Angeles now has more than 800 miles of bike lanes. Protected bike lanes have been shown to increase cycling by up to 171%.
“We think in the US that everybody needs a car, but 45% of all car trips are under four miles.
That’s where people want more choices and in the US we’re starting to see a change of attitude among younger people. Far fewer are getting driving licenses than at any time in recent US history,” Doty says.