|May 1, 2020,
Motorists of the world beware, the all-powerful bicycle lobby (were it to exist, except as a parody on Twitter) is coming for your cars. Bicycle sales are going gangbusters; space for motorists is being reclaimed overnight by global cities installing pop-up cycleways; and 1950s levels of motor traffic mean more people are cycling, even on roads that would otherwise be bumper-to-bumper with tin boxes.
Has bicycling ever been this popular? Yes. In the early 1970s. This was when much of the world, but especially America, experienced a “bike boom”—sales were so strong that bike shops regularly ran out of stock and would-be customers had to put their names on long waiting lists.
Built on baby-boomer wealth, burgeoning environmental concerns, and the same health kick that saw the rise of jogging, this bike boom lasted for the best part of four years. (It was many times larger than the mountain-bike boom of the 1980s.)
Many commentators at the time believed the boom would never end and that cars were on the way out. (Regarding the current bike boom, the BBC asked on April 30, “Are we witnessing the death of the car?”)
In the 1970s, U.S. bicycle advocates assumed America would soon become more bicycle-friendly than the Netherlands. But while the Netherlands used the oil embargo to rein back the dominance of the motorcar in its cities and expand its cycleway network, there was no lasting bicycle-shaped legacy for the U.S. The boom went bust, and now few remember how bicycle-crazy America went for a few short years.
How did the boom come about, why did motoring regain the upper hand, and what are the lessons for our post-pandemic future?
“CROWDS PRESS into Chicago’s Turin Bicycle Co-op hunting for new models,” reported Life in July 1971. Under the headline “The Bicycle Madness,” Life’s article featured a double-page photograph of a diverse crowd waiting to buy bikes: men and women, black and white, young and old.
“So far this year, Turin has sold over 3,000 bicycles and could have sold several thousand more if supplies had been available,” continued the magazine.
Bike sales in 1970 rose so fast that Time claimed that it was the “bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history.”
This was not pleasing to all: Peter Flanigan, a Wall Street investment banker and one of President Richard Nixon’s most trusted aides, chided that: “The United States is not going back to the cold, the dark, and the bicycle.” He was soon proved wrong, about the bicycle, at least—and even some of President Nixon’s closest confidantes fell under cycling’s spell.
“Harvard English professor Joel Porte sold his car four years ago and hasn’t ‘even been tempted’ to own one since,” explained the news magazine.
“Instead, Porte, 36, and his wife Ilana, 31, get by on three-speed English bicycles; he makes the trip from Belmont, a Boston suburb, to the Cambridge campus in 17 minutes flat.”
Time continued: “Last week, just before her first baby was due, Mrs. Porte was still running errands by bike. Doctors and professors at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland frequently commute by bike, as do some members of the Cleveland orchestra—with piccolos, flutes, violins and violas strapped to their backs.”
Bicycling broke through into the mainstream during the boom years of 1970–1974. “Some 64 million fellow travelers are taking regularly to bikes these days, more than ever before,” gushed Time, “and more than ever [they are] convinced that two wheels are better than four.”
A Bank of America report said bicycle sales had been “rolling along” at 6 million a year “until the boom began.” In 1971, sales increased 22% to 9 million and hit 14 million in 1972. In the following year, this climbed further to 15.3 million. And, said the bank, most of the increase was due to the sale of adult bikes.
The boom was rural and recreational, but it was also urban and practical. Highly-placed politicians—a few of whom were cyclists—told planners to get on with building miles and miles of urban cycleways.
“Both national and local governments have recognized the phenomenal growth of bicycling,” reported Time, “and the Department of the Interior has plans for nearly 100,000 miles of bicycle paths to be constructed in the next ten years.”
(Had this plan been carried out, it would have dwarfed the Dutch cycleway network.)
In 1973, 252 bicycle-oriented bills were introduced in 42 states; 60 were passed into law, half of them were cycleway bills. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of the same year provided $120 million for cycleways over the following three years. (Cycleways were known as “bikeways” in the U.S. at the time.)
The reemergence of the bicycle had taken most observers by surprise. What had been an “exiled device, to be used somewhere between kindergarten and acne,” claimed Time, became a transport mode to be reckoned with.
“Bikes are back,” claimed National Geographic staff-writer Noel Grove in the magazine’s May 1973 edition.
“Glutted roadways, ecological concern, the quest for healthful recreation, and the sophistication of geared machines have all contributed to a flood of cycling activity,” explained Grove, adding that “legislators are beginning to think bikeway as well as highway.”
His twelve-page feature concluded that “with bikeway construction and ecological concern marching hand in hand, America’s bicycling boom could harbinger a whole new era in transportation.”
Ecological concern was one of the drivers of the boom. During 1967’s “Summer of Love,” the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco reeked of patchouli oil, weed, and incense. With flowers in their hair, and buzzed with “acid,” some of the area’s self-styled “freaks” protested not just against war but also waste.
This concern deepened for many, and for those “hippies” who became environmental protestors, the automobile became a potent symbol of everything that was wrong with the “military-industrial complex.”
Bicycling Booms During Lockdown—But There’s A Warning From History – Forbes
Carlton Reid |May 1, 2020, Motorists of the world beware, the all-powerful bicycle lobby (were it to exist, except as a parody on Twitter) is coming for your cars. Bicycle sales are going gangbusters; space for motorists is being reclaimed overnight by global cities installing pop-up cycleways; and 1950s levels of motor traffic mean more… [Read More]