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Pedal Power

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Pedal Power

Exploring two centuries of New York City’s two-wheelers October 4, 2019
Arts and Culture
New York

On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York City, by Evan Friss (Columbia University Press, 256 pp., $30,00)

It’s been a hellish year for New York City bicyclists, with 22 traffic-related fatalities in the five boroughs—12 more than in all of 2018. Though commuter and delivery cyclists relieve New York’s congested infrastructure and serve workers confined in offices, they suffer the effects of the city’s failing transportation system. Cyclists contend with daily hazards, from pedestrians walking in bike lanes to drivers running red lights. In this environment, James Madison University professor Evan Friss’s new book, On Bicycles: A 200-Year-History of Cycling in New York City, is a morale booster. Through archival research and contemporary interviews, Friss makes the case for why history is on the cyclists’ side.

As Friss shows, New York has maintained a shaky relationship with its bicyclists since 1819. Back then, people tired of walking or hoofing it around town adopted a European import, the velocipede—a primitive “wheeled contraption” with no pedals. New Yorkers—mostly men—rode these early bicycles through Vauxhall Gardens, City Hall Park, and Bowling Green, but not for long. Just three months after the velocipede made its appearance, city fathers—who happily put up with “carts, carriages, pedestrians, and hogs”—banned the device, imposing a $5 fine on violators. From the beginning, the bicycle was considered a “whimsical invention,” an unrealistic mode of transportation.

It took nearly a half century for the bicycle, much modified, to reappear. Following the Civil War, cycling became trendy again, fulfilling a growing population’s need for transportation and recreation. Dozens of bicycling schools opened citywide for untrained adults. In newly built Central Park, 2,786 bicycles were spotted in one spring month. It didn’t take long before there were “enough” cyclists to “warrant some public infrastructure.” Cyclists—not car owners—first lobbied for smooth surfaces, whether concrete or wood, over cobblestone. Yet as cyclists—including, now, some women—traversed the streets for work and leisure, city officials again viewed them as a problem. In 1873, Brooklyn’s common council banned bikes from streets during busy afternoon hours; cyclists could only “exercise” before 1 p.m.

Even as the government maintained its skeptical stance, the bicycle withstood the ups and downs of faddishness to enjoy another boom in the 1890s. Between 1894 and 1898, Brooklyn and Manhattan created 220 bicycle clubs, “almost as many . . . as there are Starbucks locations today.” The clubs had enough dues-paying acolytes to build elaborate headquarters. Their members embarked on leisure rides; in the decades before the advent of the city’s subway system, in the early 1900s, the “bicycle provided a new perspective from which to see the city,” Friss writes. Riders “used it to commute, run errands, exercise, meet people, join clubs, escape the city, and challenge social conventions,” gaining “increased feelings of independence.” As the price of bicycles fell, the cycling hobby expanded beyond the well-to-do, as immigrants opened clubs.

The bicycle’s success, though, also led to its downfall. “As the century turned, bicycles disappeared from the streets, paths, and parks,” Friss notes. And it wasn’t because of the motor car or subway. Counterintuitively, he says, it was the bikes’ new ubiquity. As bicycle prices dropped, “the fashionable bicycles were no longer considered such.” With more immigrant and working-class New Yorkers pedaling around, “the bicycle lost its power as a status symbol.” The bicycle wouldn’t see a resurgence until the Great Depression, when affordability worked in its favor.  

But midcentury New York wasn’t kind to the urban cyclist, either. Though master builder Robert Moses constructed bike paths in and around parks, he viewed cycling as sport, not transportation. “Moses wanted cycling to be a contained form of recreation, like swimming pools and playgrounds,” Friss observes. Calling cycling “dangerous,” Moses asserted that “bicycles have no place on public highways.” A few cyclists, nevertheless, braved record numbers of automobiles and trucks on Gotham’s streets, which were funneled into the city’s core by Moses’s bridge-and-tunnel-building program.

By the early 1980s, hostility to safe cyclist infrastructure converged with New York’s broader quality-of-life concerns. Mayor Edward I. Koch supported protected bike lanes in New York but promptly declared them a failure after facing pressure from disapproving state and federal leaders. Later that decade, aggressive, fast-moving bike messengers—delivering legal, advertising, and financial documents to office tenants—gave cyclists a reputation as menaces to pedestrians. In 1987, after reckless cyclists caused three pedestrian deaths, Koch moved, unsuccessfully, to ban bikes from key midtown avenues. The city’s inability to integrate bicycles into the streetscape dramatized New York’s general disorder. That same year, 623 people died in traffic crashes, almost all involving collisions with cars or trucks—yet the city declared that it was powerless to stop the carnage, just as it was seemingly impotent against a growing murder epidemic.

It was not until Michael Bloomberg’s administration that a much safer, more prosperous New York became, as Friss puts it, “one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country.” Though Bloomberg initially viewed bikes as “pests,” the ever-pragmatic mayor also understood that New York confronted a serious transportation problem, and that his environmental objectives required making the streets more hospitable to people uncocooned by cars or taxis. In 2007, the city built its first protected bike lane—on Chelsea’s Ninth Avenue—since Koch’s ill-fated 1980 experiment.

And when the city built it, the people came. New York’s protected bike lanes—on the fringes of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West—proved popular for several reasons. First, the city’s transportation infrastructure was straining under a record population of residents, visitors, and workers; for many, a bike ride was preferable to a subway wait or sitting in record-slow traffic. Second, the burgeoning business of online-ordered food delivery—enabled by a new immigrant class—meant a resurgence in the eighties-era worker-cyclist business. Third, the streets were safer. In 2008, 292 people died in traffic crashes, a drop of more than half since 1990, when the death toll peaked at 701, the same year as the city’s still-record murder rate.

In 2013, not long before he left office, Bloomberg introduced Citibike, the nation’s largest municipal bike-share program. Citibike was a revolution, transforming cycling from a burdensome activity to a convenient solution. It also provided incontrovertible data: biking is a key component of commuting infrastructure. “Stations in residential-heavy neighborhoods like Fort Greene and the East Village . . . emptied out in the morning and refilled in the evening; stations in the Financial District, SoHo, and midtown were flooded with bicycles in the morning that cascaded out during the evening rush,” Friss writes. By May 2019, Citibike had over 63,000 daily rides—significantly easing the burden for subway, taxi, and Uber riders, especially during rush hours, when no room exists for more people. Each day, New Yorkers make nearly half a million cycling trips—up from 100,000 in 1980, when Koch declared cycling a failure.

But now another gloom has set in: cyclists don’t feel safe. In July, nearly 1,000 people held a “die-in” in Washington Square Park to protest the city’s failure to enforce the law on streets, keep trucks to their designated routes, and stop police from double-parking, red-light-running, and cycle-lane blocking. The overall trend on the streets, notwithstanding challenges, remains encouraging. In 2018, 203 people—pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, and passengers—died on New York’s roads, a 30 percent decline since 2008. But something seems wrong out there; the euphoric mood of 2013 has dissipated. “Bicycles are a unique combination of past, present, and future,” Friss writes. To ensure that future, Bill de Blasio must keep streets safe for commuters and delivery workers above ground in New York’s dense urban environment.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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