bicycle fever

the bicycle in 19th century culture and our modern world

My hometown of Berkeley, California enjoys moderate temperatures and the infrastructure to accommodate bicycles, so cycling for sport and for transportation is ubiquitous year-round. Though bicycles are lauded for their utility, one of the main benefits of the bike is often overlooked: its ability to connect people to the world around them. When bicycles first became popular, they also emerged as a cultural symbol, epitomizing modernity’s promises of technology and liberation. Today, this symbol persists. The bicycle is a broadly accessible, efficient, and useful technology that also provides us with the possibility to explore the world around us.

Although the idea of two-wheeled transportation dates to the 1860s, the bicycle as we know it emerged in the United States at the end of the 19th century. The 1880s and 1890s might be characterized by bicycle fever: two years after the introduction of the modern bicycle, the number of cyclists in the United States doubled, reaching 150,000. As Sporting Life reported at the turn of the century, “the bachelor rides, the old maid rides, the lover rides and sighs and the sweetheart is beside him sighing and riding too. Young and old, rich and poor, big and little, all ride. The city seems all awheel.” Lower bicycle prices in the 1890s also meant the sport was no longer reserved for the elite. Albert Pope, a prominent American bicycle businessman, wrote in 1895, “bicycles are practically within reach of even the most moderate means.”

The bicycle was more than a trendy gadget: It became an integral part of women’s suffrage at the end of the 19th century. Arguably, the first step toward freedom was the invention of the bloomer, a loose pair of pants that gathers at the knee—a radical break from the restrictive clothing of the Victorian era. The bloomer was invented so that women could engage in athletics, particularly cycling. The bicycle also allowed women to leave the house, giving them mobility and independence from their husbands. As suffragist Susan B. Anthony famously said in 1896, cycling “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

Though the bicycle was eclipsed by the automobile in the early 20th century, it has become culturally relevant again. Much of this resurgence is due to growing concerns about fossil fuels. With the help of cycling advocates and new legislation, society is changing to accommodate this surge in popularity. For instance, drivers are becoming more used to “sharing the road.” In some cities, urban planning and public transportation systems have made cycling safer and more practical with the installment of bike lanes, bicycle-friendly train cars, and bicycle racks on the fronts of buses. Bike-share programs have emerged in cities like Portland, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Austin, and Minneapolis, to name a few. These relatively inexpensive subscription-based services allow casual cyclists to enjoy the benefits of a bicycle without investing in one of their own. Though these urban planning programs have been responsive to the needs of cyclists, infrastructure still has a long way to go to accommodate growing demand.

As it did in the 19th century, the bicycle allows cyclists to explore the world around them. Cycling allows me to confront some of the Bay Area’s complex socio-political issues. For long-distance sport cyclists or dedicated commuters, diverse Bay Area landscapes will serve as a reminder of Berkeley’s paradoxes. In one or two hours of cycling, I can reach the neighboring industrial city of Richmond. I can pass strip-malls and housing developments in Walnut Creek and Danville, where the commercialization Berkeley riotously rejects is ever-present. In three or four hours, I can bike through a dozen different impoverished neighborhoods in Oakland and Hayward and Castro Valley and make it back to Berkeley to enjoy coffee at a shop staffed by hipsters.

While Berkeley is a community that rejects big-box commercialization and corporations like Walmart, the city also engages in political and social behavior that violates its liberal principles. Berkeley prides itself on its diversity of race, religion, identity, class, and educational background, and yet the city’s housing prices are so high that the most affluent neighborhoods of the city are tended to by people who cannot afford to live nearby. Due to the financial success of Silicon Valley and San Francisco, the Bay Area’s high cost of living has resulted in suburban sprawl, overrun public transportation systems and terrible traffic. Low-income individuals tend to suffer the most from these problems. Even though Berkeley is thought to be one of the most liberal bubbles in the United States, the city votes against zoning policies that would support the building of affordable housing to help mitigate some of the Bay Area’s growing cost-of-living and transportation issues. Race, as well as class prejudice, has played a role in this problem. As one opinion piece in Berkeleyside magazine pointed out in 2017, “zoning laws in Berkeley have been used historically to exclude African Americans and other populations from certain parts of the city.”

As it did in the 19th century, the bicycle reflects the complexities of our culture. There are cyclists in Berkeley who congratulate themselves for their environmentalism while voting against policies that would make the city more accessible and affordable. At the same time, the road is full of cyclists who ride to work because they cannot afford cars, and highways are overrun because high housing prices force people to work far from where they live. Indeed, there is no clear rule for why any individual chooses to bicycle or to drive, but cycling is a lens through which to discuss the dynamics that complicate Berkeley’s liberal identity.

A casual survey of Brown suggests to me that bicycles are less ubiquitous on College Hill than they are in Berkeley. Perhaps due to a combination of winter weather, the steep hill separating campus from downtown, bicycle-unfriendly infrastructure, and aggressive driving, Brown lacks the kind of bicycle community that I belonged to in Berkeley. Should you ignore the challenges and bike three miles north of Brown in Pawtucket or along the East Bay Bike path, however, you will find yourself in communities that differ from College Hill’s university-dominated cultural sensibilities. Rhode Island is a diverse state, home to individuals of many backgrounds, income levels, identities, and lifestyles. As it does in Berkeley, cycling has given me the opportunity to explore these unique communities that are close by but easy to ignore. The sport has taught me about the complexity and the diversity of the place where I live, and my bicycle is my partner in this exploration.