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CYCLING CITY: Urban Bicycling in the 1890s


5th Ave at 23rd St in 1909 NYPL

5th Ave at 23rd St in 1909 (NYPL)

We were thrilled to hear that Evan Friss will be talking about his book Cycling City at CUNY Graduate Center on April 6. He was kind enough to make some time to talk with us. 

BU: As I understand it, bicycling first became popular in the 1880s as an as part of the fitness craze that began in the middle of the 19th century, but in Cycling City I get the impression it evolved from the physical culture movement into a mad fad for mechanization of the city, in turn replaced by the next mad fad for mechanized mobility: cars. Is that an accurate assessment and can you talk a little about the context in which bicycling in the city first became popular?

EF: The 1890s is a wonderful decade to study.  There’s a great wave of industrialization and urbanization, there’s a deepening health consciousness, there are new patterns of recreation, and there’s this palpable sense that the century is coming to an end.  All of these themes, in one way or another, explains the sudden rise of the bicycle.

For some, the bicycle was a technological beauty, a marker of modernity, and a sign of progress.  Enthusiasts waited anxiously for each year’s new models, studied the extensive parts list, and perused the booths of elaborate bicycle exhibitions.  More than that, the bicycles of the 1890s weren’t just exciting new takes on an established platform (think Tesla).  The bicycle was totally new.  Sure there had been some predecessors, but none developed a long-term or overwhelming following.  The millions of cyclists who bought and rode bikes in the 1890s were doing so for the very first time.  And the bicycle seemed to hold so much promise: a way to escape the increasingly polluted cities, a way to exercise brain and brawn, a way to get to work faster.  As the century was about to turn, it was the bicycle that offered a vision of the future.


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Lower East Side in 1900 (NYPL)

BU: The fad for cars was attractive because a more expansive expression of the ideals of personal freedom and the limitless possibilities of technology that dominated so much of the thinking at the turn of the 20th century, not to mention economically far more lucrative. Still, that doesn’t entirely explain the abrupt decline of bicycling–or does it? 

EF: Yes and no.  Cars sapped a lot of the enthusiasm that late-nineteenth-century Americans had for bicycles.  Bicycles no longer seemed so progressive, so cool, and so fashionable.  At the same time, when the cycling city came to an end, hardly anyone who stopped riding bicycles began driving automobiles.  It would be another two decades before Americans purchased automobiles in significant numbers.  In fact, when people stopped riding bicycles, they didn’t turn to a new form of transportation.  They didn’t suddenly find value in the streetcars.  And subways were still few and far between. They stopped riding because it simply became unfashionable.

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Prospect Park bike path in 1896 (NYPL)

BU: The role of bicycling in female empowerment was fascinating, opening access to greater autonomy and personal freedom in all aspects of women’s lives, from social mores to clothing ( I had no idea there was an anti-corset movement). Would you say bicycling, in spite of its general decline after 1900 had a more long-lasting impact with regard to women? 

EF: The question of the long-term impact of the cycling city is a good one.  Some, but very little of the cycling infrastructure that was built in the 1890s, endured well into the twentieth century.  But in terms of social changes, the bicycle pushed the conversation in new directions and helped, at least incrementally, instill change.  In terms of women in particular, the 1890s was certainly not the first time that women began talking about the need for greater independence, freedom to dress more comfortably, etc., but since bicycling was so popular these age-old questions began to be answered in new ways.  Bikes and long flowing dresses didn’t make a good couple, so practically wheelwomen (as they were often called at the time) had to find alternative solutions.  Some particularly clever women realized that if society could come to terms with the new kinds of outfits that bicycling demanded, then perhaps people would get used to seeing women in such clothes even when they weren’t riding.  The notion of sportswear continued to evolve–as did the women’s movement more generally.  So while bicycling alone did not transform women’s lives, it did have an impact in both the short and long term.

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Ladies riding the Harlem River Speedway in 1897 (NYPL)

BU: One thing I was completely unaware of was the impact bicycling and bicycling advocates had on urban design, in particular in pushing for paved roads, not to mention the push and pull with regard to bike lanes. Infrastructure is such a big part of the conversation around biking today, those issues from 100 years ago seem very contemporary. Can you talk a little about what is the same and what is different?

EF: The debates about bicycling today are eerily similar to those of the 1890s.  Do bicycles belong on separate paths (off-road) or on the roadway itself?  How should cycling amenities be paid for?  Are cyclists the solution to create healthier and more livable cities or are they reckless traffic violators who make driving (a car or horse, depending on the era) unnecessarily more difficult?

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Over New York City Pavements 1892 (NYPL)

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Lafayette and Bond in 1897 (NYPL)

BU: The argument for keeping bikes out of parks and for bike lanes because they scared the horses, for example, that looks hilarious now. Can you talk a little more about that? 

EF: By all accounts, even at the time, the horses were fine with the bicycles. The people who didn’t like bikes were the people who were riding or driving the horses. Horses are very loud, and bicycles aren’t, so people weren’t used to it, and afraid of what kind of havoc that could create. So the horse drivers didn’t like bicycles, but their best rationale for prohibiting them was to suggest the complaints came from the horses.

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Ladies driving along 5th Ave, 1900 (NYPL)

BU: At Bicycle Utopia we look forward to a day when the arguments against bicycling because they inconvenience automobile traffic and take away parking spaces from cars will one day sound just as bizarre.  

EF: A lot of it has to do with space and control over space.  One example is streetcar operators would often demand that even if they the tracks were no longer in use that they not be ripped up, because they felt a sense of ownership of the street. Bicyclists wanted the unused tracks to be ripped up because they made it harder to ride, so that was an area of conflict.

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Bowery streetcars and elevated train, date unknown (NYPL)

In parks, the idea was that these winding bridal paths were exclusive places for people who could afford horses, and where you would meet only similarly well-heeled people, and who agreed on the proper decorum. One fear was that bikes would compromise exclusivity, and that parks would become too democratized. At the beginning, even when bikes were quite expensive, another problem was that the riders were young men, sporty and interested in speed and adventure, which didn’t sit well with the people using the paths to ride out on their horses. So the initial agreement with the park was that bicyclists had to get a special tag and agree to behave themselves in a certain way.

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The Grand Drive in Central Park, 1869 (NYPL)

The underlying questions about where bicycles belong, what kinds of people bicycle, and the degree to which cities should accommodate, promote, or limit bicycling are the same.  Yet, there are some critical differences.  As much as city dwellers in the 1890s understood that they were living in unhealthy environments, the tenets of sustainability are much more widely embraced today.

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View of South Street, 1878 (NYPL)

BU: Those differences are very interesting, indeed. Cities were much unhealthier environments in the late 1800s than they are today, with a lot of noisy, smelly, filthy manufacturing and substandard, terribly overcrowded housing for working people. In addition, there was some concern that the sedentary nature of office employment was intrinsically unhealthy, at a time when the white collar working class was really beginning to encompass a large segment of the working population. You touch on this in Cycling City; can you talk a bit more about that in the context of the health and sport movements of the 19th c. inspired by the Industrial Revolution?

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City dwellers in 1868 (NYPL)

 It’s interesting because a lot of health advocates were talking about the need to get out of doors in spite of the fact that lots of people were still doing what we now think of as hard labor. But within this there was a large population of people sitting in offices, and there was a fear that this work would generate a kind of toxicity that was even worse than the boredom, and that people needed to get out and get fresh air and move around. Central Park wasn’t enough, you needed to get to the countryside, swim in the ocean, to relieve yourself of the chaos of the city. Despite all the advantages of the city, the urbanity, the opportunity, you needed to get away from time to time to be able to sustain city living. So biking became a prescription of sorts.

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Sheet music cover (NYPL)

BU: The discussion around how to formalize the status of bicycles and bicycling made me laugh out loud, such as proposal of a bicycle tax, not to mention resistance on the part of cycling clubs to the requirement that bicycles be equipped with brakes, calling them unnecessary and  “an infringement upon their personal property.”  It sounds a bit like some of the more heated controversies around biking today, for example the helmet debate. What happened to all those attempts to regulate bicycles? Do you think if urban biking becomes significantly more popular the attempt to more strictly codify the status of bicycles will be revived?

EF: Efforts at regulating bicycles have been around since they first arrived in the US.  Even the predecessors to the modern day bicycles were quickly met with restrictions on how, where, and when they could be ridden.  Nobody, including cyclists, can seem to agree on how bicycles fit into our cities.  Part of the reason stems from the unique nature of the device itself.  Is it a vehicle or a toy? Is it more like a car or a pedestrian?  How one answers these questions then frames whether or not one thinks bicycles belong on the streets, the sidewalks, or separate paths.  It’s complicated.

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Biking in Central Park, 1895 (NYPL)

Even after the bicycling boom of the 1890s, ideas about taxing bicycles, licensing bicyclists, restricting the movements of bicycle messengers, and requiring helmets have come, gone, and arrived again.  Cyclists have long resented attempts at regulation, even as certain riders argued that doing so would help legitimize cycling.  Where I live now, the college town of Harrisonburg, VA, a recent city council candidate campaigned on a promise to institute a local bicycle tax.  Even if she had won, it’s unlikely the tax would have ever been implemented, but I think it speaks to one of the ways in which the talk of regulating bicycles is used today: as a threat to cyclists.  They better behave and stop asking for so much.

BU: It sounds like you may have heard about the All Powerful Bicycle Lobby, and its hilarious twitter feed (@BicycleLobby) one of my favorite artifacts of the resistance to the implementation of bike share in New York City in 2013.

EF: Even back in the 1890s there were lots of complaints that cyclists were getting their way all the time, while the cyclists felt they were always fighting an uphill battle. In NYT editorials there were complaints that bicyclists were writing the laws. One editorial ended with “Soon they’ll want all of the Earth!” On the bicyclists’ side, there were people who thought the regulations were far too many–one group of riders talked about what regulation would look like in the future, that cyclists would be required to light fireworks to let people know they were coming, etc.

At the time, most cyclists were mostly concerned with bicycling having a place in the city, so they wanted bikes to be regulated exactly like other vehicles. If bicyclists had to have a lamp at night, so should horse carriages.

Biking politics are also much more political in the twenty-first century.  So while there was great debate in the 1890s about whether or not parks should allow bicycling, whether or not the city should pay for paving bicycle lanes, etc., the various camps did not fit neatly into existing political categories.  There were certainly elements of classism at play, but the environmental issues were not understood through the lens of party politics in the same way that they are today.  City politicians from either party in the 1890s ran on “bicycling platforms.”

In many ways, it would seem easier to encourage bicycling in today’s world.  Bicycles are, relatively, much cheaper than they were then.  We already have lots of paved, very wide roads that could easily be redesigned for bicycles.  Yet, we’ve lived in a country that has defined itself as a nation of cars.  There’s a sense that we are a car country, a car people, and that our cities should reflect that culture.  Of course, that’s been starting to change of late and we’ll have to wait and see what comes next.

BU: How did you get interested in this topic and what inspired you to write this book?

EF: I had always been interested in urban history, urban planning and transportation. I was born in New York, and I went to graduate school in NYC, so I spent about half my life in NYC. I think of myself as a New Yorker, but my formative years were spent in Columbia, Maryland.

Columbia is a completely planned town, designed right down to the streets being named for American poets. A key part of the planning was these biking and walking paths, which had a big impact on how I understood the uses of public space.

Later, when I was in graduate school, a fellow student was writing about the politics of street names in the 1890s, and a lot of the city council meetings where these were discussed were taken up with discussions about biking.

BU: Can you talk a bit about how biking is different in Harrisonburg from New York City? 

It’s very different biking in Harrisonburg, which is a small college town, than biking in New York City. People here think biking in a big city would be terrible, but in many ways I felt more comfortable biking in NYC. Even before there was so much biking infrastructure, there were always plenty of places to park; you could get anywhere you wanted to go by bike. There is always the sense that drivers at least know you’re there. But in Harrisonburg, apart from a mountain-biking scene, biking is much less popular, and the cars, like to buzz you when they pass you. I don’t know if they’re doing that purposely or not.

There’s a bike movement for more bike lanes and the issue always comes back to one thing: parking. There’s this erroneous idea that there isn’t enough parking, even though there’s tons of free parking. It’s an unhealthy obsession with parking. People don’t want to lose one parking spot, while the fact is there are too many parking spots.  There’s a perception that there is this war against cars and parking spots. The larger issue is control and people not wanting to yield to change, or people who worry that environmental issues or bicycling issues are part of a politics they don’t agree with.

There’s very little bike infrastructure, although some streets have sharrows, or bike lanes, but routes sometimes strangely disappear. Some are colored, some are not, there’s no uniformity. It’s very haphazard. Even walking, to some degree, is similar. I have two small children and am used to walking with a stroller. Sometimes there are no curb cuts, sidewalks just disappear. It’s a sad reminder of the priority of car-driven projects. Policy that proposes alternatives to cars is still very piecemeal; biking is treated as a token and it’s not really institutionalized. The idea, for example, that every time a road is repaved, let’s restripe it for a bike lane.

Evan Friss will be speaking about Cycling City at the CUNY Graduate Center on April 6 at 6:30 PM. The event is free and open to the public. 


The CUNY Graduate Center

365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th St)

Room 3110








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