(This is a largely speculative essay in draft form. I hope to refine its arguments – and lose a pinch of jargon! – as I find more evidence. I expect to update and revise it substantially after I think on it more. Hopefully readers will comment & critique!)
When the Statesman published a story about the League of American Bicyclists recognizing Salem as a “bicycle friendly community,” some online comments gave me pause and spurred me to visit a topic that I’m pretty sure is rarely discussed in bicycling circles: class. The vast middle is missing in talk about bikes and bicycling. Some see biking as the effete recreational activity of the leisure class; others see it as an activity for kids and immature adult losers who can’t manage the responsibilities of adulthood, which include car-driving. The middle ground, the image of adults who bike because it’s a reasonable transportation choice, is largely missing. Why is that?
The comment in question regarded photos of Salem Bicycle Club members on a ride. There were no cars in sight, and they were free to ride two abreast, enjoying the full lane.
Idiot bikers are in the middle of the road again,and not on the outside of the solid white line in the bike lane were they should be,someone please run them over .NONE OF THESE FOOLS ARE RIDEING TO WORK OR ANYWERE THEY NEED TO BE, THEY ONLY RIDE FOR ENTERTAINMENT AFTER WORK .just look at the clothes ,and no backpacks to hold a change of clothes.I dont believe these yuppies are going to sell anything at the office dressed like that,fools fools fools, come on guys ,squish them
Later, the same person wrote:
but the law does need to start paying attention to all these yuppies on bikes not obeying the laws of the road when they put on their pink spandex outfits and big bobble hats and try to play power trip with a 3000 pond vehicle that can squish them like a bug
The writer’s focus on apparel, on recreation & leisure time, on yuppies & professional status, and on power reminded me that the greatest concentration of bicycles in the city is at the Union Gospel Mission. Using a bike is for many people the sign of “not having made it,” and is one reason why people ditch bikes soon after they are able to afford a car. Another commenter called bicyclists immature, and mapped implicitly a narrative of increasing status and maturity:
Silly people,bikes are for kids,most of us grow up and out of the bike stage by age 15
The message is clear: Bikes are for kids or for adults who refuse to take on appropriate adult responsibilities.
In my research, I hoped to find resources that suggested this was a recent phenomenon, or at least a relic of the auto age, and therefore something historical and contingent. Something that could be changed. But what I see is that bicycling has from the very beginning been caught up in arguments, implicit or explicit, about class, status, and power. I wish the bike was a more neutral technology!
The high wheeler, or penny farthing, was an expensive toy of the leisure class. Young men were attracted to it as a 19th century version of our extreme sports. Though the club riders and six-day racers got press, there weren’t in fact very many of them. Demographically bicyclists became significant only after the invention of the safety bicycle in the mid-1880s.
During the run on banks and the resulting depression we call the panic of 1893, expensive bicycles actually increased in sales. This counterintuitive result seems to me to have cemented the relation between bicycles and class. Throughout the 1890s sales increased each year. By 1897, when employment levels returned to normal and the depression lifted, prices for new bicycles began to decline. Sales were the highest in 1899.
Nationally, the bike boom went bust just afterwards. Among other factors, the Spanish-American war siphoned off numbers of young men, the main purchasers of new “wheels,” and left the market with a temporary glut of second-hand wheels. That same year, to combat the decline the major bicycle manufacturers combined in a bicycle trust called the American Bicycle Company. By 1902 it was in receivership.
Here in Oregon the decline was not so precipitous. It took a couple of years for the east coast decline to make it to Oregon. Nevertheless, the biggest bike dealer in Portland, Fred Merrill, noted that in 1903, prostitutes using bicycles had made bicycling no longer fashionable, and the society ladies that had been riding bicycles stopped using them. Henry Wemme had got the first automobile in Portland in 1899, and by 1905 the smart set had turned from bicycles to autos. The numbers of these early autoists are small, just a couple hundred, dwarfed by the many thousands of bicycle riders, but they were the political and fashion leaders in society.
I do not have accurate figures for Oregon bicycle sales around 1905 – 1910. Though the press shifts focus from bicycles to autos, I do not believe the actual numbers of bicyclists decreased in proportion to the decrease in press coverage. We must remember that nationally auto sales didn’t equal bike sales until 1913, and that in Oregon auto ownership didn’t equal bike ownership until 1916 or 1917. The change was gradual. The first auto came to Salem in 1903, and to the rural community of Pratum in 1912. But because all the accounts of 1900 to 1910 stress the tidal wave change from bike to car, even though the actual numbers do not support this, we have the seeds of the inversion we see today: bikes are toys.
In that decade increasing streetcar service, and not the auto, was the primary competition for bicyclists. Those seeking recreation and leisure activity had turned to the auto, and the new primary use of bicycling was utility transport.
In his book Bicycle: The History , David Herlihy notes the curious divergence of Europe and the United States. By 1909 he observes that in Britain, continental Europe, and in Asia, bicycling had become a widespread form of utility transportation. He focuses on differences between prevailing technology in Europe and in the US. And he suggests that better and less-expensive lighter-weight bicycles, with gearing for hills, made the utility market possible. What he does not discuss is land-use and development patterns. Europeans already lived in compact cities that made bicycling easy. Americans lived in new cities, whose outward development the streetcar lines and automobiles accelerated. We saw in Portland how developers of suburbs outside the city limits worked to have bicycle paths and streetcar lines built to funnel workers to and from the central city.
In September of 1920, a three hour count on the Salem-Portland highway yielded only 230 trips cars. The numbers on interurban rail vastly exceeded this. There weren’t that many cars. Even so, the year before, the Oregonian could editorialize on the fate of the bicycle: “The love of ease and speed and cushions speaks for the motor-driven vehicle. With muscles of gasoline, strong as the thews of a genii, the modern citizen prefers to conquer his mileage.” Even though the numbers of autoists remained a small proportion of the population, the image of the car was fixed. In America, unlike in Europe, bicycling was not a reasonable choice available to anyone of any class; instead, it was a cost imposed on people because of economic hardship.
It wasn’t just individuals who exemplified this correlation. Bicyling’s popularity peaks in times of economic crisis. It wasn’t until the Depression that bicycles became popular again. This continued through the war. After world war II, bicycles’ popularity declined, and it became the kids toy of the 50s. In 1956 the US started a massive auto subsidy in the Interstate Highway system. The oil crisis of 1973 created another bike boom.
Will the panic of 2008 cause a third bike boom? In the summer this year we saw how $4/gallon gas spurred people to try bicycle commuting as an alternative to costly auto driving.
Safety is usually cited as the number one barrier to bicycling. On the “bicycle friendly” story, another commentator said:
as long as morterised vihicles use the bike lanes as turning,passing on the right,and temperary parking lanes, Its safer going against traffec, Or ridding on the sidewalk.This is wrong,but safer
In Oregon it is not legal to ride in bike lanes against traffic. But riders commonly do so. Though I have not done surveys, all available anecdotal information suggests these are overwhelmingly men who do not wear helmets. The image popularly is of the “can guy,” a homeless or underemployed man who collects cans and bottles and redeems them for the nickel deposit. As the affluence in America’s middle class is increasingly anxious and insecure, the image of the “can guy” looms as a sign of what could be. On this view, bicycling represents failure, whose proximity appears all too near and possible.
I have often wondered about the semiotics of spandex. How important is it for bicylists not to be confused with a can guy? If the can guy’s uniform of jeans, levi jacket and hoodie, and no helmet, is a visible reminder of economic failure, then the leisure bicyclists uniform of spandex, brightly colored jersey, and helmet is a sign of distinction: “I am not a failure,” it says. If the “can guy” is the downstream image, the effete yuppie in spandex, who has leisure to bike, is the upstream image.
It is my belief that a significant and essentially tacit barrier to bicycling is the excluded middle. The Scylla of the can guy and the Charibdis of the yuppie fail to offer a middle way. The can guy enjoys a lawless freedom, the yuppie enjoys a leisured freedom. The middle looks at the freedom and asks, where is this freedom for me? I have a long commute, I have children, my spouse and myself both must work to service our mortgage and our lifestyle. I can’t afford the time to bike. That the bicyclist represents a freedom seemingly distant can only exacerbate animosity towards bicyclists. This in my opinion accounts for why bicyclists rolling stop signs attracts much greater ire than autoists rolling stop signs. Bicyclists are in fact more free, and the autoist is jealous. The animosity is not irrational; on the contrary, it is rooted in fact.
That there isn’t a prevailing middle image of bicycling as a choice for everyone is an interesting failure of globalism. Many images travel from culture to culture, market to market. But the European model of bicycling as a choice for everyone fails spectacularly in the US. This failure has its roots in the divergence in bicycle markets and bicycle usage that occurred between 1900 and 1910. It’s much less accidental than I wish.
I am encouraged by recent stories that manufacturers are finally really looking at the utility & commuter cycling markets. The hipster of a fixie, rooted in images of the bicycle messenger and outlaw biker, is not a middle way. The middle way needs to be practical and a little boring. But it will also probably have to be paired with changing development patterns. Essentially goods and services, core retail, will need to be deployed closer to where people live. The mid-century model of suburbia won’t support demographically significant bicycling increases.
Biking, Class, and the Panic of 2008 by fortunaerota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at fortunaerota.wordpress.com.