How bicycles transformed our world

...and could do so again, maybe

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The Corona virus pandemic has sparked a two-wheeled transport boom in many parts of the globe. But this isn't the first time bicycles have been the hottest machines on the market.

If history doesn't quite repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. With demand for bicycles soaring, and nations preparing to spend billions to redesign their cities with a new focus on cycling and walking, it's worth remembering how the advent of the bicycle in the late 19th century transformed societies the world over.

It was then a hugely disruptive technology, easily the equivalent of the smartphone today. For a few heady years in the 1890s, the bicycle was the ultimate “must-have” swift, affordable, stylish transportation that could whisk you anywhere you cared to go, anytime you liked, for free. And it enabled the poorer in society to cover ranges – if the could afford a bicycle – that previously was only accessible to those with a horse and who could ride.

Almost anyone could learn to ride, and almost everyone did. The sultan of Zanzibar took up cycling. So did the Czar of Russia. The Emir of Kabul bought bicycles for his entire harem.

But it was the middle and working classes around the globe that truly made the bicycle their own. For the first time in history, the masses were mobile, able to come and go as they pleased. No more need for expensive horses and carriages. The “people's nag,” as the bicycle became known as, was not only lightweight, affordable, and easy to maintain, it was also the fastest thing on the roads.

The person generally credited with inventing the modern bicycle was an Englishman named John Kemp Starley. His uncle, James Starley, had developed the penny-farthing in the 1870s. Suspecting that there might be greater demand for bicycles if they weren't so scary and dangerous to ride, in 1885 the 30-year-old inventor began experimenting in his Coventry workshop with a chain-driven bicycle featuring two much smaller wheels. After testing several prototypes, he came up with the Rover safety bicycle, a 45-pound machine that more or less resembles what today we think of as a bicycle.

When first displayed at a bicycle show in 1886, Starley's invention was regarded as a curiosity. But two years later, when it was paired with the newly invented pneumatic tire – which not only cushioned the ride but also made the new safety bicycle about 30 percent faster – the result was magic.

Bicycle makers around the world scrambled to offer their own versions, and hundreds of new companies sprang up to meet demand. At the Stanley Bicycle Show in London in 1895, some 200 bicycle makers exhibited 3,000 models.

The insatiable demand for bicycles spawned other industries – ball bearings, wire for spokes, steel tubing, precision toolmaking – that would shape the manufacturing world long after the bicycle was relegated to the toy department, at least in the United States, though it should have never headed that way.

With a bicycle anything seemed possible, and ordinary people set off on extraordinary journeys. In the summer of 1890, for instance, a young lieutenant in the Russian army pedaled from St. Petersburg to London, averaging 70 miles a day. In September 1894, 24-year-old Annie Londonderry set out from Chicago with a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver to become the first woman to cycle around the world. Just under a year later she arrived back in Chicago and collected a $10,000 prize.

In Australia, itinerant shearers routinely rode hundreds of miles across the waterless outback looking for work. They set out on these trips as though they were rides in the park, recalled newspaper correspondent C.E.W. Bean in his book On The Wool Track.

In the American West, during the summer of 1897, the U.S. Army's 25th Regiment – an African-American unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers – made an extraordinary 1,900- mile trek from Fort Missoula, Montana, to St. Louis, Missouri, to demonstrate the usefulness of bicycles to the military. Carrying full kit and carbines and riding over rough, muddy tracks, the Buffalo Soldiers averaged nearly 50 miles a day – twice as fast as a cavalry unit, and at a third the cost.

If we are really serious about carbon reduction and all that then the humble bicycle needs to be brought back into use on a big scale. Forget the e-Bikes, though, and especially the electric cars.

When we look to rural India the bicycle is still the main means of transportation as long as it is not all too heavy haulage, though at times you wonder what they are thinking when you see what they load on their bicycles, and what some tow behind. The same goes for many parts of Africa.

But, in order for the bicycle have a real revival, which it must have, we need the proper infrastructure to go with it, not just some tinkering at the edges or a slight change in the highway code, as was done recently in Britain. That does not go anywhere far enough. In fact, it does not really help at all.

If the governments are truly honest about encouraging people to change their behavior as to travel and try to encourage walking and especially the use of the bicycle for short to medium distances at least then the proper infrastructure has to be created and put in place and those must include proper cycle paths. Cycle paths, not lanes that form part of the normal road, like those in many countries on the European mainland and which are, while along the roads, not part of them but, basically, part of the sidewalks.

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