Here in New York, where more and more people are communting to work on their bikes, cars and cyclists have a feud that puts cats and dogs to shame. The battle plays out through extended middle fingers and horn honks and in the office of the Department of Transportation, where planners are trying to provide hundreds of new miles of bike lanes while not pissing off drivers too much by depriving them of parking spaces and the breathing room they're used to on the road.
I was amused this week to find in some old Brooklyn Eagle articles that this animosity goes back a long way. For example in an 1897 editorial, the writer laments the increase in injuries caused by the new contraptions, and the antagonistic behavior between the two parties [note: wheel, wheeler, or wheelman was a term used for a cyclist back then. "Scorcher" was also used]:
“There are horse drivers, who, encountering a wheel on a lonely rode, cannot resist an expression of their opinion by blocking the highway, or by running over to the left, or doing some other thing to endanger or annoy its rider. And there are wheelmen who are just the same sort of people on their bicycles.”
An article from 1880 covers a meeting of the city's aldermen in which they "wrestle with the bicycle question” — namely whether bicycles were entitled to use of the streets the same as other vehicles and whether the same rules of the road should apply.
There were some at the meeting who were in favor of restricting the use of bicycles on Sundays, but that didn't fly.
“It has been without exception decided that the bicycle is a vehicle, and as such has equal right with other vehicles, to the use of the streets without discriminating restrictions” was one sensible point of view. The rebuttal was that “bicycles and their riders when in motion frighten horses.”
Well, cyclists can't have that charge thrown at them anymore, at least.
There is another objection to biking that we are well past culturally, and that's the moral and physical harm it could do to young ladies. According to an 1896 Eagle article, Charlotte Smith of the Woman’s Rescue League thought biking was "undoubtedly injurious to some girls." She believed "the physical condition of the average girl will not permit of her taking long rides on a bicycle and on account of the exhilarating effects of the spin of a wheel, the practice is kept up until before she knows it the rider will find herself a physical wreck, burdened with many serious diseases."
She continues, "By far the gravest question to be considered in connection with the bicycle is its effect upon the morals of our young folks. The popular stand taken by the public in regard to the bicycle girl, representing her as an American woman of independence, and capable of taking care of herself in any predicament, has had a demoralizing effect upon youthful riders. This sentiment has instilled in girls the impression ... that they can go where they choose, whether or not they are accompanied by a male escort. This feeling grows upon the girl as her riding becomes more general, and her spins are soon taken in the evening as well as during the day. This continues and she grows further and further from the influence of her parents…”
So as bike advocates look to topple the dominance of car culture, they should keep their spirits up and remember that the movement can already claim women's lib as an accomplishment.
The photo above, courtesy of Old Brooklyn in Early Photographs by William Lee Younger, shows bikers in Prospect Park in 1896.
SOMEWHAT RELATED STORIES: