The bicycle is in vogue. Rathbone (2013) argues that “the rise of the bicycle is, of course, a worldwide phenomenon.” In many cities across the world there are now advocates for utilitarian bicycling. City governments are re-shaping streets in order to accommodate the bicycle. In some cities in North America, Europe, Latin America and Australia, there has been marked quantitative increase in everyday bicycle use (Pucher et al. 1999; Hidalgo & Huizenga 2013; Bonham & Johnson 2015; Transport for London 2015). In other cities in Africa what is more evident is the policy interest into bicycling above and beyond user uptake (Morgan Forthcoming; Jennings 2015).
Yet in the late 19th century, the bicycle was as popular as it is now. In the late 19th century Johannesburg, the city was described by observers as being in the grip of a cycling “craze” and “mania” (Gutsche n.d., pp.6, 10). Carstensen and Ebert (2012) write about the ‘golden age’ of bicycles in Northern Europe in the same period. At the time, bicycle users even became a political force. In Chicago, a mayoral candidate, Carter H. Harrison II, “launched his campaign by riding his first ‘century’ – one hundred miles – from his West Side home to Waukegan, Wheeling, and Libertyville, and back – in just nine and one-half hours” (Bushnell 1975, p.175).
The similarity between the late 19th century and the contemporary moment, is recently well captured by Friss (2016) who asks “there’s a buzz about bicycles! The number of cyclists is increasing, the streets themselves are changing in order to cater to them, and politicians can’t stop talking about them: Is it 1897 or 2016?”
Is there something to learn from the past that can support this renewed interest in everyday bicycling? Why was the bicycle as popular as it was in the late 19th century in many urban contexts? Why was the bicycle dethroned as an everyday form of transport almost everywhere in the world? But curiously, why in some spaces such as the Netherlands, Japan, and Denmark did the bicycle remain as a respectable mode of transport – albeit with reduced levels of use. These are some of the sub-questions that animate my PhD research.
Bonham, J. & Johnson, M., 2015. Cycling Futures, University of Adelaide Press.
Bushnell, G.D., 1975. When Chicago Was Wheel Crazy. Chicago History, 4(3), pp.167–175.
Carstensen, T.A. & Ebert, A.-K., 2012. Chapter 2 Cycling Cultures in Northern Europe: From “Golden Age” to “Renaissance.” In Cycling and Sustainability. Transport and Sustainability. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 23–58. Available at: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/S2044-9941%282012%290000001004 [Accessed January 14, 2015].
Friss, E., 2016. The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s. History & Policy. Available at: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/index.php/historians-books/books/the-cycling-city [Accessed April 5, 2016].
Gutsche, T., Roaring Nineties and Darkling Days; 1891—1895. In Old Gold: The history of the Wanderers Club 1888 to 1968. The Wanderers Club. Available at: http://www.thewanderersclub.co.za/the-club/history/.
Hidalgo, D. & Huizenga, C., 2013. Implementation of sustainable urban transport in Latin America. Research in Transportation Economics, 40(1), pp.66–77.
Jennings, G., 2015. A Bicycling Renaissance in South Africa? Policies, Programmes & Trends in Cape Town. In Proceedings of the 34th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2015). The 34th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2015). Pretoria, South Africa.
Morgan, N., Forthcoming. Space, culture and transport mode choice in socio-technical transitions. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand.
Pucher, J., Komanoff, C. & Schimek, P., 1999. Bicycling renaissance in North America?: Recent trends and alternative policies to promote bicycling. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 33(7–8), pp.625–654.
Rathbone, J.P., 2013. Car? Taxi? Helicopter? Latin Americans take to the bike. Financial Times. Available at: http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2013/09/24/car-taxi-helicopter-latin-americans-take-to-the-bike/ [Accessed March 21, 2016].
Transport for London, 2015. Travel in London, Available at: http://content.tfl.gov.uk/travel-in-london-report-8.pdf [Accessed April 6, 2016].