American roads were built for bikes

Five o’clock rush hour is a concept that does not exist in car-centric cities such as Los Angeles. Because in these cities, traffic is a 24-hour nightmare. This car-dominated city, which is rumored to have more cars than people, leaves very little room to share the road with bicyclists. In an effort to accommodate more cars rather than more bikes, the city is lobbying to extend a major freeway through South Pasadena to Northeast Los Angeles.This probably comes as no surprise to bicycle enthusiasts because, after all, contemporary Los Angeles is hardly Copenhagen.

Car ownership in Los Angeles County, California. Source: LA Streetsblog

Yet, before chalking this story up to just another example of different cultural values, it is worth noting that before Copenhagen became the bicyclists’ mecca, there was Los Angeles. In fact, ironically enough the turn-of-the-twentieth century proposal for a South Pasadena-Northeast Los Angeles freeway called for an elevated tollway to be built exclusively for cyclists. Looking at Los Angeles today, you would never know that the city was once overrun by cyclists who had the power to influence what infrastructure the city built. However, this history is not unique to Los Angeles, but numerous American cities at the end of the nineteenth century.This is a history of a two-wheeled vehicle that catalyzed a group of enthusiasts to lobby for the construction of better roads.

Once upon a time American culture was obsessed with the bicycle in an era that is now referred to as the Bicycle Boom. Lasting only from 1880-1900, the boom ended as quickly as it came, taking with it many traces of the once mighty bicycle. Though the bicycle went out of fashion at the end of the nineteenth century, the machine’s influence continued to shape American roads through the unprecedented lobbying efforts of the nation’s largest cycling club–the League of American Wheelmen.

In a time when American road infrastructure was still in its infancy and far from being considered a national priority, the League of American Wheelmen was the first to use a political agenda to raise the issue of good roads. The League’s fight for better roads was radical for the time period and called for innovative solutions to unprecedented hurdles. These included innovative strategies for raising funds for the League’s Good Roads Campaign. As part of the campaign, the League published a magazine called Good Roads and managed to distribute over three million copies in its first three years of publication. The campaign’s publicity cost the League an estimated $210,000, which today would be equivalent to roughly $4,700,000.2 Their investment paid off in 1896 when it captured the attention of the soon-to-be president William McKinley who agreed to include the issue of good roads in his campaign.

William McKinley’s presidential campaign materials portrayed him as a cyclist. Source: Michael Wagner

As a result, the League began to carve out a legitimate role in politics by pushing what would eventually become a national plan for better roads. Ironically, these lobbying efforts would pave the way for automobile roads as the Bicycle Boom came to a close.

With the end of the Bicycle Boom in 1900, the League faced losing their political foothold since their prominence was intimately tied with that of the bicycle. They cut ties with the bicycle in 1900 because they feared that their political progress for better roads would suffer the same fate of the bicycle as it faded into oblivion. Thus, in 1900 the League of American Wheelmen shed all traces of the bicycle by officially changing their name to the American Road Makers.3 The American Road Makers would go on to continue lobbying for good roads, just no longer for the sake of bicycling.

Twenty-first century bicyclists are lobbying for their right to the road. They don’t have nearly the same level of political clout that the contemporary American Road Makers (the auto industry, entrenched auto-centric road engineering firms) do, but progress is being made. Thanks to better infrastructure and programs that encourage ditching the car, the rate of commuters traveling by bike in major US cities has steadily increased since 2005. The return to the day when the bike was king might not happen imminently, but the popularity and influence of cyclists is growing.

featured photo: An early photo of members of the League of American Wheelmen, founded in 1880 in Rhode Island. Source: Carlton Reid

Molly Fisher is from Charlotte, NC and enjoys traveling, live music and the great outdoors. Molly is double majoring in geological sciences and history. She serves as the Sustainability Chair for Phi Mu Fraternity and is a research assistant in UNC’s Geophysics and Climatology laboratory. Molly plans on pursuing a career in environmental sustainability at the local government level upon graduation in May 2016.

[1] The Times Editorial Board,”Sharing the Road: Can L.A. Be a Cyclist’s Town?” Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2013.

[2] Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s annual Consumer Price Index (CPI), which was established in 1913. Inflation data from 1665 to 1912 is sourced from a historical study conducted by political science professor Robert Sahr at Oregon State University.

[3] Smith, Robert A. A Social History of the Bicycle: Its Early Life and times in AmericaNew York: American Heritage Press, 1972.