- The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s by Evan Friss
Evan Friss’s The Cycling City demonstrates how bike riding experienced explosive popularity in 1890s urban America. Due to congestion and pollution, Friss argues, marketing, media coverage, and a Progressive politics created an “exceptional moment” for the bicycle in the American city and allowed riders a new, if short-lived, way to reconceptualize their environment.
The Cycling City traces the growth to the 1876 centennial, where “bicycle tycoon” Albert Augustus Pope first eyed the machine. From his Hartford factory, Pope, joined by manufacturers elsewhere, supplied an eager public. Friss finds that, in 1890, twenty-seven firms produced bikes; by 1900, the number reached more than three hundred. Newspapers and magazines featured ads, stories, and editorials celebrating (or bemoaning) the large-scale appearance of cyclists. Riders lived in larger cities, which had higher population densities and better-quality roads. Yet Friss notes that, despite bikes’ availability, not everyone desired or could afford them. Ridership also was dictated by gender roles, codes of conduct, and one’s neighborhood within the metropolitan area; Friss devotes chapters to women’s roles in cycling and how the bicycle, from races to social clubs, affected sport culture.
The bicycle competed for space with cable cars, omnibuses, horse cabs, carriages, and pedestrians. Many cities at first closed their streets to bikes, while others banned them in parks, in certain neighborhoods, or during certain hours. Cycling clubs challenged these restrictions and were successful in many cases. Friss cites several such conflicts but states no battle carried more significance than that over Central Park, which pitted elite New Yorkers against the riding masses, whom the former deemed disruptive to the park’s elegance. Such cases led to the establishment of traffic regulations, the construction of bike paths, and, through “good roads campaigns” coast to coast, widespread paving; led by riders’ associations, most notably the League of American Wheelmen and their political allies, these efforts represented forms of urban planning before the practice was a recognized profession.
Wheelmen found allies in public-health departments, which sought cleaner cities and streets. As a “back to nature” sensibility appealed to many city dwellers, the bicycle seemed a solution to urban ills. But, as the author finds, distance, rider fatigue, accidents, and poor surfaces limited the bike’s universal adoption. The most challenging question that The Cycling City poses is how ridership declined by the early twentieth century. As Friss concludes, the mass-produced automobile played a role in cycling’s demise. But, with ridership falling precipitously before 1900, other factors, such as their greater availability [End Page 108] and the tendency for trends to wane, also were to blame. Despite its contentious and fleeting relationship with the city, the bicycle altered personal mobility and engagement with the urban environment. The Cycling City is aided by sharp prose, illustrations and graphs, and a well-researched narrative. By contextualizing cycling in environmental, urban, and cultural terms, the author makes a fine contribution to sports history and the history of cities, one that will appeal to scholars in various disciplines.