How bicycles ignited 200 years of controversy in New York City

Steve Athenios (center, in white) leads a bike messenger protest in 1987, after Mayor Koch proposed a midtown cycling ban.

The bicycle has factored into women’s liberation, civil
rights, and income inequality debates

One of the quintessential New York stories is how the city
bikes.

Ever since the first bikes appeared in the city in 1819—simple
velocipedes—they have been vaunted and vilified, viewed as
essential tools for social and economic liberation, but also
dismissed as mere toys. “Cycling in the City:
A 200-Year History
,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City
of New York that opens this week, chronicles this fascinating—and
often frustrating—200-year history.

Organized by Donald Albrecht, a curator at the museum; Evan
Friss, a guest curator, historian, and author of On
Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York
; and Susan
Gall Johnson, a senior curatorial assistant at the museum, the
exhibition investigates the evolution of bicycle design and its
evolving status in the city’s cultural and physical landscape. To
understand the city’s social justice, economic inequality, and
mobility problems, look through the lens of cycling.


Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York; Photograph by Rob
Stephenson

“The bike hasn’t changed that much as an object since the
19th century, but it’s always been the subject of much
debate—about gender, identity, and where people can bicycle,”
Albrecht says during a walkthrough of the exhibition. “It’s
still raging today in the bicycle culture of New York City and has
been doing so for 200 years.”

So why exactly does the bicycle find itself in the middle of so
many controversies?

“Because it’s so malleable and plastic as an object, because
it serves so many different purposes, and because so many different
kinds of people use them,” Friss says. “It’s a kind of
fraught device in some ways, but it can mean so many different
things to people, so they use it as a metaphor to talk about
gentrification, to talk about ethnicity.”

When bikes first emerged in New York in the mid-1800s, they were
expensive playthings only attainable by a certain type of
adventurous, wealthy man. By the late 1860s, the city banned them
in Central Park since they were perceived to be at odds with the
serene environment. A cycling club sued in protest and eventually
won; limited access to Central and Prospect Parks became available
in 1883—if riders could afford a special license. In 1887, New
York State allowed bicycles, now classified as vehicles, to have
access to the roads.

Through the 19th century, bikes were primarily used for social
activities. A traffic counter in May 1896 counted 14,000 cyclists
riding on Broadway, near Central Park, over a 16-hour period, with
the most popular riding hours being between 7:00 and 10:00 p.m. In
1894,
the first dedicated bike lane in the United States was built on
Ocean Parkway
—a new avenue between Prospect Park and Coney
Island designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for
leisure driving—as a recreation space for cyclists. Numerous

cycling clubs were established during this time
, often along
identity lines of race, ethnicity, and class.

By the late 19th century, the price of a bike became less
expensive, and women and middle class riders became more common.
Women’s liberation activists, like Susan B. Anthony, strongly
believed
bikes gave women freedom of movement
and were involved with the
promotion of bikes from the beginning as tools of self reliance.
Munsey, one of the first mass-market magazines, published a story
in 1896 that read: “To men, the bicycle in the beginning was
merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices
they knew in their work and in the play. To women, it was a steed
upon which they rode into a new world.”


Alice Austen, Collection of Historic Richmond Town Violet Ward and
Daisy Elliot, photographed here in 1895, were two pioneering women
cyclists.

As the bike became more accessible in terms of cost, it was
perceived as the first attainable mode of individual
transportation. And yet it fell out of fashion recreationally (but
never disappears) and its status declined the more it is discussed
in utilitarian, rather than recreational, terms—a tense dichotomy
that still exists today.

“[Bikes] have this double-edged sword of access,” Friss says
of the relationship between elites, the working class, and bikes.
“It also shows how the cycling community is never unified.”

In the early 20th century, bikes ebbed in popularity and cars
entered the landscape to become the dominant form of private
transportation, but by the 1930s, bikes saw a resurgence as a
cheaper alternative to cars. Robert Moses believed in bike lanes,
but only for recreational purposes. Taking advantage of New Deal
money for infrastructure projects, Moses vowed to build nearly 60
miles of bike paths. Most of them were never built (funding dried
up, and with it, political will) and were proposed in wealthier
areas of the city and in parks. One of the most significant
contributions from Moses were bike paths near Belt Parkway, in
southern Brooklyn.

“You can see clearly enough [the bike paths] were meant for a
certain kind of individual,” Friss says. “It was meant as
recreation at the expense of utilitarian. That purposefully
under-privileges the reasons why poorer people would ride. Bike
paths were for those that had the leisure time and money to engage
in such practices.”

In the postwar-era, the car continued to be prioritized but in
the 1960s and 1970s, bikes became popular due in part to the
environmental movement. Mayor John Lindsay instituted car-free days
in Central Park during the 1960s. (In 2018,
the city made Central Park permanently car free
.) Newsweek
declared 1964 the year of the yuppie and illustrated a man on a
bike for the cover, which is reprinted in the exhibition.


Carlos Álvarez-Montero Cycling subcultures and social clubs have
thrived in New York Manuel Cruz, photographed in 2007, is from the
Firme Rydaz, a Mexican lowrider bicycle club in the Bronx.

The 1980s set the stage for biking in New York City as we know
it today, particularly under the leadership of Mayor Ed Koch. After
visiting China, he was “swept
away
” by the number of cyclists on the streets. In the early
1980s,
he built the city’s first on-street protected bike lanes on
Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh avenues, and Broadway
. They were
swiftly lambasted by drivers, and
defended by cyclists
, and Koch tore up his experiment a couple
months later. During the 1980 transit strike, he advocated cycling
as an alternative commute. Then, in 1987, he proposed a ban on
bikes in midtown.

“Koch couldn’t figure out if he liked or hated bicycles, so
he’s kind of a microcosm of New York City as a whole,” Friss
says.

Koch’s ban proposed restricting cycling Monday through Friday
between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. This specifically
targeted bike messengers—a 5,000-person workforce that was mostly
Hispanic and African American—but allowed commuters, who were
mostly white, to ride freely. Critics described Koch’s ban as
“less about bikes and messengers as controlling a population
perceived to be dangerous,” Friss writes in his book.

Cyclists of all stripes joined the bike messengers, who took
frequently to the streets to protest, in a rare alignment of
interests. Transportation Alternatives, a cycling advocacy group,
sued the city to help fight the ban and won.

“This is the moment when the bicycle is seen as a
transportation tool and not purely a recreational device and so in
1987 was the fulcrum of what we see today,” Albrecht says.

Cycling has made tremendous strides since 2000, due in major
part to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the leadership of Janette
Sadik-Kahn, who added 400 miles of bike lanes during her tenure as
the city’s transportation commissioner from 2007 to 2013.


While Sadik-Kahn proclaimed an end to the bike wars in 2016
,
the controversy continues today. Some believe
bikes are a harbinger of gentrification
. Riders are demanding
more connectivity in the city’s cycling network,
especially on outer borough streets
. Echos of 1987 are seen in
the way the city is handling e-bikes. While Citi Bike’s
pedal-assist bikes are now allowed and popular with commuters
,
the electric bikes used by delivery drivers,
who are mostly working-class immigrants
, are still illegal. Due
to the coming wave of micromobility technology, like e-scooters and
dockless bikes,
the city is reaching a mobility tipping point
.

“Discussions about where e-scooters belong are eerily
reminiscent of the controversy about where bicycles belong in the
19th century because they’re hard to categorize,” Friss says.
“Now it’s, ‘Are the e-scooters more like a person, a car, or
a bicycle?’ Some people think they’re more like bicycles, but
cyclists don’t want to share bike lanes.”

Understanding the past 200 years of controversy surrounding
bikes might help us negotiate the next 200 years of mobility
planning, as more technology—like autonomous vehicles—are
discussed. The debates around bikes are really about who has free
and unencumbered movement through the city and, as history shows,
the city has prioritized those with access to the most capital and
power.

“In New York, because of density, competition for space has
been a hallmark of social, political, and economic controversies
and I don’t see that disappearing,” Friss says. “But each new
technology and mobility device offers a change to rethink how we
move around…Few of us realize how the decisions about getting
from point A to B are shaped by political forces and historic
decisions. The legacies of Moses and Koch and their decisions are
often cast in concrete. The exhibition invites us to reconsider how
we got here and the limitations placed on us by history and
political actors. It’s healthy to think about this.”

Cycling in the City:
A 200-Year History
” is on view at the Museum of the City of
New York from March 15 to October 6.

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
How bicycles ignited 200 years of controversy in New York City