Blog Feature

Safety bicycles: How pedals powered urban change

The affordable — and, more importantly, rideable — new design provided unprecedented freedom of movement.

By Eric Jaffe

Rover safety bicycle ad

In the 1880s, a British inventor named J.K. Starley brought the safety bicycle to the mass market, making riding much more accessible to all (above, an ad for Starley's Rover brand).
(Wiki Commons)

This piece is part of the Sidewalk Talk series "15 Innovations That Shaped the Modern City."

The safety bicycle, with equal-size wheels and gears to propel them, brought cycling to a broader swath of the population, most notably women, who enjoyed in the hobby a newfound sense of freedom and self-reliance. Throughout the 1890s, a bike boom reverberated on both sides of the Atlantic, giving rise to cycling associations that pushed for bike-centric urban infrastructure. Bicycle technology also helped foster other advents of urban life---including the bike's dominating rival, the automobile. In the time since, pedal power has waxed and waned, but the forces set in motion by safety bikes continue to influence cities today.

The origins

The first confirmed example of a human-powered two-wheeler appeared in Germany, in 1817, where Karl Drais unveiled what he billed as a "running machine." Later dubbed the Draisienne, it was kick-propelled, not pedal-operated. The advent of pedals didn't emerge until the 1860s, around the time the word "bicycle" entered our lexicon.

Riding these early bikes was not easy. With heavy iron frames and wooden wheels, they rightly became known as "boneshakers." The less jarring "ordinary" came next. With a seat perched precariously over a huge front wheel, the ordinary was known for producing nasty spills. ("Get a bicycle," Mark Twain famously advised. "You will not regret it, if you live.") The risk-averse rode tricycles instead.

By the late 1880s, a more pragmatic two-wheeler was brought to the mass market by a British inventor named J.K. Starley. It took the shape of the safety bike, a direct descendent of the modern bicycle that was far less challenging to ride than its predecessors, and far more affordable.

The breakthrough

Starley's design, which he called the Rover, marked a departure from the "ordinary" on several fronts. Lower mounted, it had a sturdier diamond-shaped frame; pedals that powered the rear wheel, not the front; and a chain-driven gear system, which helped riders travel farther and faster without much extra effort.

The new smaller wheels produced a bumpier ride, but that problem was soon smoothed over by the debut of pneumatic tires, which John Dunlop, a Scotsman, devised in 1888 by filling a rubber inner tube with compressed air. Three years later, the Frenchman Edouard Michelin introduced the detachable tire, which allowed for quick-and-easy puncture repair. The result of these and other innovations was the realization of a long-sought dream: a pragmatic mechanical replacement for the horse.

Many changes to the bicycle were still to come. But as David Herlihy notes in the book Bicycle: The History, the framework established in the 1890s "deservedly ranks among the great contributions of the Victorian age."

The impact

The bicycle, Susan B. Anthony once observed, "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." Certainly, it provided greater freedom of movement, as well as relief from prim Victorian fashions, since bicycles and corsets were incompatible. Cycling clubs popped up, attracting a cross-section of social classes and offering a new form of weekend entertainment. An 1896 article in the New York Journal of Commerce estimated that cycling was siphoning $100 million from restaurants, theaters, and other diversions every year.

With economic clout came political power, which cyclists used to push for bike-friendly infrastructure projects. America's first bike path, linking Coney Island to Brooklyn's Prospect Park, opened to the public in 1894. More significantly, around that same time, it was cyclists who laid the groundwork for the Good Roads Movement. The effort was spearheaded by the Legion of the American Wheelmen, a cycling association that turned agitation for better paths and roads into a cry that echoed from coast to coast.

Soon enough, that leading role was taken over by the automobile industry, which itself owes a debt to the bicycle. In those early days, pneumatic tires, ball bearings, and chain-drives, among other innovations used in bicycles, became key components in every vehicle that rolled off the assembly line. It's an ironic origin story, given the rivalry that exists today between drivers and cyclists on city streets.

The future

In recent decades, bicycles have enjoyed an urban revival that shows little sign of slowing down. Forecasts call for the global bicycle market to swell from $45 billion to $62 billion in the next eight years. While the majority of that growth is pegged for Asia, the United States will likely see a groundswell too. In a 2016 survey, 70 percent of U.S. mayors said they would favor the creation of bike lanes over building wider roads or additional street parking. That's not just empty talk. In Los Angeles alone, plans call for the addition of 1,600 miles of bikeways over the next three decades---a bike-friendly trend in urban planning reflected in cities around the world.

The bicycle's resurgence will also likely be buoyed by the continued growth of city bike-share programs, which in 2016 accounted for 28 million trips in the United States alone, a 25 percent jump from the previous year. Those programs, which rely on docks to organize bikes in high-demand areas, have been joined by dockless bike-share companies such as China-based Ofo and Mobile, which use scanning and location technology to keep track of bikes. The presence of dockless systems in the U.S. has prompted debates among cities over how to encourage bike-share without cluttering city sidewalks.

As engines of the environmental movement, bicycles are also destined to play a vital role in the evolution of smart cities. Witness expectations for the e-bike, a low-cost, low-carbon and low-exertion form of mobility that requires no special infrastructure or license to operate. E-bikes open cycling to a greater number of riders, even in cities lacking in cycling infrastructure. By 2025, their sales are projected to jump from $15.7 billion to $24 billion.