Monday, June 12, 2017

Happy 200th, bicycle!

Two hundred years ago today, a German inventor, Baron Karl von Drais, took his newly created "laufmaschine" for a spin in Mannheim.It was essentially the same basic machine as my nephew's balance bike - two wheels, a seat and handlebars, powered by a running motion, as you pushed yourself along with your feet.

True, it would take about 60 years from that day before the full bicycle craze would kick in, with all the penny farthings and safety bicycles and world-circling adventurers that it brought. But that goofy-looking balance bike, the first "dandy horse," was on the cobblestones of Mannheim two hundred years ago today.

For a while, the bicycle was a toy, ridden by mostly young and male enthusiasts, a mark of modernity, athleticism, and a dash of recklessness.

But once they started creating safer and more comfortable versions of the bicycle, it started being seen as the solution to transportation for average people. Horses were expensive to own and keep: the bike offered individual mobility at a fairly reasonable price. The celebrity world-travelers (like Annie Londonderry, Frank Lenz or William Sachtleben) were, in part, saying that a person could go anywhere at all on a bike - even across the Himalayas or the Gobi Desert - given a little grit and ingenuity. All on their own.
Annie Londonderry. Seriously, look her up.

I don't think von Drais had any idea of the impact his invention would have, though. Bikes are directly linked to the emancipation of women, largely because they're a means of getting around that's affordable and accessible: they quite literally offer freedom. They still work to improve lives in developing countries where they're the backbones of small-town entrepreneurship and service delivery. And for a long time, learning to ride a bicycle was one of a child's first moments of independence.

(I remember being envious of my friends who could ride and had bikes, and the joy of getting my first bicycle as a birthday present, and waking up really, really early in the morning the next day so I could ride down the hill behind my house over and over, crashing in the back field until I learned how to ride it.)

Bikes were the vehicle of the future: until the invention of the car, and Henry Ford's determination to make car ownership affordable for the maximum number of Americans, and the explosion of car culture. And for a long time bikes were relegated back to being toys. Children rode them, and then gave them up for cars when they put away childish things. You weren't really an adult until you had a car. Suburbs and drive-ins and drive-throughs and freeways sprouted.

And now, congestion is awful, everyone hates commuting, Western civilization is discovering that it's sedentary and unhealthy, we've learned that burning hydrocarbons will destroy our climate, gas prices are shooting higher as we get closer to peak oil, we've learned that widening highways only leads to bigger and more clogged highways, and cities are, one by one, coming around to the understanding that bikes are, actually, like we thought in 1890. . .

. . . the vehicle of the future.

Bike networks crisscross New York City (and Times Square is closed to cars). Cities like Amsterdam and Oulu and Copenhagen - well, we know about them. Even Detroit, Motor City, is putting in bike lanes on every new street that goes in as the downtown core is being rebuilt after economic and industrial devastation. Bike and transit oriented design is being embraced by city after city. I live in a city with the third fastest growing cycling modal share in the world. In the afternoon, on the way home from work, on the segregated bike lanes, I stop at intersections to wait for the light along with a dozen other cyclists - probably more people than are in cars waiting for the same light, if I'm going to be honest. Millennials, in increasing numbers, are just not bothering with car ownership. Cargo bikes and longtails and two-seaters are proliferating, as families rediscover that you don't necessarily need a car if you have kids. There are battery-powered bikes for the less physically strong, and recumbent bikes for people with back pain, There are trikes for those who feel less stable on two wheels but still want to get around cheaply and easily and without having to worry about finding parking.

And bikes are still affordable and egalitarian. There's a guy I ride past many mornings, who puts out his bedroll underneath Pretoria Bridge, at the side of the bike path. He parks his bike beside the flat space of concrete at the canal railing where he spends the night, and in the mornings he packs up his things into his panniers: I've passed him while he's still sleeping on my way to work, and I've passed him getting packed up for the day when it's better weather and he's up earlier. I've passed him late at night when he's already turned in, with his sleeping bag zipped up to his neck. I presume he's homeless, or otherwise marginally housed. He has a bike: it's in decent shape, and it gets him and his stuff around town.

And riding a bike will make you see things differently. At least it has for me. It has made me braver and bolder and less likely to take any shit from some idiot in a car who feels more powerful than me. And it has changed my life. Since getting back on a bike as a primary means of transport a little over ten years ago, I've learned a lot, I've discovered a passion, I've gotten more involved in my city, I've met wonderful people, and I've been involved in some efforts to make the world a better place. Not to mention I get to say that getting from point A to point B is sometimes the best part of my day.

So happy 200th birthday, bicycle. I think you've changed the world, and I don't think you're done changing it yet. And I'm terribly glad you're part of my life.