Bike battles by James Longhurst

Monday, January 15, 2018
by Cameron Shelley

In a recent post about telegraph delivery boys, I noted that their employers were reluctant to take responsibility for collisions between them and pedestrians.  This, and many other points about the history of cycling on the roadways of the United States are related in "Bike battles" by James Longhurst of the University of Wisconsin.

The theme of the book is the history of cycling on American roads, viewed as a conflict with other users.  Early contenders were people in horse-drawn carts and carriages as well as pedestrians.  Of course, most of this history concerns the relationship between cyclists and motorists.

Longhurst notes that roadways in America are treated as a commons, that is, a facility held for general use of citizens by their government for the purpose of getting around.  This allowance applied to personal vehicles, such as carts and carriages.  In a watershed decision, a British court in 1879 ruled that a bicycle is a vehicle.  Since American common law followed British tradition, this case had the effect of making bicycles vehicles in the United States also.

Then, the difficulty became how to regulate the sharing of the roadways with other vehicles.  After all, roadways may be a commons and thus available to all users, but unregulated use could be become a hazard and degrade the value of the resource generally (think traffic congestion).

In a forgotten episode, many cyclists argued for a set of roadways called "sidepaths" set aside for cyclists only.  Some were built but the idea never took off.  As a result, cyclists generally remained on the common roads

Of course, cyclists were increasingly displaced for cars.  The problem of controlling car traffic loomed large and roadways were redesigned mainly for this purpose.  Painted markings and traffic lights, for example, took up the entire roadway.  Although bicycles remained "vehicles", they were more-or-less designed out of the roads.

With the advent of car licenses and age restrictions, bicycles came to be seen as children's toys, fit for telegraph delivery boys but something that should be abandoned in favor of cars upon maturity.

Cycling returned as a vehicle for serious (as well as recreational) use around 1970 when they were seen as an appropriate lifestyle choice in an era of environmentalism and energy insecurity.

Today, bicycles have been making a comeback on American roads but not without resistance.  Critics still see bikes as toys or as tools of a misguided elite engaged in a "war on cars".  

Longhurst admits that "Bike battles" is a somewhat sensational title but there is no doubt that the history of bicycles as vehicles in the United States (and elsewhere) has been one of conflict, mainly with cars, over access to the common roadways.  Anyone wanting to understand this history would do well to read Longhurst's engaging and well-informed account.