Why the bicycle is the best means of urban transport

In his new encyclopedic book, Two Wheels Well: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle (Crown, $28.99), Jody Rosen delivers a deeply documented and highly entertaining history of cycling, told from the perspective of an avid urban cyclist. Balancing the mechanical, the historical and the personal, Rosen travels back in time from the Victorian origins of the motorcycle to our pedal-crazed present, while circumnavigating the globe from New York to Beijing, Copenhagen to Dhaka.

In this conversation with architecture critic Mark Lamster, he describes the motorcycle’s enduring appeal and the challenges cyclists have faced since its invention.

ML: The great Texas architect O’Neil Ford marveled at the bike’s design, calling it “that magic thing that man made”. He even modeled his circular assembly building in La Villita, San Antonio on the wheel’s spoked hub engineering. This basic bicycle design has remained essentially unchanged for generations. How exactly did he achieve such perfection?

Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle (Crown, $28.99) by Jody Rosen

J.R.: The short answer is: trial and error. The bicycle developed in spurts over a period of about seven decades, from the invention of the first proto-bicycle in 1817 to the arrival in the mid-1880s of the so-called safety bicycle – the classic bicycle that we recognize today, with two wheels of equal size, pneumatic rubber tires, a chain drive that returns to the rear wheel and a diamond-shaped frame. A weird thing about the bike is that, in historical terms, it came late. The technology needed to build a bicycle has been available since the Middle Ages, and for centuries mankind has somehow approached the bicycle, experimenting with all sorts of wacky designs in an effort to find an alternative to working animals, a transport machine that you could use to move across the land without harnessing a horse or a donkey or a dog. By the time the motorcycle was perfected, around 1885, it was already an anachronism: the steam locomotive had been invented decades earlier and the automobile revolution was beginning to stir.

But the bicycle was such an ingenious device that it didn’t matter that it was somehow outdated at birth. It used basic materials and spartan design – this simple arrangement of wheels, pedals, cranks and a chain – to harness human muscle power in an incredibly efficient way. On a bicycle, a person moves four times faster than on foot while expending five times less energy. The essential magic of the bicycle lies in the fact that the passenger is also the motor. Everyone who has ridden a bike has felt the strange feeling of being one with the machine. You could say that a bicycle is more like a prosthesis than a vehicle.

Jody Rosen, author of 'Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle.'
Jody Rosen, author of ‘Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle.’

ML: It sounds like such a benign machine, a child’s toy, but the bicycle (and cyclists) has repeatedly been presented as a serious danger to society. How did this happen and what explains this duality?

J.R.: It’s true that cycling has always been controversial. From the start, bicycles were seen by many as unwanted intruders on the roads, threatening pedestrians and claiming space that rightfully belonged to horses. During the bicycle boom of the 1890s, anti-cycling sentiment turned into moral panic: opponents decried bicycles as threats to (among other things) traditional values, economic stability, and women’s sexual purity. This was partly understandable: the bicycle represented modernity and changing times. It was a democratizing machine that offered a new kind of freedom and mobility across class lines. And, famously, it was a catalyst for women’s liberation that was embraced by feminists as both a symbol of the new femininity and a tool of protest.

The idea that a bicycle is a child’s toy is really a product of American automotive culture. In the age of the automobile, bicycles were so marginalized – literally pushed off the road – that bicycle manufacturers had to find new ways to market their products. In a way, it was an extension of the old battles over the right to the road: when you call a bike a toy, you’re really saying, “This thing doesn’t belong on the streets where adults ride. . .”

ML: You traveled to Dhaka, the bustling capital of Bangladesh, to document the role of cycling in this city. Why did you want to go and what did you learn?

J.R.: The vast majority of bicycles and cyclists in the world are in developing countries — in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America. But here in the United States, our view of the world of cycling usually extends no further than Amsterdam or Copenhagen. If you broaden your vision, a different culture of cycling emerges, a world where cycling does not mean “lifestyle”, but livelihood. Dhaka is the fastest growing and most densely populated megacity in the world, and it’s the power of the pedals that keeps the place going: hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cycle rickshaws carrying goods to markets and transport passengers through congested streets. I went there to write about the lives of the city’s rickshaw pullers, desperately poor men working in almost unimaginable conditions. This experience changed my thinking about so-called “work bikes” and made me aware of another subclass of cargo riders that had been more or less invisible to me: the delivery menfood delivery men toiling on the streets of my hometown, New York.

ML: The word “accident”, used to describe cars hitting cyclists, is one of your big frustrations. Explain.

J.R.: When we use the term “accident”, we are suggesting that an aberrant event has occurred, that a deviation has disrupted a system that was otherwise functioning normally. But in almost all cases, motorists crash into cyclists because of the systems we have in place, not in spite of them. Our roads and our laws favor the automobile over non-motorized modes of transportation, including, incidentally, walking. This has created a situation in which predictable and preventable injuries and deaths occur every day, and cyclists must put their lives on the line to, for example, travel three blocks to get groceries. In places like Copenhagen, which have excellent cycling infrastructure, fatal bicycle “accidents” are extremely rare, despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of the city’s population commute to work by bicycle.

ML: This book is a personal story as much as a story. You broke your bones, you were hit by cars, your bike was stolen (me too, on all three levels) but we still continue to cycle. Why can’t we stop?

J.R.: For me, cycling is not only the best way to get around town. It’s the most effective and finely tuned pleasure delivery device I’ve come across. I feel better when I’m on a bike than when I’m off. If you’re a city dweller, a bike ride is the best way to really get to know your city: admire the panorama, observe the people, compose your mental map, including a topographical map. (On a bike, you really notice the hills.) Here’s how I put it in the book: Biking can kill you, but going your days without a bike – that’s no way to live.

ML: Last question: what is your current background, and why?

J.R.: A Priority Classic Plus, made by Priority Bicycles, a small company based in New York. It’s a sort of “grandmother’s bike,” an old-fashioned cruiser-style bicycle that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in 1895. It’s a three-speed with a coaster brake, the kind of brake that activates when you push back on the pedals. It has a new feature, a carbon belt drive instead of a traditional chain drive. It’s not fancy or expensive, but I love it; this is definitely the best bike i have ever owned. Works great, looks great. I want to ride it until the end of time, or until it’s stolen. I think I know who will come first.

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