Book Excerpt! On Bicycles: A 200 Year History of Cycling in New York City

In On Bicycles, Evan Friss fills in the missing chapters that bicycles hold in New York City’s near-miraculous transportation history and shows how the city’s streets are finally catching up with them.

~ Janette Sadik-Khan, Bloomberg Associates, former NYC transportation commissioner

Yesterday, in tandem with the opening of the Museum of the City of New York’s City of Workers, City of Struggle exhibit, we posted the directors note to the introduction of the newly released book City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York, edited by Joshua B. Freeman. But did you know that the museum is also home to the exhibit Cycling in the City: A 200-Year History? Our new book On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York City, by Evan Friss is the exhibits’ companion. In the book, Friss traces the colorful and fraught history of bicycles—and bicyclists—in New York City. He uncovers the bicycle’s place in the city over time, showing how the bicycle has served as a mirror of the city’s changing social, economic, infrastructural, and cultural politics. Below is an excerpt from the book’s introduction.

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From the moment the very first velocipedes (early bicycles) arrived in 1819, residents fought about what to do with them. Should they be allowed on the streets? In the parks? On the sidewalks? The answer was, apparently, “none of the above,” as lawmakers soon banned them from the places they had been most used. Those first velocipedes lasted only a summer, but the wheeled contraptions, and the questions, would return.5

And so began a recurring pattern— a peak of interest followed by a period of decline. Yet, each time, the booms lasted longer. Just as a novice rider is first able to balance only a few seconds without falling, then a minute, then two, then three . . . New Yorkers rode for longer and longer with each revival. Ever since the 1870s, whether velocipedes, high-wheelers with their almost comically oversized front wheels, safety bicycles, tricycles, cruisers, ten-speeds, fixed-gears, BMX bikes, Citi Bikes, or e-bikes, there have always been bicycles in New York.

The question about where they belonged never disappeared either. New Yorkers remained divided on the issue because they remained divided on the nature of cyclists and cycling. In the nineteenth century, carriage drivers may well have frequented the six-day-long bicycle races at Madison Square Garden, but they objected to cyclists “scorching” through Central Park. CEOs in the 1980s may have enjoyed mountain biking at their summer cabins, but they did not want tank-topped messengers tramping through their lobbies. And twenty-first-century Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg may have been happy to put their children on a bicycle, but they did not want hipsters wheeling through their neighborhood. Calls to restrict bicycles came with each boom— in 1819, 1869, the 1890s, the late 1930s, the early 1970s, and the twenty-first century— and each new notion of cycling.

Bike critics were not simply lumped together either. In recent years, articles railing against cyclists could be found just as easily in the tabloid New York Post (“bubble-brained traffic-busting” bike lanes serve only “amphetamine-propelled deliverymen”) as in the highbrow New Introduction 4 Yorker (“it is time to call a halt to [Transportation Commissioner] Sadik-Khan and her faceless road swipers”). Both truck drivers and passengers leering from limousines grumbled about the cyclists. Even cyclists complained about other cyclists.6

At the same time, New Yorkers continued to conjure up various, often distinct images of the cyclist archetype. Was it an immigrant delivering Chinese food? A young white commuter? A middle-aged man in Lycra (known as a “MAMIL”)? New York has never had one singular cycling culture. But it did have cultures, whether it was cyclists hanging out along Lower Manhattan’s “Bicycle Row” in the mid-1890s or racers congregating in a Harlem bike shop in the late 1960s. Never have all types of cyclists been perceived equally. The same holds true even by the end of this story, when the city embraces the bicycle as fully as it ever has.

Indeed, this book ends a long and remarkable way from where it begins. When they first came ashore two hundred years ago, bicycles were quickly banned. In the decades that followed, leaders and lawmakers reacted in piecemeal and often knee-jerk fashion to requests and complaints from bike advocates and critics. But in the end, infrastructure was built not just to satiate but to spur demand, and to change the way New Yorkers thought about bicycles, their streets, and their city.

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To celebrate the book and the exhibit, we are offering a 30% discount on orders placed on our website for On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York CitySimply use the coupon code MCNY at checkout.

5. “Hobby Horses,” Ladies’ Literary Cabinet, May 29, 1819.
6.Idiotic DOT Takes a Walk on the Wild Side,” New York Post, November 13, 2008; John Cassidy,
Battle of the Bike Lanes,” New Yorker, March 8, 2011. 

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