Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Cars & Bikes – the Back Story
Bikes came first. There was a huge bicycle boom way back in the 1890's, fueled by the introduction of the "safety" bicycle - the first recognizably modern bike. A big gear by the pedals used a chain to drive a small gear on the rear axle. This allowed both wheels to be the same size; and pneumatic tires made the ride much more comfortable.
People loved them. American manufacturers built and sold scads of them during the 1890's, with production reaching as high as 3 million units per year. Compare this with the total population of the United States, which was around 63 million in the 1890 census.
(This article relies heavily on James Longhurst, Bike Battles, 2015, and Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic, 2011. For the two paragraphs above, see Longhurst, pp. 55-56.)
The bike boom started to wane around 1900. Then, in 1908, the Model T Ford was introduced, and the nation's long love affair with the car burst into full bloom.
The automobile was a highly disruptive force, particularly on the streets of America's cities. Cars were big and fast, and they did not mix well with the existing traffic, which moved more slowly and was accustomed to sharing the road. Cars wanted the other users to get out of the way.
Between 1915 and 1930 there was a virtual war for control of the streets. (See Norton, p. 2.) The cars won. All the other users - bicycles, pedestrians, streetcars, horses and wagons - lost.
Cars would probably have won anyway, but they were fortunate in their opponents, and their victory was more complete than it might otherwise have been, if only the opposing forces had been stronger and wiser. The bicycle movement, for instance, had been born with a number of weaknesses that compromised its ability to stake out and maintain a viable position on the nation's streets and roads.
The 1890's Bike Boom and the Seeds of Defeat
Led by the League of American Wheelmen (founded in 1880), the bike movement of the 1890's had organization, money, and influence. It lacked unity around common goals, and it lacked a mass base, even though, in view of the sales figures, one was obviously available. (For this section, see Longhurst, chapter 2.)
Bicycling in the 1890's did face a major challenge. We've got all these bicycles. Where are we going to ride them?
On the road, you say? Well, think again. In 1890 the state of American roads left a great deal to be desired. As Longhurst puts it (pp. 62-63), "The state of nineteenth-century roads was a symptom of an essentially local, decentralized system of financing road construction, itself the consequence of weak municipal governments and a distrust of public works. Before the twentieth century, most urban streets were paved only when adjoining property owners - abutters - clubbed together to fund the work. Rural roads were built by the occasional 'working out' of road taxes, where nearby property owners were required to provide a week or so of their own labor in a work gang under the supervision of an appointed county 'pathmaster.'"
So, without putting too fine a point on it, no tax base, and no county road department.
The League of American Wheelmen confronted this problem head-on with something called the Good Roads movement, which proposed to tax the public to pay for the roads. At around the same time, another movement got started in northern New York state. Its ambitions were more narrowly focused on improving mobility for bicyclists by building sidepaths - what we would today call bicycle lanes. These were typically leveled and gravel-covered lanes at the side of the main road.
These two initiatives did not need to be competitors. The League, however, went to war - or more precisely to Albany - and successfully fought enabling legislation that would have allowed counties in New York state to foster the construction and maintenance of sidepaths. Around the same time it got the New York legislature to approve a bill which said the state should pay half the cost of road construction.
The League eventually relented and agreed that sidepaths were an appropriate approach in places where the roads were unlikely to improve any time soon. And quite a few sidepaths were built around the country. However, sidepaths never benefited from the steady source of funding that the League worked so hard to get for roads.
The sidepaths proved ephemeral. It appears they basically got paved over as Good Roads funding was spent to improve the full width of the road. However, the great beneficiary of all this road work turned out to be, not the bicycle, but the car.
The League proved unable to protect the interests of bicycling after 1900 because it had failed to build a mass base. It's fair to say that the League went out of its way not to build a mass base because it was a profoundly elitist organization. It existed to serve a small group of well-to-do white men who used their bikes for leisure.
The League barely tolerated the women in their bloomers who equated the bike with freedom. Susan B. Anthony, the leader of the women's suffrage movement whose image graced the dollar coin for a few years beginning in 1979, had this to say about the bicycle in 1896: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel ... the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."
Opportunity for a powerful alliance missed. But of course I'm asking the Leaguers to be different people from who they were.
And what did the League think of people who used the bicycle to commute to work? Although data are hard to come by, it's clear that a lot of people were commuting by bike. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that more than 4,000 Chicagoans were biking to work in 1896, and it had a count of 10,000 in 1898. In 1910, the city engineer in Minneapolis counted as many as 1,258 cyclists at a busy downtown intersection on a nice July day, with an average of 669 per day in observations that spanned 12 months, presumably including the Minnesota winter. (Longhurst, p. 102.)
For the League, bicycling was a social activity for the elite, not a way to get to work. And so it missed a major opportunity to build a solid mass base.
The capstone of the League's policy of exclusion was an 1894 change to membership requirements. Henceforth, members would need to be white. Existing black members protested without avail.
There are many aspects of the Gilded Age that I find quite depressing, but these finishing touches to America's emerging doctrine of Jim Crow are possibly the most painful.
Comes the Model T
Cars started off as a plaything for the elite. The first Packard - America's version of the Rolls-Royce - hit the road in 1899. But then something funny happened on the way to the forum, and the script got rewritten. The Model T Ford, introduced in 1908, put the auto within reach for the masses. And, after some initial hesitation, the leaders of the automobile industry mobilized a mass movement that wound up getting its way at virtually every turn.
From the very beginning it was clear that the automobile was an incompatible use in a way that the bicycle had never been. People had complained about bikes, of course. They were particularly scathing about "scorchers" - bicyclists who went too fast. Little did they know what they were about to experience with the automobile.
The automobile's chief advantage over other forms of transportation was its speed, which even in the early days was formidable. For instance, in 1911, Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis 500 with an average speed of 74.6 miles an hour.
The automobile's chief disadvantage was "spatial inefficiency" (Norton, p. 174). It took up a lot of space, and this quickly proved to be a major problem on city streets. Many people thought it best suited for rural areas (Norton, p. 12). The auto industry, however, was having none of that. There were a lot of people in the cities, and a lot of money, and the car makers were going to sell cars.
Cars brought with them two main problems: crashes and congestion, which flowed from their speed and their size. Neither of these problems has ever been solved; the war for the streets that lasted from 1915 to 1930 ended with cars dominating the streets and with an acceptance of the problems they brought with them.
A War with Three Phases
The war for the streets had three distinct, if overlapping, phases. From the beginning to about 1920, society looked to the police to maintain order; then from 1920 to about 1927, traffic engineers sought to optimize the use of existing infrastructure; and finally, after 1927 the car lobby orchestrated the reconstruction of our roads to increase the "floor space" available for automobiles.
Phase One. The first phase involved imposing order on a realm that had been ruled by custom. As Longhurst puts it (p. 85), "It may be hard to imagine now, but the nineteenth-century road was largely a blank slate, both legally and literally. It lacked traffic laws, signs, lanes, or signals. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was only a single rule of the road: stay on your own side."
The car forced cities to replace custom with formal regulation. Early on, in 1903, New York City introduced "the first traffic code of the coming motor age" (Norton, p. 50). "Rules for Driving" was a four-pager that, among other things, encouraged people to keep right and pass left. After 1910, increasing traffic led to increasing regulation. Around 1915, police departments hit on the idea of painting lines on the streets to encourage the occupants of the road to row in a straight line. About the same time one-way streets started popping up like mushrooms. (Most of Philadelphia's downtown streets were one way by the early 1920s.) In 1914 Cleveland installed its first traffic lights; they may well have been the first in the nation.
The problem with all this, from the automotive point of view, was the police were not there to ensure the fast and efficient passage of motor traffic. They were there to do what cops do, which is maintain order. Without putting too fine a point on it, the police thought speed and safety were mutually incompatible, and they thought that the auto, as the new boy on the block, should do its best to fit in to the pre-existing scheme. (For this paragraph, and the preceding one, see Norton, chapter 2.)
This was not exactly the kind of regulation that proponents of the automobile were looking for, so after 1920 things changed. A new profession, traffic engineering, was in the process of being born. Many of its first practitioners were engineers with experience in running utilities - the water supply department, for instance.
Phase Two. In phase two of the war for the streets, the traffic engineers sought to optimize traffic flow on existing streets.
I haven't found a source for this, but it strikes me that the traffic engineers were banking on the Bernoulli principle. Named after the man who discovered it, Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782), its original application was to a fluid in a pipe. Stated simply, the faster the fluid is moving, the lower its pressure. Translated to cars on a road, this means, for a constant number of cars, the greater the speed, the greater the distance between the cars. That's why a car crash on I-95 causes an instant traffic jam. Same number of cars, but instead of going fast enough to win the 1911 Indianapolis 500, and maintaining decent clearances in the process, all of a sudden they're crawling along bumper to bumper, like a giant centipede.
Norton notes (p. 134) that Miller McClintock, a leading traffic expert of the day, felt that "increasing the speed of traffic on a street increased the street's capacity." But that's all I've got.
Still, in the early, innocent days, it was clearly possible to believe that congestion could be relieved by increasing the speed with which cars traveled on the street. However, for this to happen, all of the elements in the traffic flow had to be capable of going fast. Which kind of rules out pedestrians.
So one of the first things the traffic engineers did was to try to sort out the different forms of traffic that were incompatible with the new plan and place them in different pipes. When it came to pedestrians, that meant pushing them out of the street, over the curb, and onto the sidewalk. This process was essentially complete by 1930 (Norton, p. 79).
Unfortunately, it turned out that drivers were quite capable of creating chaos in the absence of pedestrians. Just about any day on the Schuylkill Expressway will offer you good examples.
Something was lost when the pedestrians were banished to the sidewalk and the cartway (the space between the curbs) was given over entirely to motor vehicles. Before the car, writes Norton (pp. 139-140), "Custom decreed that the centers of streets were to be kept clear for travelers, but the verges were places for almost any kind of public use. Though the curb seemed to mark a distinct boundary between sidewalk and roadway, in practice the border between them was far less distinct. Boys hawked newspapers, shined shoes, or played marbles. Merchants stored crates, acquaintances chatted, horses drank, pushcart vendors sold fruit, and builders stacked bricks. Few of them had any formal grant of privilege."
The street has always been, first and foremost, a place for coming and going. But it has also, at times, been a place for dwelling. After the reorganization of streets in the 1920's, the only things dwelling on the street were the cars parked at the curb, and a lively liminal space became a dead zone for nearly a century.
By the way, the concept of parking vehicles on the street was a complete novelty that arrived with the automobile. Before the car, things were different. As Longhurst puts it (pp. 89-90), "For most of the history of the road, it was not acceptable for people to leave horse-drawn vehicles unattended in the public street." He cites an 1889 judicial decision which said that "the highway may be a convenient place for the owner of carriages to keep them in, but the law ... prohibits any such use of the public streets." (See also Norton, pp. 67, 142, p. 327, footnote 97, and pp. 289-290, footnote 13.)
Phase Three. In 1923-1924, there was a slowdown in car sales, and the third phase of the war for the streets began. Automakers saw the intractable problems of congestion and crashes as the basic causes of the slump, but they noted its predominantly urban character and became concerned about the concept of "saturation" - the idea that, at some point, Americans would decide that they had enough cars. (For the saturation crisis, see Norton, chapter 6.)
So the automakers got organized. As Norton puts it (p. 153), "Until the crisis, manufacturers had little to say about city traffic. Saturation fears ended their silence. Quite suddenly, beginning in 1923, the industry sought a new and direct say in traffic matters, and its role grew swiftly through the rest of the decade."
The manufacturers sought allies and found them. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, the American Automobile Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all became allies. And perhaps equally important, the generals had a mass base. The foot soldiers - or perhaps the mechanized infantry - of this movement were the legions of American motorists.
The auto lobby also needed to deal with the persistent idea that the personal car was a toy. (Until the mid-1920's the terms "passenger car" and "pleasure car" were synonymous.) "Therefore, in the 1920s motordom organized to reconstruct the passenger car as a necessity." (Norton, p. 220, p. 363, footnote 69.)
But why was the motor car a necessity and not just a peripheral convenience? What was the essential business purpose of the automobile? Everybody wanted people to be able to get downtown by car, but why? The department stores, of course, wanted shoppers - particularly the "carriage trade" types - to be able to get to the store by car. But the main business purpose of the private automobile, even in 1920, was commuting. As Donald Shoup notes about Los Angeles in 1920, "most of the cars parked on downtown streets were owned by commuters, not shoppers." (Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking, pp. 491-492.)
It seems odd that the main justification for the automobile would be a repetitive journey between two fixed points (home and work) often on exactly the same route. This kind of task does not engage the car's freedom of movement - one if its prime competitive advantages. Unlike trains, which are stuck on tracks, cars can go anywhere there is a road. And, because people tend to commute all at the same time (we call this "rush hour") commuting does significantly engage the car's spatial inefficiency (which is one of the reasons why we tend to get "traffic jams" at "rush hour.") Logic might suggest that commuting would much better be left to mass transit.
Be that as it may, the basic problem for the car folks was that the Bernoulli principle wasn't working. Tuning the pipes was not going to open up the way downtown. So the automakers redefined the problem. Cars were big, yes, and they were fast, yes, and they made a mess of the city's streets. The industry's solution was new, bigger streets: Make more space for cars in the city. (Norton, p. 150.)
And that's what happened. In 1928 greater New York City began construction on a major motor highway system. An area that had 3.5 miles of express highways in 1928 had 107 miles early in 1933. (Norton, p. 204, p. 355, footnote 154.)
As Longhurst puts it (pp. 93-94), "Between the two world wars, American roads were rebuilt - and in the absence of a powerful cycling lobby, both the roads and the rules that governed them were designed for cars. These changes made it possible to reimagine the shared resource of the road as solely the province of private automobiles, and planners began to consider what historians now call 'completely car-centered landscapes.'"
Two Problems that Won't Go Away
Through all this rebuilding, and the development of automobile suburbs after World War II and the Interstate Highway System starting in 1956, two things remained unchanged: congestion and crashes. All the added space given over to cars did not solve these two chronic issues.
Congestion. You might think that the added space would be sufficient to allow the Bernoulli principle to work - cars could go faster, and the congestion in the pipe would go down. And that would have worked, basically, if the number of cars had remained constant. But the number of cars in the United States did not remain constant. It grew phenomenally, from 9 million in 1920 to 49 million in 1950 to 218 million in 2000, when there were 771 cars for every 1,000 people. Even a new-born baby gets seven-tenths of a car. (Shoup, pp. 674-675.)
The particularly strange part of this was that people had known from the beginning that increasing "floor space" was not going to solve the congestion problem. In 1925 traffic expert Miller McClintock had suggested, as Norton puts it (p. 167), "that widening streets would merely attract more vehicles to them, leaving traffic as congested as before." Arthur S. Tuttle, a prominent New York City engineer, repeated the warning in 1927. Norton comments, "His warning was a staple of traffic control engineering in the 1920s, but it was independently rediscovered and popularized in the late 1950s and 1960s." (Norton, p. 156, p. 336, footnote 49.)
Crashes. I haven't said much about crashes until now. It's a pretty upsetting subject. Norton estimates (p. 21) that 200,000 people died in car crashes in the 1920's, with 1924 marking the first year that casualties exceeded 20,000 (p. 156). Writes Norton (p. 11), "With the sudden arrival of the automobile came a new kind of mass death. Most of the dead were city people. Most of the car's urban victims were pedestrians, and most of the pedestrian victims were children and youths." In Philadelphia in 1928, 74.9 percent of motor traffic deaths involved a motor vehicle colliding with a pedestrian. Car-on-car crashes accounted for 10.4 percent, and cars crashing with bikes were 2.5 percent of the total (p. 23).
America only had one-third the people in 1920 that it has today. That 20,000 death toll, projected on to today's population, would be 60,000 dead in one year. Currently we're running a little over 32,000 dead per year, so progress is possible. Somehow I find that cold comfort.
The Bike Comes Back
While the automobile was rebuilding America, the bicycle did not entirely disappear. It did, however, become primarily a child's toy. Adults still used bicycles, even to get to work (especially during World War II). However, many adult uses were tucked away, far from the fearsome roar of the automobile.
Philadelphia's own Steven Rea, in Hollywood Rides a Bike (2012), has this to say about the studios in Hollywood: "In the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, the studios stocked fleets of Schwinns, Shelbys, Raleighs and Rollfasts so its actors, writers and crew could get from one giant soundstage to another, zip back and forth from dressing room to commissary, or just take a break between scenes. It was Hollywood's idea of a bike-share program, long before Paris implemented Velib'." (P. 7.)
Then, in the 1960's, something interesting happened. With the exception of English imports, the bicycles available to American adults tended to be heavy, slow, one-gear affairs. Shall we say boring. This began to change in 1963, when American companies started importing derailleurs and other bicycle components from Japan to produce more interesting bicycles. What followed in the 1970's was a boom in adult bicycling that recalled the first boom in the 1890's. (Longhurst, pp. 182-183.)
The ten-speed, as the new bike was called regardless of how many gears it actually had, was a nice bike. Light, maneuverable, reasonably fast, and not too terrible on a hill. And it came at a good time.
The Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968, gives a hint of the changes that were underway in the public psyche. And then of course there was the war. The Vietnam War, 58,000 dead - less than two years of today's death toll on the roads, but the war tore the country apart. And it's just possible the road deaths, and the many, many injuries, were doing something similar, but more quietly. And in 1973, there was the oil embargo, with the price of oil quadrupling almost in the blinking of an eye.
Adult bike sales hit 15.2 million in 1973, an all-time record (Longhurst, p. 190). So then the old question recurred. Where are we going to ride all these bikes? And bicycle advocates proceeded to replicate the internal fight that had occurred in the 1890's, when Good Roads advocates and sidepath promoters split the bicycling movement at a crucial time.
Longhurst (p. 201) says that supporters of "bikeways" in the 1970's "seemed to be unaware of the existence of the earlier sidepath movement." It's not clear that knowledge of the history would have headed the fight off. Let's just say that things didn't go well, and we probably lost several decades in which we could have been building out bike infrastructure, but instead spent time on an internal squabble over whether we should have separate bicycling facilities or whether we should insist on sharing the road as equals with 18-wheelers.
But the story may yet have a happy ending. As Longhurst puts it (p. 235), "Bicycle advocates of today are finally creating the separated, protected infrastructure that was envisioned and partially built more than a century ago, proposed in the bikeway movement of the late 1960s, and thwarted by the conflicts of the following decade."
Where Do We Go from Here?
It does seem to be a very good time for bikes just now. The Vision Zero movement has the potential to bring together a broad coalition around a common goal of Complete Streets. In other words, several old issues - lacking a mass base, division over goals - may be going away. And this approach should also help with something that has always been a major weakness for the bike movement - the perception that bicyclists are the "other" (on "bikelash" see Longhurst, p. 239).
The skinny guys in spandex stereotype has historical validity going back to the 1890's, but it hardly reflects current reality. All you need to do is stand at a curb and watch bicyclists go by. All kinds of people are riding.
Still, the perception of otherness lingers, both in the general public and with our political leadership. The Vision Zero alliance should help with this. Let's hope so. Once you objectify a group of people, it's fairly easy to marginalize them.
See also Reimagining Our Streets: Bikes Will Lead, But They Will Not Be Alone and The Parking Dream.