Bicycle Adoption - a Timeline Analysis / by Erin Wade

In the western world we live in an automobile-dominated society. Whether it involves tooling down the interstate at 70 miles an hour, or pulling up to a drive-thru window to pick up your food, your medications, or to withdraw money from the ATM, it's easy to see that we've designed much of our entire transportation system, and indeed our lives, around these vehicles.

This is, of course, a phenomenon of the last century, give or take, and it certainly wasn't always this way. While it seems perfectly clear now, from our modern perspective, couched within this car-centric society, why people might prefer to travel in an automobile rather than by bicycle, I sometimes wonder why it is that the bicycle didn't take a greater hold on our transportation needs. For millennia we relied upon our feet, and the power of domesticated animals, to transport ourselves and our goods across distances. The bicycle fits nicely as an advance upon that lifestyle, and is, in fact, the most efficient type of human powered transport. It's also very flexible for traveling on variable road surfaces - the cyclist who encounters a problematic road surface always has the option of walking or carrying the bike past an impediment.

The inklings of the why first started to dawn on me when I listened to the Wright Brothers biography, which started to suggest there might have been an issue of timing. To look at this more closely I spent a little time digging thru Wikipedia and putting together a timeline of transportation developments:

  • 1869 - Frenchman Eugene Meyer invents the wire-spoke tension wheel.
  • 1870's - Penny-farthing bicycles become popular.
  • 1885 - John Kemp Starley produces the first successful "safety bicycle". This bike featured a steerable front wheel, wheels of equal size, and a chain drive to the rear wheel. It is, essentially, the first modern bicycle.
  • 1886 - Karl Benz invents the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, widely regarded as the world's first automobile.
  • 1888 - John Dunlop re-invents the pneumatic bicycle tire. Notable that, according to the Wikipedia entry on the history of the bicycle, this removed the need for complicated bicycle suspensions, and paved the way for the diamond frame design.
  • 1898 - William Reilly of Salford, England, puts a two speed gear hub into production.
  • 1903 - 3-speed gear hubs go into production.
  • 1903 - The Wright Brothers make their historic flight at Kitty Hawk.
  • 1900-1910 - The Derailleur gear set was developed in France.
  • 1908 - The Ford Model T is introduced.
  • 1933 - Paul Morand wins the Paris-Limoges race on a recumbent bicycle designed by Charles Mochet; Francis Faure rode a modified Mochet Vélo-Velocar (recumbent) 45.055 km (27.996 mi) in one hour, beating a 20-year old speed record.
  • 1934 - Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) publishes a new definition of "racing bicycle" that effectively - and purposely - banned recumbent bicycles from UCI bicycle racing events.
  • 1965-1975 - US Bike Boom; includes the 10-speed derailleur bicycle becoming widely available.
  • 1981 - The first mass-produced mountain bike appears.
  • ~ 1987 - 5-speed hub gears become available?

As I said: a matter of timing. The first modern bicycle appeared only a year before the arrival of the first modern automobile. It's another three years before a crucial invention - the pneumatic tire - appears, making it possible to design light weight bikes that are comfortable to ride (older bikes were often referred to as "bone shakers"), and that invention also benefitted the automobile.

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What's more, while early automobiles were not terribly fast - the original Benz Patent-Motorwagen had a top speed of 10 mph - the advancements that would have made bicycles competitive with those early cars, namely gearing, did not show up in earnest until the early 1900's. The Ford Model T, arriving in 1908, could travel at speeds in the 30mph range, with a top speed (which was surprisingly difficult to find information about online) of about 45mph. It's arrival is, for all practical intents and purposes, at the same time as that of the derailleur system, the chain and sprocket system that is a familiar feature on multi-speed bikes thru current day. The technology for bikes simply did not develop early enough for it to take hold.

While the inklings of this occurred to me listening to that Wright Brothers biography, it became starkly clear when I put together the timeline. It also opened up a couple of additional facts, about which I was completely unaware.

The second, simpler fact is that the real arrival of the precursor to the modern road bike in the United States seems to have been a later development. Growing up in the early 1970's riding my first banana-seat bicycle, I remember coveting what we referred to as a "10-speed" from the first moment I saw one. For a time I had a 5-Speed - essentially a 10-speed frame with only one front sprocket - which my parents had picked up at a garage sale, which made my young self think these were old bikes. Clearly that was not accurate.

The first, more interesting fact is the 1930's developments surrounding recumbent bicycles. In a series of events akin to the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, or the Windows vs. Macintosh story, or, frankly, dozens of other stories in business, it appears that the manufacturers of upright bicycles banded together to significantly limit the exposure and development of the recumbent bicycle by having them banned from bicycle racing after it became clear that the recumbents were the faster bikes.

Given that recumbent bikes are both undeniably faster, and arguably more comfortable, than uprights, their development in the 1930's, occurring when automobiles were still in relatively early development, and with the financial opening of The Great Depression making automobiles challenging for many to afford, might have been the opening that the bicycle needed to again take hold. Alas, the shortsightedness of business defending the status quo seems to be an historical constant.

There have been many advancements in bicycling design over the past few decades - gearing continues to climb both for derailleur and hub-style gear sets, bikes are designed for all sorts of different surfaces, and recumbents have slowly gained in popularity. Still, it looks a lot like early development - with a little help from non-competitive practices - just happened within the wrong window of time for the bicycle to catch on as a primary mode of transport.

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