Review of Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road

Longhurst, James. Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Pp. xi + 241. Notes, bibliography, index, and 32 illustrations. $34.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Lindsay Parks Pieper

I used to ride my bike to campus. While I wish I could say that my transportation choice stemmed from a desire to be healthy or protect the environment, it was mostly because of money. Ohio State charged roughly $370 a year for parking—too much for my graduate student budget. When I moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, I thought I would continue the practice. I had grown to enjoy the exercise and Google maps informed me that the commute was only about five miles. One trip in the car, though, quickly dispelled the idea. Space for bikes was largely nonexistent and certain parts appeared downright dangerous to ride. Like with many cities, Lynchburg’s transportation concept is car-centric.

Bike Battles Cover

University of Washington Press, 2015

That automobile considerations dominate urban planning was not always the case, nor was it inevitable. Cultural and political forces in different historical moments shaped transportation decisions and designs. Historian and “regular bike commuter” James Longhurst explores some of these moments in Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road. According to Longhurst, “bike battles” entail clashes over the use of the road between bicyclists and other vehicles. He purposefully covers battles, “not the entire war” (p. xi), to demonstrate how past debates over public spaces created America’s current dependency on cars. In six, chronologically organized chapters, Bike Battles examines who (and what) has access to the road, from 1870 to the present day.

In chapter one, “Get Out of the Road: The Battle over the Public Roads in America, 1870-1900,” Longhurst analyzes the fluctuating legal definitions of the bike. At the end of the nineteenth century, American courts still looked to England for precedents, and English common law posited that publicly-owned roads were open to all, including bicyclists. Specifically, the 1879 British case Taylor v. Goodwin identified bikes as legal vehicles, thereby opening space to riders; however, writes Longhurst, equality in the courtroom did not always equal social equality on the road.

Therefore, chapter two, “The Right Sort of People: The Battle of Taxes, Sidepaths, and Roads at the Turn of the Century,” discusses the precarious nature of bicycling. While a brief “golden age” of cycling encouraged many different people to ride, the movement was also notably exclusive. Women and non-whites enjoyed biking, yet the League of American Wheelmen, the most powerful, elite bicycling group, prohibited them from joining rank. As a result, explains Longhurst, the “opposing currents of elitism and populism” shaped bike riders’ rights (p. 62). For example, the Good Roads campaign, an early example of a Progressive Era reform movement, sought to improve roads for bikes and horse-drawn vehicles through state taxes. Yet, the assumed elitism of bicycling led farmers to protest the plan. Likewise, the undertones of gentlemanly affluence also doomed the Sidepaths movement, which aimed to connect cities through separate, bike-only paths. Bike leaders could not adequately show how the paths served a public function and therefore could not generate the necessary funds. Social issues thus helped diminish the space for riding.

If legal and social questions created potholes for bikers, the onset of the automobile caused more significant problems, as Longhurst details in chapter three, “The Rules of the Road: Bicycling in the Automotive Age, 1900-1930.” After the brief uptick in the number of people on bikes at the end of the nineteenth century, numbers dwindled as car use increased. Without a strong cohort of bicyclists, “bicycles and their riders were absent from [the next] policy battlefield” (p. 81). Consequently, state and federal regulations—such as new road paintings, vehicle registration (1905), and driver’s licenses (1930)—literally pushed bikes to the side of the road. Simultaneously, court decisions further eroded the status of the bike, viewing such self-propelled transportation as a hindrance to the forward progress of automobiles (p. 99). Finally, with men abandoning two wheels for four, bike manufacturers and advertisers started to target children. The image of the boy bike messenger, paid to deliver groceries, newspapers, and packages, cemented the association of bikes with childhood.

Yet, World War II briefly lifted up the bike. Chapter four, “Victory Bike Battles: The Debate over Emergency Transport in WWII,” shows how war again made bicycling acceptable for adults. Because wartime scarcities demanded rationing and sacrifice, people momentarily viewed automobiles as wasteful. Riding a bike, in contrast, was considered patriotic. Victory Bikes became “potent symbols of cheerful unity in the face of rationing and enforced frugality” (p. 123). But the boom was short-lived; in the postwar era bikes eventually returned to the realm of childhood.

In Bike Battles’ most interesting chapter, “1950s Syndrome: Excluding Bikes from the Suburban Streets, Interstate Highways, and Adult Lives,” Longhurst delved deep into 1950s popular culture to ascertain the status of the bike in the era of abundance. He argues that the proliferation of inexpensive petroleum in the war’s aftermath “created an America based on the car and made previous modes of transport rare, complicated, and sometimes impossible” (p. 153). Additionally, the Federal-Aid Highway Act (1944) created an Interstate Highway system for automobiles at the explicit exclusion of all other types of vehicles. This was a notable departure from previous philosophies and policies that believed publicly owned roads should serve everyone. It therefore required “legal jujitsu” to enact (p. 162) and “strengthened the idea that automobiles were the sole proper users of the road” (p. 163).

Along with the interstate highway system, the white, middle-class movement to the suburbs further limited the significance and use of the bike. If adults needed cars for work, notes Longhurst, kids needed bikes for neighborhood gallivanting. He explores popular culture, from Leave it to Beaver to Disney’s Jiminy Cricket-hosted safety videos, to illustrate the widespread assumption that biking was for children. Along with a fascinating exploration of 1950s media, this chapter also incorporates a cross-cultural comparison of the bicycle. Following World War II, adult bike riding flourished in Japan. Earlier in the twentieth century, Japanese citizens resisted the car due to a scarcity of resources and population density. After the war, American powers in Japan approved bike production as an ideal post-war (i.e. non-military) industry. Cycling grew as a popular sport and one in which state-sanctioned gambling produced funds for recovery. Although the inclusion of this content in Bike Battles appears unexpectedly, the assessment shows that car-centric urban planning was not inevitable.

While many associated America with automobiles, and bikes with children, the 1970s saw another momentary increase in the number of bike riders. Chapter six, “Bikes are Beautiful: The Bike Boom, Bikeways, and the Battle over Where to Ride in the 1970s,” explores this moment. Longhurst argues that new technologies (lighter bikes with gears), environmental concerns compounded by the energy crisis, and a focus on physical fitness contributed to the boom. Sadly, by the 1980s, interest dissipated as bikepaths and bike routes failed to gain widespread acceptance, due to financial issues, and legal decisions further pushed riders off the road. The car again assumed control.

Bike Battles is an enjoyable read that highlights important historical conflicts that shaped our current roadways. It is accessible and appropriate for any undergraduate class or person interested in bicycling. Part of the accessibility stems from Longhurst’s writing; he is funny. For example, he started the book with the line “I think history is going to get me killed,” to explain his reason for writing Bike Battles (p. 3). Longhurst also breaks down concepts in order to not trip up non-academic readers. For instance, he defines policy in regards to politics, and also offers up an understandable definition of imagined communities: “the way that people in a modern nation state—who would never meet each other personally, and instead learned of new and different groups through the popular press—came to place each other in their personal definitions of “us” and “them” (P. 52). Furthermore, his variety of sources should be commended. Not only did he employ the traditional archival, governmental, and newspaper primary sources, but he also analyzed education films, “cranky letters to the editor in small town newspapers,” slapstick silent films, vaudeville play bills, and “forgotten 1950s sitcoms from the more obscure corners of the Internet” (x).

While bike enthusiasts will undoubtedly enjoy Bike Battles, some sport historians may desire a bit more information in certain parts. In particular, how did gender and race impact roadway decisions? Did the connection between suffragettes, the New Woman, and bikes encourage people to consider the transportation method childish? If it was primarily white children in the suburbs on two wheels, how did non-white children in other areas impact riding and roads? Pulling the race and gender analysis through the entirety of Bike Battles might have enhanced the work, but it nevertheless expertly shows how past decisions impact our roadways today.

In his conclusion, “The Road as a Commons,” Longhurst describes 2008 as the start of a third bike boom, sparked by the energy costs of 2008 that made owning a car less desirable. He suggests a new bicycle advocacy may lead to different trends in urban planning and physical changes in the city. In fact, Lynchburg installed its first bike lane in 2013 with plans to add more. Seems like I might be pulling my bike out of the shed sooner than I thought.

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.

One thought on “Review of Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s