street view

What’s a Bicycle For?

Making do during a transit strike in 1966. Photo: Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

If you spot a man in his 50s in street clothes on a scuffed hybrid bike, dodging cars and hyperalert to compensate for everyone else’s distraction, that may be me (if he’s wearing a helmet) or (if he’s not) possibly Jody Rosen, the author of Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle. Though its subjects stay (mostly) earthbound, the book itself takes flight, zooming from the boulevards of Paris to the mountain passes of Bhutan, the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, and the sclerotic streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, with the quick-cut insouciance of a James Bond movie. I want to talk to Rosen about how the complex cultural history he documents plays out on the streets of his native city and how New York and the bike shaped each other. It proves impossible to stay strictly local because though the essence of this miraculously simple machine has hardly budged since the late 19th century, its social meanings have multiplied across the world. New York is one locale in a global story. “Writing this book has made me confront my own provincialism,” Rosen says.

Cities and cycling have a long and fraught relationship. Ever since velocipedes first rolled onto the London social scene in 1819 (without pedals, brakes, or tires), haters have fulminated against them. At first, they were expensive luxuries for the privileged and careless; plodders called them “dandy carriages.” The arguments for the prosecution now read as dated yet somehow familiar: Silent speedsters posed a menace to horses, “scorchers” intimidated pedestrians by passing too close and too fast, bike-bewitched women abandoned their skirts and neglected their families.

The elite connotations eventually ebbed, for a while. “With the arrival of the safety bicycle in the 1880s, it became the ‘people’s nag,’ a horse of the common folk, which made it anathema to some upper-class people,” Rosen says. The 1890s brought a bicycle boom that made two-wheelers both fashionable enough to tempt the wealthy and affordable enough for everyone else. For a few years, New York was a pedaler’s Eden, and the new paved path from Prospect Park to Coney Island was, as Rosen puts it, “the world’s greatest cycling thoroughfare.”

Then came the automobile, which replicated the bike’s disadvantages in extreme form — it was more expensive and faster, took up more space, made more noise, and cracked more skulls — but nevertheless forced the city to adapt. Sidewalks were cut down. Curbside parking became normal. Highways punched through neighborhoods. And the bicycle was relegated to a retro curiosity or a children’s pastime.

Today, of course, a fresh set of economic and social codes swirls around the pre-electrification contraption. “In current-day New York, the bicycle as a class signifier is all scrambled,” Rosen says. To some, the bike remains the irritating plaything of entitled brats (a populist disdain that fuels rhetorical attacks on bike lanes and congestion pricing), but it has also become an icon of deliveristas solidarity. Black Lives Matter supporters protest on bikes; riot police use them to pen in crowds. Brownstone Brooklyn parents deliver their toddlers to private preschool on cargo bikes; delivery workers use them to haul payloads of groceries. Rosen points out that the range of working bikes plying New York’s streets is minuscule compared to other parts of the world, where they’re retooled for sharpening knives, ferrying customers, carting firewood, distributing bread, even transporting home appliances: “There are tens of millions of cargo tricycles in China alone, and they’re playing a major role in the last-mile flow of goods throughout the global South.”

Rosen, a former music critic at New York, doesn’t claim to be a historian; for the comprehensive chronicle, he advises me to read Evan Friss’s On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York City. The strength of Two Wheels Good is the journalist’s eye he brings to a basic technology that has had radically disparate identities at different times and in different parts of the world. He tracks down a married couple who met on the Oregon-to-Virginia Bikecentennial ride in 1976, profiles a bicycle-rickshaw driver in Dhaka, and scrutinizes the various stationary-bike fads (SoulCycle, Peloton) with the puzzlement of an anthropologist who doesn’t quite get the appeal. He writes about biking on ice and over treacherous mountain trails, about making a living as a bike messenger and tagging along with the mountain-biking daredevil Danny MacAskill, who taught the fearless to bounce on one wheel from the roof of a train car to the next.

Photo: Crown

Two Wheels Good is clearly the work of a writer who loves to ride his bicycle but declines to ennoble it with odes to environmental virtue or social justice. Like any tool, it’s available to the innocent and the nefarious, and its biography is a complicated tale of both. Yes, it coasts along in emission-free purity, but its steel comes from fume-belching plants in Pennsylvania and China, and its tires were made possible by oil wells or brutal rubber plantations in Congo and Brazil. In the 1890s, the bicycle lobby took the form of the proudly racist League of American Wheelmen. The organization pushed the Good Roads Movement, a campaign to lace the nation in asphalt (which was, back then, “mined by exploited laborers in the English colonial territory of Trinidad,” Rosen reminds us). Understanding these complexities should give even the most avid proselytizer pause. “People should have a little humility,” Rosen says.

The bicycle serves as a weapon in the contest for urban space, and whether you love or hate that fact depends on which team you’re on. Rosen mentions that his teenage son joins ride-outs, those swarms of young bikers who commandeer roads and block bridges, doing wheelies and tricks as they go: “Some bicycle activism is about safety, like [the international flash-mob movement] Critical Mass. Ride-outs are more about freedom in general, using the bike to take the streets in a provocative and flamboyant manner, like a mix of a circus parade and a very aggressive protest.”

That gonzo attitude has a downside on the streets of New York, where space is scarce, tempers flare, and enforcement is notional. Sanctimonious bikers treat both drivers and pedestrians as the enemy, and they return the favor. The risks dissuade more cautious New Yorkers, whose greater numbers could dilute the macho element and make the streets less dangerous purely by their presence. A much more developed network of protected bike lanes would cut through that knot of rule-flaunting and hostility. Make biking safer for everyone and bikers will ride more safely. (That’s the theory, anyway.)

Rosen supports these efforts to tame the streets and fill bike lanes with kids and grandmothers, but he is also already nostalgic for the high-risk wildness of city riding that those measures would eliminate. “I get an adrenaline rush from the danger,” he admits. “Your senses have to be sharp if you don’t want to get doored, and it makes you feel alive” (until, of course, it doesn’t). Not that those survival skills will be obsolete anytime soon. Despite the new miles of dedicated lanes, the growing fleet of Citi Bikes, and all the fitful but earnest rallying behind the concept of Vision Zero, biking in New York only seems to have grown more treacherous. “I don’t know if it’s really crazier out there or I’m just getting older, but it feels like there’s more aggro energy in the city now,” Rosen says. He’s ambivalent about that too: If cycling ever did become placid and ubiquitous, “I guess there’s some little bit of cowboy spirit that would be lost. But,” he adds quickly, “so much more would be gained.”

What’s a Bicycle For?