The Safety Bicycle

Roman Mars [00:00:02] This message is brought to you by Discover. Did you know you could reduce the number of unwanted calls and emails with online privacy protection, the latest innovation from Discover? Discover will help regularly remove your personal info, like your name and address, from ten popular people search websites that could sell your data. And they’ll do it for free. Activate in the Discover app. See terms and learn more at discover.com/onlineprivacyprotection. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. If you had to guess, when do you think the bicycle was invented? The basic mechanics of a bike are pretty simple. It’s basically a triangle with wheels and a chain drive to propel it forward. There are no batteries, no engines. It seems obvious. And that’s why most people guess that the bike was invented a long time ago. 

Jody Rosen [00:00:56] So, a sort of curious historical fact about the bicycle is its belated arrival. 

Roman Mars [00:01:02] This is Jody Rosen. 

Jody Rosen [00:01:04] And I’m the author of Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle. 

Roman Mars [00:01:10] The early version of the bicycle–known as “the running machine”–debuted around 1817, which Jody says is weirdly late. 

Jody Rosen [00:01:18] By the time that running machine or “Laufmaschine” comes along, we’re 15 years into the era of the steam locomotive. 

Roman Mars [00:01:26] When the bicycle started to look like the machine that we know today, it was 1885. 

Jody Rosen [00:01:31] In that same year, 1885, Karl Benz invented his first Motorwagen. So, the automotive age is stirring at the same moment that we finally get a perfect bicycle. It took many centuries for kind of fate and, you know, trial and error to bring us the machine itself. So, in that sense, I think it’s one of those devices that both feels inevitable and whose history kind of belies that inevitability. It just feels like, “Why wasn’t there a bicycle that a Pharaoh or, like, a Roman was pedaling around on? 

Roman Mars [00:02:06] Jody says the reason the late arrival feels wrong to lots of people is because the bike feels so natural, like something that’s always been with us. 

Jody Rosen [00:02:14] The thing–to my mind–that makes the bicycle such a beautiful and unique machine is this fact that the rider is both the passenger of the machine and the engine. And that’s actually kind of a strange idea–to be both a rider of a machine and a component of a machine. But at those moments, when you’re kind of on your best rides, you kind of become one with the bike in some sort of Zen sense–you become inseparable from it. And there’s this kind of incredible, you know, fusion or communion that a human has with a machine, which is actually a kind of an uncanny phenomenon. It’s sort of a little weird and eerie. 

Roman Mars [00:02:49] Today, we’re going to talk with Jody about the evolution of the bicycle and how it became a cultural phenomenon in the late 1800s–then a symbol of protest and a lightning rod for political controversy. And we’ll find out what is next for the bike in a world built for cars. So, Jody, the bicycle is a pretty simple machine, but it took decades of experiments and tinkering to get the bike that we know today. Could you take us through some of the evolution of the bike? 

Jody Rosen [00:03:21] So the running machine or the Laufmaschine, as it was called in German in this period, was invented around about 1817 by a guy named Karl von Drais, who was a minor German nobleman in the city of Mannheim. He came from some family wealth, but he really was kind of a tinkerer and a dreamer who was always experimenting with inventing different types of devices. And one of the things he was very interested in was the problem of travel–that is, the question of how you could move across land without a horse. So, he made many efforts over a period of years to invent various types of machines–things he even called automobiles. But his most successful was this thing called the running machine. And the crucial breakthrough he made was to take two wheels and line them up in a kind of row–one after the other–that is, not to attach them to an axle and put them one across from the other, separated by an axle, but to actually line one up in front of the other and connect them with a kind of bar–a sort of “saddle,” as he called it. And the rider straddled his or her–in this period, mostly his–weight across the device and propelled it with a kind of scooting or skating motion by literally running–that is, by pushing off the pavement to propel the device. So, this thing crucially did not have pedals. It was a pedal-less bike. And very quickly it began to spread across the continent and then over the English Channel into England. And there was sort of various short-lived crazes for this bicycle during this period. 

Roman Mars [00:04:56] And then that leads us to one of the next sort of, you know, punctuations in this sort of evolution–the boneshaker, which came along in the 1860s. What was the big change that happened with the bone shaker? 

Jody Rosen [00:05:07] The big change for the boneshaker is that we got pedals. And these pedals–it was a direct drive device. So, the pedals were attached directly to the front wheel of the bike. And this was, on the one hand, a very important breakthrough–that the thing would work better if it was a pedal driven device as opposed to one that you used your feet to scoot along the ground. But it was kind of an inefficient setup. And they called it the “bone shaker” because it was extremely uncomfortable to ride. Its wheels were shod in iron; it was kind of ringed in metal. The machine itself was made of wood and iron. It was extremely heavy. And you kind of, like, juddered and shook as you rode across the cobbles. So, it was a machine that shook your bones. Mark Twain famously wrote about his attempts to learn to ride a bone shaker. And he said something along the lines of “Riding a bicycle is a great thing. You won’t regret it if you live.” I think that speaks to the fact that it was just a pretty unpleasant way to travel because of the engineering. 

Roman Mars [00:06:22] You write about how the next evolution of the bike was the penny-farthing bicycle, which is the bicycle with the big giant wheel. And it looks completely ridiculous today. Why was that important to the bike’s evolution? 

Jody Rosen [00:06:34] So the penny-farthing bicycle is this remarkable-looking machine. And if you see some hipster with a tattoo of an old-fashioned bicycle on his or her arm, it’s going to be a penny-farthing, right? Some sort of mustachioed Victorian driving it. So yeah, the penny-farthing was the bike with a huge front wheel and the tiny rear wheel. And again, it was a direct drive machine, so the pedals were attached to the front wheel. I think they’re amazing-looking machines, but the reason you needed this setup was because it supplied a gearing effect. With every rotation of the pedal–that turned the wheel one time. The larger the wheel, the greater the distance you would travel with each pedal turn. So, you kind of get this absurd, almost steroidal front wheel in order to achieve a gearing effect. But again, this was a quite unsafe machine. It was very difficult to mount in the first place. The saddle sat quite high, and it was at the height of a horse. This was the reasoning behind it. And also, because you had such a big wheel, by definition, you were sitting high off the ground. And again, it was just an awkward machine because you were using that same front wheel to steer that you were pedaling on. So, people were prone to doing what they called “taking a header”–that is flying over the handlebars, kind of pitching over the handlebars, and injuring themselves in all kinds of gruesome ways. So, something had to give because as cool as that bike looked, it wasn’t particularly a safe machine. And it sort of made the bicycle a device for sportsmen or daredevils as opposed to, you know, a democratic machine that was a true form of, you know, mass transit. It wasn’t exactly a commuter vehicle in the same way as you would have liked. 

Roman Mars [00:08:13] Right. The penny-farthing looks ridiculous now, but it wasn’t just a novelty. That big wheel was actually trying to solve a problem. But then a new technology came along in the form of the chain drive, which changed everything about what makes a bicycle a bicycle. 

Jody Rosen [00:08:29] So the breakthrough came around 1879 with the notion that you create a chain drive–that is, you move the pedals away from the front wheel to something like the middle of the bicycle, and you hitch a chain to a sprocket which is threaded back to the rear wheel with each turn of the pedals, you pull that rear wheel forward, and then that front wheel simply becomes a wheel that you steer with. You’re not driving that wheel with the pedals attached directly to it. So, this is a brilliant and innovative solution, which, among other things, really takes advantage of the power of the human legs. The largest muscles in the human body are located in the legs. You know, the genius of the bicycle is that the rider is both the passenger and the engine of the machine. And a chain drive really optimizes that engine. But also, there were a number of other engineering breakthroughs in this period. So, you had the arrival of a diamond shaped frame, which is a sturdy set up. And you had two wheels of–at first–more or less equal size and then very quickly after that, you know, identical size, which solved the problem that we had with the penny-farthing of, you know, people taking a header. All of a sudden, it’s a much safer and more stable bike and it moves much quicker and more efficiently. And here we come to, you know, the last great breakthrough, which is the development of not just tires that are rubber tires but that have an inner tube filled with air, which provides a smoother and much faster ride. So suddenly you have a machine which is truly a machine that anybody can ride–old people, young people, people that have large frames, people who are small. You know, the so-called “safety bicycle” could bear the weight of a rider, you know, ten times the weight of the bicycle without any problem at all. So, it’s at that moment that we get the bicycle proper and that we get a kind of explosion of riding across the world. 

Roman Mars [00:10:20] I love that the accumulation of all these inventions led to a thing called “the safety bicycle.” Just the name–the safety bike–it kind of cracks me up. 

Jody Rosen [00:10:30] Yeah, I know. The name safety bike is funny. It’s not the sexiest name, you know? It sort of sounds like you’re underselling the thing. 

Roman Mars [00:10:40] Like it’s just safe. Yeah. 

Jody Rosen [00:10:41] Yeah. “Wow. It’s safe.” But it does bespeak the enormity of the problem beforehand because it really was the case that, you know, through the 19th century, up until the mid 1880s, bicycles really were a kind of fringe phenomenon because they were viewed as unsafe. I mean, there were various other kind of reasons in the culture–social prejudices against the idea of women riding, children riding–which limited the numbers of riders. But prior to this period, you know, bicycles were viewed as something for daredevils. In the period of the bone shaker and the penny-farthing, bicycles were something more like, you know, a pet rock or a hula hoop. It was a trend on that level. With the arrival of the safety bicycle, you have an Internet-sized cultural phenomenon–social phenomenon–where, you know, it’s a mass movement. By the time you get to the 1890s, there are millions of riders–millions of bicycle commuters–in the United States, and in Western Europe, in the UK, elsewhere. 

Roman Mars [00:11:46] Yeah. So, the bike took off in the 1890s, and it became this cultural phenomenon. But it faced a lot of pushback. And you have this whole section of your book with, you know, some negative responses to the bike. And I wanted to read one–and this is from the Wichita Daily Eagle in 1896. “The bicycle has appeared in a new role–that of destroyer of a once happy home. The woman in the case is Mrs. Elma J. Dennison. Formerly of 513 Fifth Street, Brooklyn. 23 years old. A bicycle girl who rides a man’s wheel and wears bloomers. Mr. Dennison says that his wife developed the bicycle fever to such a degree that she neglected everything–her home, her children, and her husband. She lived only for her wheel and on it.” I mean, that just sounds so over-the-top, but you found so many examples of this from newspapers at the time. Why did the bicycle face so much pushback? 

Jody Rosen [00:12:54] Yeah, in the 1890s, the bicycle had so many enemies. There were guardians of morality and Victorian values. There were preachers and clergymen who inveighed against the bicycle from the pulpit. There were newspaper editorials who thought that bicycles were ruining the American economy, were driving children out of schools, were emptying church pews. There were people in the horse trade. There were tailors. The manufacturers of cigars–even barbers–said that their business was being ruined by the arrival of the bicycle because nobody wanted a shave anymore. You know, an interesting thing though to note about this is this idea of a bicycle-craze or a bicycle-mania. There was a lot of kind of pseudo medical ideas circulating about the bicycle in this period and about, you know, various types of diseases–psychological and otherwise–that had beset society or beset individuals who were riding around too much. So, yeah, there was this idea that there were bicycle fiends or bicycle maniacs who, because of excessive biking, had essentially been driven crazy and were doing all sorts of terrible, anti-social things. And there were a number of physical maladies and ailments that were attributed to the bicycle, everything from “bicycle face”–the idea that if you rode along too fast for too long, your face literally, like, contorted and changed shape–or you became, you know, knock kneed or hunchbacked. And this literature, by the way, isn’t just in the popular press, but it’s literally in medical journals from this period. 

Roman Mars [00:14:29] The bike had this period where it was the domain of, you know, dandies and hobbyists. But as soon as you get the safety bike-era, it becomes political. It becomes a symbol of progressivism in a million different ways. And it was used in protests and social movements. Could you talk specifically about the role of the bike in women’s suffrage? 

Jody Rosen [00:14:50] I think pointedly the bicycle was embraced by women as a means of both personal and collective emancipation in this period. Prior to the arrival of the safety bicycle–you know, the early bicycles–it was a very gendered machine. There were a few women who rode them, but generally it was thought to be a machine for men–for sportsmen in particular. Well, the safety bicycle was very clearly a device that could be ridden safely by anyone, including women. And women took to the machine en masse. If you think about women in the United States, and Western Europe, and U.K. in this period–you know, the kind of bourgeois, middle class, upper middle class women in Victorian society, the clothing they wore at this time if you think about big whalebone corsets or, you know, giant hoop skirts–it was hard to move around on those things on foot, let alone mount a bicycle and ride one. So very quickly, women who wanted to ride bicycles said, “Okay, we’ve got to get some different clothing going here.” So, the dress reform movement was really catalyzed by bicycles–what was what was known as “the rational dress movement.” So, women embraced new types of clothing, including famously bloomers–these kind of, like, M.C. Hammer-style pantaloons, right? So, the bicycle very much became a symbol of so-called “new womanhood” in this period. And it was associated with these reforms and with activists–with agitators for women’s rights, for women’s suffrage, for the right to vote. Women didn’t just take to bicycles en masse as commuter vehicles, they used them as kind of tools of protest. You know, there were bicycle protests, where women kind of rode together to the barricades to agitate for the vote, etc. There was this idea that women, you know, needed to travel around with chaperons. Well, suddenly the bicycle freed them up to move quickly around unchaperoned–and God knows what they could get up to when they were on a bicycle going who-knows-where, doing God-knows-what. Again, everything sort of circles back to women and sexual purity in this period. I mean, the neuroses of the society at large are very clear. If you look at the bicycle history, everything always seems to kind of circumnavigate back to this issue. 

Roman Mars [00:17:17] Moving forward, the bicycle was a fixture of protests around the world throughout the 20th century. And in your book, you cite many examples of protests in England and North America where bikes were front and center. But one protest stands out above the rest–and that is China in 1989. Could you tell me how bicycles became a fixture in the protests in Tiananmen Square? 

Jody Rosen [00:17:38] One crucial fact to take on board about bicycles is that they’re kind of sneaky and elusive machines. You can weave through traffic on them. You can get away quick on them. You can mobilize a protest rather quickly on bicycles and disperse rather quickly. And they’ve actually been useful tools of protest for something like 150 years because of this. And this is something that, you know, we see in various places and moments in history. But perhaps the place where the bicycle has the most interesting kind of political trajectory is in China because there was a good period of time where it was essentially a state-mandated mode of travel. And we had the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Very soon thereafter, Chairman Mao pushes for the manufacturing of bicycles on a mass basis. He puts a lot of money and muscle behind the development of a Chinese bicycle industry. And by the time we get to Deng Xiaoping–like in the 1980s–the bicycle is essentially, as I say, a “state-mandated device.” It was thought to be one of three tools that every Chinese person needed if they were going to settle down and have a family. You need to have a radio, a sewing machine, and a bicycle. There are a couple of extremely famous bicycle brands–chiefly the Flying Pigeon, which is kind of like the Ford of Chinese bicycles. And Deng Xiaoping said, like, you know, there should be a flying pigeon bicycle in every household in China. There very nearly was. By the time we get to 1996–which is the kind of very peak of the bicycle era in China–there are something like 500 million bicycles on the roads in China. So, you asked about the Tiananmen Square protests. Well, in 1989, you know, there were, of course, these student-led protests agitating for greater democracy. Well, everybody in Beijing rode bicycles and especially young people. So, the protest in Tiananmen Square–which brought, you know, hundreds of thousands and eventually more than a million people into the square–there really were bicycle protests because you had tens of thousands of people kind of sweeping through the streets, traveling to Tiananmen Square on bicycles. The protesters themselves used bikers in various ways. And then famously, when the crackdown happened in June 1989, you had bicycles that were whisking the wounded in and out of Tiananmen Square. People–regular Beijingers–threw their bicycles in the path of the army tanks that were rolling into the square in an effort to stop them. So symbolically, the bicycle–it had always been the main means of transportation for the Chinese people for decades. But suddenly you had this kind of showdown between the might of the state and the army in the form of these giant tanks rolling in. And you had this kind of people’s resistance with these poky little bicycles. 

Roman Mars [00:20:20] Yeah. Well, so you mentioned the fact that bicycles are just part of Chinese culture, and they were encouraged to be that way and supposed to be in every household. In fact, there are, like, 1.5 bikes for every household in the country. There was a real concerted effort to turn it into a car culture at a certain point. Why and how did that happen? 

Jody Rosen [00:20:41] Yeah. So, this is in the post-Tiananmen era, and with the turn of the 21st century, you know, China embraced what they called “market socialism”–this kind of form of really hyper capitalism that is there now. It was sort of a trade off because, you know, you have the Chinese government opening up various types of material prosperity to Chinese citizens that had previously been unimaginable. But the kind of Faustian bargain was, you know, “We’re not going to give you all the political rights that you want, but we’re going to give you all kinds of material affluence that you’ve never had before.” And part of that movement was an effort–in the same way that Chairman Mao had led an effort to develop a Chinese bicycling industry–well, they said, “We’ve got to get into the car manufacturing business.” And boy, did they succeed because, you know, today China is the world’s largest both manufacturer and consumer of cars. And they developed a car culture, which dwarfs that even of the United States. The network of highways and expressways that has been built in China over the last three decades is almost twice the size of the interstate highway system here in the United States. You had ancient urban cores–you know, cities really kind of raised and redesigned for cars–big eight-lane highways going up, where previously you’d had kind of twisty, winding medieval streets that were easy to ply on bicycles. So, China went hard after car culture, and suddenly the bicycle, which for years had just been a fact of life and the way everyone got around, not only was discouraged but was kind of actively stigmatized. It was marginalized both on the roads, but also there was a lot of social stigma attached to the idea of riding bikes because it was thought to be associated with the bad old days–with poor people. Now there’s a kind of movement back in China–kind of a turn back to bicycles, especially with the rise of the e-bike, which is sort of a compromise maybe between automobiles and cars and is a kind of wonder device. But, yeah, China is a super interesting story because during that peak period of cycling culture in China, you know, China was known as the kingdom of the bicycle. And you have this kind of insane bicycle boom there, which lasted for decades, followed by this intense turn against the bicycle. And now throughout the world, what we’re seeing in places like the U.S. and elsewhere is a kind of attempt by policymakers and certainly bicycle advocates and activists to try and recreate the kind of cycling culture that China developed rather organically in this period. We’re all sort of lusting after what it is that China cast off. 

Roman Mars [00:23:15] Yeah. You know, there’s nothing inherently political about a bike. In big parts of the world, they’re a very utilitarian machine. It’s just this way to get around. It’s unrelated to politics. But it’s clear that the bike means a lot of different things in a lot of different cultures. 

Jody Rosen [00:23:29] So one thing that I learned in writing this book is that time and place really matter. There’s no fixed meaning to a bicycle. You know, even within a city–any given city–a bicycle can signify kind of a status symbol or, you know, almost a luxury good. And in another part of town, it can be a purely utilitarian or even a device of the proletariat. It can be a tool of protest, and it can be a tool of counterprotest. So, if you look at the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020, here in New York, you had these remarkable protests where there were thousands taking to the streets–many of them on bicycles–where they were met by these kind of armored up bicycle cops. New York has, like, an elite division of bicycle riot police, who are kitted out in these sort of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, you know, hockey goalie-type riot gear and who not only were riding bikes but were using bikes, in various ways, as weapons. They weaponized the bicycle itself. So, they were using bicycles as kind of shields and in various cases as battering rams. And so, there is an instance in which, you know, the meaning of the bicycle is literally being fought out right there on the street–block by block. You know, this was another reason that I wanted to investigate the bicycle and write this book because the connotations of a bicycle really depend on where and who you are in any given place. So, it’s wrong to kind of pigeonhole what a bicycle is or who a cyclist is. There’s just a lot of stereotypes and maybe kind of shallow thinking around bicycles, and I was hoping to kind of complicate some of that. 

Roman Mars [00:25:14] When we come back, what is the future of the bike in a world that feels like it was custom built for cars? More with Jody Rosen after this. The Lenovo Slim laptop was designed to give you the power and mobility to just be you. The Yoga Slim 9i, designed on the Intel Evo platform, is a carbon-neutral and Energy Star certified laptop made from recycled materials. A stylish, thin, and light comfort-edged chassis–accented by 3D glass–provides optimal and comfortable using and carrying. Move forward with a powerful soundtrack and flawless visuals–with an up to 4K OLED, PureSight touch display, coupled with the majesty of Bowers & Wilkins speakers. Get the power to create from anywhere–any time–thanks to 12th Gen Intel Core processors. With the Lenovo AI Core 2.0 chip, you’ll enjoy smart features like a zero-touch login and adaptive screen brightness. Plus, Lenovo Premium Care is included on all Lenovo Slim devices. Get holiday shopping. The Lenovo Slim is available now at lenovo.com. That’s lenovo.com–and all major retailers. Whether you’re listening to us at home or on the go, T-Mobile keeps you connected to what matters most. With T-Mobile, you get more 5G bars in more places, and they cover the most highway miles with 5G. That means you can quickly research those architectural details and questions that pop up while you’re out and about in real time. T-Mobile’s got our 99% Invisible listeners covered. Visit your local T-Mobile store to make the switch and join the leader in 5G coverage today. See 5G device coverage and plan details at t-mobile.com. Did you know life insurance through your workplace may not offer enough protection for your family’s needs? Policygenius gives you a smarter way to find and buy the right coverage. Policygenius was built to modernize the life insurance industry. Their technology makes it easy to compare life insurance quotes from top companies like AIG and Prudential–in just a few clicks–to find your lowest price. With Policygenius you can find life insurance policies that start at just $17 per month per $500,000 of coverage. And Policygenius has licensed agents that can help you find options that offer coverage in as little as a week and avoid unnecessary medical exams. They’re not incentivized to recommend one insurer over another, so you can trust their guidance. There are no added fees, and your personal info is private. No wonder Policygenius has thousands of five-star reviews on Google and Trustpilot. Your loved ones deserve a financial safety net; you deserve a smarter way to find and buy it. Head to policygenius.com and click the link in the description to get your free life insurance quotes and see how much you could save. That’s policygenius.com. Squarespace is the all-in-one platform for building your brand and growing your business online. Stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything–your products, the content you create, and even your time. With member areas, Squarespace makes it easy for creators and educators to monetize their content and expertise in a way that fits your brand. You can unlock a new revenue stream for your business and free up time in your schedule by selling access to gated content, like classes, online courses, or newsletters. If you sell recipes for okra or merchandise for okra at okraisthebestvegetable.com–because okra is the best vegetable–your subscribers can get early access to those recipes and, you know, okra related merchandise. Stand out in any inbox with Squarespace email campaigns. Start with an email template, and customize it by applying your brand ingredients, like site colors and logo. I recommend green as your color. Built-in analytics measure the impact of every cent. And you can display posts from your social profiles on your website or automatically push website content to your favorite social media channels, so your okra-loving followers can share it, too. Head to Squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the promo code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. That’s Squarespace.com/invisible. Promo code: “invisible.” The pandemic really shook up a lot of people’s notions about what cities could be. And we saw things like car-free downtowns and new uses for the road to make more room for outside seating. And lots of people got into cycling for the first time since maybe childhood. Do you think that COVID has led to a bigger rethink about cities, and what do you think that means for the future of bikes? 

Jody Rosen [00:30:27] Yeah, I think the pandemic really was a crucial moment for sure. So, millions of people around the world were seeking a socially distant means of travel around town. And there was the bicycle, you know? The bicycle has a way of coming back. So suddenly you had lots and lots of people kind of rediscovering that three speed that they’d stuck in the basement or noticing that their cities had bike share programs and you could subscribe to a bike share program or go rent one–you know–pull one out of a docking station at the corner and get around town in a quick and easy way. And I think a lot of people discovered something that maybe hadn’t occurred to them because maybe they hadn’t even tried it. It’s so pleasant to travel by bicycle. It feels so good, you know? It’s like a physically–and you might even say spiritually–uplifting means of travel. And it’s also extremely quick, and convenient, and a lot more fun than sitting in a box in traffic, sweating while horns are blaring all around you. At least you can be cruising past the boxes or threading your way through them. But, you know, I think what’s really important is in many, many places around the world, there was infrastructure that was kind of thrown up on the fly during the pandemic. So, these kind of temporary bike lanes were thrown up, which in many places became permanent bike lanes. There were a lot of cities that did this better–a lot of places that did this better–than we did in the United States. So, for instance, I think of Paris where their current mayor there, Anne Hidalgo, is a zealous proponent of cycling–which makes her a controversial figure over there for sure. But she has sort of by force of will imposed cycling on Paris. The Rue de Rivoli–a major thoroughfare there–is kind of turned into a default cycling highway. She has plans. There are plans there to kind of ban cars from around these central districts of Paris. So, the pandemic presented this kind of opportunity because suddenly a lot more people were on bikes–a lot of people were discovering, “Hey, this is a real good way to get around.” And the more visionary or maybe even just aggressive policy makers and office holders said, “We got to move forward, and seize the moment, and push some of this stuff through.” So as to what the future holds for biking, it’s very much up for grabs. There’s a lot of pushback about this stuff. You know, here in New York City, we have a plan in place. You know, congestion pricing has been approved, but for various bureaucratic reasons, it hasn’t been implemented yet. People are very resistant to this because, you know, a lot of people are very attached to their cars. And car culture itself is a very powerful, powerful force politically and otherwise. So, it’s going to take a lot to make cities in the U.S. maybe look like those great cities in northern Europe–which are places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam–that are really cycling cities. But I think in certain places we’ll get there. And I think it hopefully will have a domino effect because people who visit those places realize just how much better it is to get around on a bicycle, or a scooter, or what have you. 

Roman Mars [00:33:41] Anyone who lives in the city has probably seen an e-bike, which is an electronic bike that has some pedal assist. I mean, I guess you can use it without pedaling at all. But it basically makes it so that you can go up steeper hills and longer distances than you probably could on a regular bike. Are those here to stay? Like, will they be a big part of cycling’s future? 

Jody Rosen [00:34:02] I think the advent of the e-bike is a really crucial development in all this because it’s a lot less physically taxing to ride a bike. You know, they’re really amazing, and I think people who might be resistant to, like, sweating and grunting along as they try and mount a hill on a regular old bike–when they whizz uphill on a pedal assist e-bike, suddenly the whole world opens up to them. And moreover, their utilitarian value is definitely a cut above in certain ways. If you’re running late for a meeting and you don’t want to show up, you know, dripping with sweat, you can get on an e-bike and get there in your suit, looking the part. So, maybe the rise of the e-bike will be a crucial development, which will help bring about the cycling culture that I think we need at least in cities. 

Roman Mars [00:34:53] You obviously love cycling and bikes, but you write about this phenomenon in the book called “The Adaptive Golf.” And it’s kind of like how for some people, the dream of riding a bike is so far from what it’s like riding a bike as a beginner that it can be kind of hard to get into. What do you think about that issue for people who aren’t cyclists, especially in cities? 

Jody Rosen [00:35:15] I’ve seen that up close and personal in my own household recently because I have a nine-year-old. And, you know, we are in the extreme cycling household. You know, my wife and I both get around by bike. My older son, who’s 18, tears around New York City on his bike. But for whatever reason, my nine-year-old has not been able to bring himself to learn to ride a bike. You know, Daddy wrote a book about bicycles, and yet he’s not into it. So, he’s the passenger on my bike. You know, I actually have a special seat that I had to get from Holland, which is sufficiently sturdy to bear the weight of a nine-year-old. You know, in most cases, nine-year-olds have graduated to their own bicycles. But for him, it’s that very thing. You know, learning to ride a bike–it’s actually extremely easy once you get the knack of it. But you do have to get the knack of it. And until you do, it’s hard to imagine that you’re going to be able to. I recently actually had lunch with a colleague–an actually rather well-known journalist who writes for, let’s say, a paper of record in New York City. I’m not going to name names. But he’s an adult who’s never learned to ride a bike. And I tried to tell him, “Dude, you got to get on a bike. It’s very easy to do.” And intellectually, he knows that he could learn to ride a bike. But, as you say, it’s some sort of, like, conceptual golf that he can’t cross and bring himself to do it. 

Roman Mars [00:36:29] Yeah. Jody Rosen, thank you so much for talking with me. And thanks for the book. I really enjoyed it. It’s just delightful. 

Jody Rosen [00:36:37] Thanks, Roman. It’s so great to be here. 

Roman Mars [00:36:50] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, edited by Chris Berube, mixed by Ameeta Ganatra. Music by Swan Real. Our senior editor is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Jayson De Leon, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Emmett Fitzgerald, Lasha Madan, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, Intern Olivia Green, and me, Roman Mars. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me at Roman Mars and the show at 99PI.org, on Instagram, Reddit, and now TikTok, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99PI.org. 

Announcer [00:37:58] Now, a word from our sponsor, BetterHelp. When you’re faced with challenges in life, it can be tough to train your brain to stay in problem-solving mode. A therapist can help you become a better problem-solver. And with BetterHelp, therapy is convenient, accessible, affordable, and entirely online. When you want to be a better problem-solver, therapy can get you there. Visit betterhelp.com/stitcher today to get 10% off your first month. That’s betterhelp.com/stitcher. 

  1. Sean Redmond

    I’m not too surprised that bikes only took off in the late 1800s.
    Bikes require the following:

    1. A hard, flat surface: cycling with a hard wheel on a mucky surface doesn’t you very far very fast. Tarmacadam’d roads haven’t been around for very long. Many places do have hard, dry roads for most of the year.

    2. Suspension: Until the invention of rubber, wheels were hard and this meant that all vibrations were sent up the body. Boneshakers were called that for a reason. Old Roman roads were paved and city roads were cobbled. Cycling on these roads is not fun.

    3. Reason to use one: Until the Industrial Revolution, most people lived in the countryside. Nobles had horses & carriages. Peasants were stuck to the land. If they went anywhere, they walked or took a carriage, if one was available. They would have been useful for the person who had to walk a day to the town or city to visit a friend/doctor/lawyer. Again, the roads were usually made of mud and one did not arrive in a state fit for polite company. Added to that, people didn’t always travel alone. Women usually had children in tow. Farmers had carts with produce or tools in them. It might have been a good tool for the single man who needed to visit people professionally but didn’t necessarily have a horse, like the local priest, doctor or vet.

    What is somewhat surprising is that they were never invented by an enterprising officer in an army. Maybe the roads were too poor. The ability for the infantry to be able to travel astonishingly quickly (by the standards of the day) could well have made a difference in a war. Fewer supplies would be needed to feed men if they spent fewer days on the road and replacements could be sent faster to the battlefield.

  2. Sean Redmond

    A second comment:
    We’ve had eBikes for the last decade in Switzerland and they suit some classes of people very well.
    They are especially useful to the elderly. It replaces their loss of strength by means of the battery-powered pedal-assist.
    They are more useful in the countryside than ordinary bikes, especially when the terrain is very hilly. One can cover greater distances with ease with eBikes in comparison to walking or cycling. They are popular here for tourism. The Emmental region has them on offer, for example.
    In cities they are useful because they are easy to park. They are quite quick and quicker than cars in the city when there are dedicated cycle-lanes.

    In urban & suburban areas, they are practical when combined with bike trailers. These can carry up to 40Kg, such as one or two small children or their backpacks. I go shopping with ours every Friday evening. i don’t have to worry about parking or hills. Partly because of the bike trailer, the e-bike and an ordinary bike (as well as car-sharing schemes and good public transport), we get by quite nicely without a car.

    There are a couple of disadvantages to them though: they are expensive and they don’t last all that long. You might get 10 years out of them, if you are lucky. They are also heavy, which can be a pain in the arse if your battery loses charge.

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