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How bicycles ignited 200 years of controversy in New York City

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The bicycle has factored into women’s liberation, civil rights, and income inequality debates

Steve Athineos (center, in white) leads a bike messenger protest in 1987, after Mayor Koch proposed a midtown cycling ban.
Carl Hultberg, courtesy of the photographer

One of the quintessential New York stories is how the city bikes.

Ever since the first bikes appeared in the city in 1819—simple velocipedes—they have been vaunted and vilified, viewed as essential tools for social and economic liberation, but also dismissed as mere toys. “Cycling in the City: A 200-Year History,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York that opens this week, chronicles this fascinating—and often frustrating—200-year history.

Organized by Donald Albrecht, a curator at the museum; Evan Friss, a guest curator, historian, and author of On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York; and Susan Gall Johnson, a senior curatorial assistant at the museum, the exhibition investigates the evolution of bicycle design and its evolving status in the city’s cultural and physical landscape. To understand the city’s social justice, economic inequality, and mobility problems, look through the lens of cycling.

Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York; Photograph by Rob Stephenson

“The bike hasn’t changed that much as an object since the 19th century, but it’s always been the subject of much debate—about gender, identity, and where people can bicycle,” Albrecht says during a walkthrough of the exhibition. “It’s still raging today in the bicycle culture of New York City and has been doing so for 200 years.”

So why exactly does the bicycle find itself in the middle of so many controversies?

“Because it’s so malleable and plastic as an object, because it serves so many different purposes, and because so many different kinds of people use them,” Friss says. “It’s a kind of fraught device in some ways, but it can mean so many different things to people, so they use it as a metaphor to talk about gentrification, to talk about ethnicity.”

When bikes first emerged in New York in the mid-1800s, they were expensive playthings only attainable by a certain type of adventurous, wealthy man. By the late 1860s, the city banned them in Central Park since they were perceived to be at odds with the serene environment. A cycling club sued in protest and eventually won; limited access to Central and Prospect parks became available in 1883—if riders could afford a special license. In 1887, New York State allowed bicycles, now classified as vehicles, to have access to the roads.

Through the 19th century, bikes were primarily used for social activities. A traffic counter in May 1896 counted 14,000 cyclists riding on Broadway, near Central Park, over a 16-hour period, with the most popular riding hours being between 7 and 10 p.m. In 1894, the first dedicated bike lane in the United States was built on Ocean Parkway—a new avenue between Prospect Park and Coney Island designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for leisure driving—as a recreation space for cyclists. Numerous cycling clubs were established during this time, often along identity lines of race, ethnicity, and class.

By the late 19th century, the price of a bike became less expensive, and women and middle class riders became more common. Women’s liberation activists, like Susan B. Anthony, strongly believed bikes gave women freedom of movement and were involved with the promotion of bikes from the beginning as tools of self reliance. Munsey, one of the first mass-market magazines, published a story in 1896 that read: “To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and in the play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”

Violet Ward and Daisy Elliot, photographed here in 1895, were two pioneering women cyclists.
Alice Austen, Collection of Historic Richmond Town

As the bike became more accessible in terms of cost, it was perceived as the first attainable mode of individual transportation. And yet it fell out of fashion recreationally (but never disappears) and its status declined the more it is discussed in utilitarian, rather than recreational, terms—a tense dichotomy that still exists today.

“[Bikes] have this double-edged sword of access,” Friss says of the relationship between elites, the working class, and bikes. “It also shows how the cycling community is never unified.”

In the early 20th century, bikes ebbed in popularity and cars entered the landscape to become the dominant form of private transportation, but by the 1930s, bikes saw a resurgence as a cheaper alternative to cars. Robert Moses believed in bike lanes, but only for recreational purposes. Taking advantage of New Deal money for infrastructure projects, Moses vowed to build nearly 60 miles of bike paths. Most of them were never built (funding dried up, and with it, political will) and were proposed in wealthier areas of the city and in parks. One of the most significant contributions from Moses were bike paths near Belt Parkway, in southern Brooklyn.

“You can see clearly enough [the bike paths] were meant for a certain kind of individual,” Friss says. “It was meant as recreation at the expense of utilitarian. That purposefully under-privileges the reasons why poorer people would ride. Bike paths were for those that had the leisure time and money to engage in such practices.”

In the postwar-era, the car continued to be prioritized but in the 1960s and 1970s, bikes became popular due in part to the environmental movement. Mayor John Lindsay instituted car-free days in Central Park during the 1960s. (In 2018, the city made Central Park permanently car free.)

Cycling subcultures and social clubs have thrived in New York Manuel Cruz, photographed in 2007, is from the Firme Rydaz, a Mexican lowrider bicycle club in the Bronx.
Carlos Álvarez-Montero

The 1980s set the stage for biking in New York City as we know it today, particularly under the leadership of Mayor Ed Koch. After visiting China, he was “swept away” by the number of cyclists on the streets. In the early 1980s, he built the city’s first on-street protected bike lanes on Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh avenues, and Broadway. They were swiftly lambasted by drivers, and defended by cyclists, and Koch tore up his experiment a couple months later. During the 1980 transit strike, he advocated cycling as an alternative commute. Then, in 1987, he proposed a ban on bikes in midtown.

“Koch couldn’t figure out if he liked or hated bicycles, so he’s kind of a microcosm of New York City as a whole,” Friss says.

Koch’s ban proposed restricting cycling Monday through Friday between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. This specifically targeted bike messengers—a 5,000-person workforce that was mostly Hispanic and African American—but allowed commuters, who were mostly white, to ride freely. (Newsweek declared 1984 the year of the yuppie and illustrated a man on a bike for the cover, which is reprinted in the exhibition.) Critics described Koch’s ban as “less about bikes and messengers as controlling a population perceived to be dangerous,” Friss writes in his book.

Cyclists of all stripes joined the bike messengers, who took frequently to the streets to protest, in a rare alignment of interests. Transportation Alternatives, a cycling advocacy group, sued the city to help fight the ban and won.

“This is the moment when the bicycle is seen as a transportation tool and not purely a recreational device and so in 1987 was the fulcrum of what we see today,” Albrecht says.

Cycling has made tremendous strides since 2000, due in major part to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the leadership of Janette Sadik-Khan, who added 400 miles of bike lanes during her tenure as the city’s transportation commissioner from 2007 to 2013.

While Sadik-Khan proclaimed an end to the bike wars in 2016, the controversy continues today. Some believe bikes are a harbinger of gentrification. Riders are demanding more connectivity in the city’s cycling network, especially on outer borough streets. Echos of 1987 are seen in the way the city is handling e-bikes. While Citi Bike’s pedal-assist bikes are now allowed and popular with commuters, the electric bikes used by delivery drivers, who are mostly working-class immigrants, are still illegal. Due to the coming wave of micromobility technology, like e-scooters and dockless bikes, the city is reaching a mobility tipping point.

“Discussions about where e-scooters belong are eerily reminiscent of the controversy about where bicycles belong in the 19th century because they’re hard to categorize,” Friss says. “Now it’s, ‘Are the e-scooters more like a person, a car, or a bicycle?’ Some people think they’re more like bicycles, but cyclists don’t want to share bike lanes.”

Understanding the past 200 years of controversy surrounding bikes might help us negotiate the next 200 years of mobility planning, as more technology—like autonomous vehicles—are discussed. The debates around bikes are really about who has free and unencumbered movement through the city and, as history shows, the city has prioritized those with access to the most capital and power.

“In New York, because of density, competition for space has been a hallmark of social, political, and economic controversies and I don’t see that disappearing,” Friss says. “But each new technology and mobility device offers a change to rethink how we move around...Few of us realize how the decisions about getting from point A to B are shaped by political forces and historic decisions. The legacies of Moses and Koch and their decisions are often cast in concrete. The exhibition invites us to reconsider how we got here and the limitations placed on us by history and political actors. It’s healthy to think about this.”

Cycling in the City: A 200-Year History” is on view at the Museum of the City of New York from March 15 to October 6.