A cyclist marks Earth Day 1970 on 5th Avenue in New York. Photograph: Bettmann Archive
In Washington DC, there was a young Post staff reporter called Carl Bernstein subsequently to became half of the Pulitzer Prize-winning pair known as the office hippie and a long-haired freak who rode a bicycle
Many cyclists harbour fierce distaste for what they regard as an automobile culture that is choking the nation with fumes, velocity , noise and specific, he wrote in the Post in 1970. He went on to describe a growing group of cyclists who regard pedalling as an almost political act and unavoidably flash the two-finger peace symbol upon encountering another person on a bike.
The facilities for DC cycle commuters had been poor, but improved by the early 70 s, partly because of John A Volpe, President Nixons secretary of transportation. In 1969, Volpe who routinely rode a fold-up bicycle to work told the city council chairman to build bikeways for the increase in the number of cyclists who, like him, were not all long-haired hippies. As Bernstein wrote in the Post, bike-boom cyclists were just as likely to be stockbrokers and congressmen, secretaries and lawyers, students and government clerks, librarians and teachers, youngsters and oldsters.
Hundreds of cyclists staged a bike-in in 1971, demanding more space on the key passenger route of Beach Drive. At the first bike-in I burned someones drivers licence on network Tv, bicycle proponent Marchant Wentworth recollects. Heady times.
In 1974, DC cyclists started to take direct action to improve streets. Cary Shaw installed an asphalt bike-ramp where the city Highway Department had refused. When a container of asphalt appeared on his street for a road-mending task, he decided to borrow some, adding a big traffic stripe leading to the ramp. When it was finished, I turned around and almost immediately a person has been wheeling her baby carriage up the ramp, remembered Shaw. A couple of minutes after that someone whizzed along on a bicycle, assured the thing, zipped up on the ramp, and away “hes been gone”. The ramp Shaw built was later adopted by the city, and is still there. Direct action runs sometimes.
Blame it on the baby boomers
Shaw, like other cycle proponents, was a baby boomer. The post-second world war birth spike resulted in a glut of teens and 20 -somethings at the beginning of the 1970 s. Many had money, were eager for novelty, wanted independent mobility, and were desperate to throw off the shackles of their elders.
These consumerist kids, who came of age at the end of the 1960 s, maintained on buying, and despite the bulge predicted in the 1950 s, the motorcycle industry was caught off guard when the demographic alighted on their products. It was a perfect cyclone, with drop-out baby boomers attracted to cycling for its anti-motoring environmentalism; suburban-conformist baby boomers latched on to cycling because it was healthy and outdoorsy; and pre-motoring teens upgraded to lightweight 10 -speed motorcycles after having been attracted to cycling because of motorcycles like the Schwinn Stingray, the cycle that inspired Raleigh to construct the iconic Chopper.
Thanks to the 45 million bicycles sold at the height of the US boom, cycle ownership was higher than ever. The US was on the cusp of building a whole bunch of bikeways, with high-level support from the US Department of Transportation.
David Rowlands, writing for Britains influential Design magazine, was impressed that the Department of Transportation organised a key 1974 seminar, Bicycles USA. What emerged from[ this conference] was a far more comprehensive response to an expanding population of cyclists than any other country at present offers. Government assistance has been a major factor in this new awareness of the motorcycles potential as a means of transportation in the developed world. It is an example that deserves much wider imitation.
A report from the US Environmental Protection Agency, also published in 1974, came to the same conclusion. And the Department of Transportation published its first ever cycle infrastructure style guide, Bikeways: State of the Art 1974.
Even LA had a programme part of the Los Angeles County General Plan to crisscross the district with a 1,500 -mile network of bikeways. It was ambitious, but too late.
The LA County plan was published in 1975, the year manners changed and the boom imploded. The bike had turned out to be the hula hoop of the 1970 s: all the rage one minute, all but forgotten the next.
Bike sales in the US fell by half within months. Despite the obvious fillip to cycling in America from the 1973 Opec oil crisis when fuel was in short supply and get around by car became expensive and, because of oil-saving speed regulations, slower cycling hadnt changed the world.
The bike-friendly John Volpe left the Department of Transportation to become the US Ambassador to Italy. State highway planners reined back what had been grandiose bikeway schemes. Bike shop lines thinned out to nothing. Bicycle manufacturers cancelled overseas orders.
In the words of the chairman of the Bicycle Manufacturing Association of America to a Senate committee in 1976: The boom has turned into a bust.
This is an edited extract from Bike Boom by Carlton Reid, Island Press, Washington DC
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