History Is Bike (sorry, Mr. Ford)

by Michael Smith

(A book review, originally written for Transportation Alternatives but spiked for some reason or other)

The Bicycle. By Pryor Dodge.
224 pp.
280 color illustrations
ISBN 2-08013-551-1
Price $50
Published by Flammarion, June 1996

Of course, you and I know that bicycles are sexier than cars, right? And yet I suspect that you, too, have friends who just don't see it. Well, help is at hand. Get these benighted souls a copy of Pryor Dodge's book, The Bicycle. If that's a little rich for your blood, then at least get yourself a copy and leave it in a place of honor on your coffeetable, or some functional equivalent.

Dodge has put together a fascinating account of the technical and social history of the bicycle, lavishly illustrated with wonderful photographs, many from his own extensive collection of bicycles and bicycle-related oggetti di virtú. Marvel at bicycles made of bamboo and hickory, bicycles with swan-shaped frames, multi-person tri- and tetracycles, a steam-powered bicycle, a bicycle pulling a (rather cozy) housetrailer, a bicycle that converts into a boat.... You name it, somebody's tried it.

But Dodge's book is more than a collection of curiosities, more even than a lyrical appreciation of this wonderful invention and its luxuriant forest of variants. In an unobstrusive and graceful way, it is also fine example of social history "from below": not just a chronicle of brilliant (or not-so-brilliant) inventions, or of tycoons and would-be tycoons, but of how the bicycle expressed and shaped the desires and aspirations of the millions who have ever flung a leg over a seat tube and wobbled off in search of -- whatever. Like all good social history, Dodge's prompts reflection.

The bicycle, perhaps surprisingly, has always been faintly suspect and subversive -- something of a threat, as the poet says, to lucrative patterns of repression, even before there were cars. This isn't just a recent, or an American, phenomenon. In the 1890s, "The German government resisted cycling....'The freedom, mobility, and privacy of the bicycle were more than the authorities would tolerate', though they found bicycles useful for policemen and local militia." In the US, "Municipal governments, chambers of commerce, and merchants of all kinds complained loudly about the disastrous effects of the bicycle on business." Even earlier, in England, "The Bicycle Union... put pressure on parliament to block an amendment [that] would have curbed the use of bicycles on highways.... The status of the bicycle was ambiguous. Was it a man or a vehicle? Was the cyclist riding, driving, or running?.... These issues would not be resolved for decades." Dodge might have added that here in the US, at least, they still haven't: cyclists have all the responsibilities and limitations of both cars and pedestrians, but none of the privileges of either.

In the catechism of cliche that generally passes for social history, the development of both the bicycle and the car are conventionally attributed to the same source, namely a presumably innate desire for "personal mobility." No hypothesis is ever developed for why such a desire might exist -- not even a sociobiological one, although such "explanations" are easy enough to contrive and impossible to refute. But then, even if no such desire existed, Man -- or rather, Car Man -- would have to invent one; on the axiom of a hard-wired libido vehendi, the car's superiority becomes a trivial lemma, and its incessant increase in power, speed, size, and couchlike comfort an ineluctable imperative of human nature.

But what emerged, for this reader at least, from the pages of The Bicycle is a quite different view of the social bases of the two technologies. In this view, they spring from radically different, even opposed, sources. The car is best seen as a mechanization of the horse, that archetypal appurtenance of a privileged class. But the bicycle, on the contrary, is a device for magnifying the truly personal, physical powers of the individual human body. The car creates a lumpen-aristocracy of ersatz cavaliers -- a particularly unlovely version of Yeats' "beggar on horseback"; but the bicycle gives Everyman and Everywoman seven-league boots. The car recruits low-quality junior-grade auxiliaries to a devalued gentry. It does nothing for the human material, apart from moving it into a different box on the social Monopoly board. But the bicycle works its magic on the most essential, intimate and inalienable possessions of humankind -- blood and muscle and sinew. It does not purport to make the prole a patrician (although, under present social circumstances, it does rather have the opposite effect, at least pro tem). But then, the bike-borne prole need no longer assume or aspire to a shoddy, Brummagem, third-class gentryhood in order to get quickly across town; the prole who puts a bike between his legs appropriates to himself the freedom of the city, without restriction of caste or guild. It is surely this radically democratic character that has made cycling, from its infancy, a source of such uneasiness for those heavily invested in order and control, or in the maintenance of privilege and inequality.

Auto-mobility substitutes a mechanical slave -- the car -- for a biological one; and as Hegel tells us, in the master-slave nexus, the master is enslaved as profoundly as the flunky. Hegel would have found abundant confirmation of his insight on Lexington Avenue at rush hour, as the lords of ample horsepower sit and stew in their own stink; while we ambiguous creatures, needing no fuel beyond our own breakfast, glide to our destinations, self-propelled and self-determined.

Essays and reflections -- contents