While the U.S. isn’t the cycle-mad Netherlands—yet—recent news may suggest we’re entering a bike-riding renaissance. Biking has become a quickly growing (albeit still relatively tiny) part of the daily commute for more Americans. Bike-share systems continue to expand, and the addition of new bike infrastructure and e-bikes promises to turn more drivers into riders.
But today’s burst in cycling enthusiasm isn’t the first time that the U.S. has seen the two-wheel commute suddenly take off. In fact, it’s an echo of a short burst of bicycling excitement that took hold of the country in the early ’70s. As journalist Carlton Reid points out in a chapter of his new book, Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling, in many ways, we’ve been here before. The U.S., a country often scoffed at for its car-first mindset, found itself in the midst of a two-wheeled frenzy in the early ’70s.
According to Reid’s extensive research, which also covers a similar cycling resurgence in the U.K., the media hyped the frenzy with the kind of language akin to reporting iPhone sales. In 1971, Time noted that the U.S. was riding “the bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history,” and that 64 million Americans were regularly using bikes.
A U.K.-based writer and historian, Reid has previously written about how cycling, which saw huge growth in the ’20s and ’30s in the United Kingdom, fell off a cliff in the postwar years due to the skyrocketing growth of automobiles and highways.
He believes many causes came together to create the right conditions for the U.S.’s bike boom: Baby Boomers were coming of age; health and recreation were big trends; and perhaps most importantly, the budding environmental movement loathed the automobile.
During the first Earth Day in 1970, activists and protesters at San Jose State College buried a new Ford Maverick on campus in a 12-foot-deep grave. Concerned Bike Riders for the Environment rode through Los Angeles with gas masks on. And numerous writers and authors expounded on the benefits of biking, including the influential Whole Earth Catalog and Richard Ballantine’s Richard’s Bicycle Book, a million-seller, which advocated for the people-powered enjoyment of being free and easy on a two-wheeler.
The energy of the pro-cycling movement convinced many to open stores and start political groups that would be the forebears of today’s cycling supporters. In Chicago, Edward Aramaic founded the Bicycle Ecology group and organized a “pedal-in,” decades before Critical Mass started making the rounds in San Francisco. It worked—in 1972, the city installed rush-hour bicycle lanes downtown, with cops cracking down on any parked cars that blocked cyclists. The Washington Area Bicyclists Association, founded in 1972 and still active today, was a model for activists across the country.
In New York, urban planner David Gurin started Action Against Automobiles in 1972 (now known as Transportation Alternatives, which is still very active today) after an inspirational trip to Sweden. One of their early actions included cycling past an automobile show, chanting “Cars must go!” while demanding an end to highway spending and the exclusion of cars from Manhattan. Mayor Ed Koch even joined some of these early protests, stating the need for exclusive bike lanes and supporting their installation.
Boom was certainly the right term. In 1971, bike sales increased 22 percent to 9 million, and in 1972 they hit 14 million, according to a Bank of America report, with 60 percent of those bikes being bought for adults. A 1971 Time article predicted the nation would face a bike shortage. Leading U.S.-based bike brands, including Cannondale, Trek, and Specialized, were all born during this period of rapid growth. Bike crime became so big that Stan Kaplan, a Massachusetts bike-shop mechanic, devised the Kryptonite lock.
Bike commuters also grew in numbers. In fact, Carl Bernstein, of the Washington Post reporting team that broke the Watergate news, wrote about the boom for the paper during his first few months on the job. He would later be disturbed to learn that a Nixon staffer was also an avid cyclist, believing that anybody who was into cycling couldn’t possibly be so devious and underhanded.
What might be most surprising is the fact that local, state, and federal governments have been wise to the benefits of cycling for decades. Many politicians during the bike boom era backed a massive expansion of cycling. In 1973, Reid writes, 225 bike-focused bills were introduced in 42 states (60 became law), and that year’s Federal-Aid Highway Act invested $120 million in bikeways spread out over the next three years. In 1971, Oregon passed the Oregon Bicycle Bill, which devoted 1 percent of state transportation funding for cycling, after a 50-mile ride by activists to the state capitol (Gov. Tom McCall signed the law using a Schwinn 10-speed as a table). The first such state law in the country, it’s one of the main reasons Portland and other Oregon cities are so progressive when it comes to cycling infrastructure.
Perhaps most impressive was the advocacy coming from the federal government. Stewart Udall, the secretary for the interior under President Johnson, had commissioned the influential Trails for America report, which advocated the construction of networks of recreational trails still enjoyed today. President Nixon’s secretary of transportation John Volpe was a regular bike commuter, who believed that cycling would cut pollution and be a “valuable addition” to urban transit systems. He pushed for plans to make Washington a “model city for bicycles.”
In 1973, the federal government sponsored Bicycles USA, a national conference that brought together hundreds of advocates and even sent a researcher to Europe and the Netherlands to study how to adapt overseas urban design in the U.S. It was followed by Bikeways: State of the Art 1974, a Department of Transportation publication and design guide which included information on bikeway programs, protected lanes, and what could be called early tactical urbanism. An Environmental Protection Agency report from 1974, Bicycle Transportation, noted that “40 percent of all urban work trips made by automobile are 4 miles or less,” and said that safe and protected bikeways were the solution to getting more people to exchange the drive to work for a ride to work. Following in line, Los Angeles County even released a Plan of Bikeways in 1975 that advocated for a 1,501-mile network of facilities, including protected bike lanes.
But the good times and rapid growth didn’t last, as Reid recounts. In 1975, bike sales fell by half in just a few months. According to an analysis of sales figures later in the decade, the sales growth was fueled by teens and adults, but many bought due to “contagion,” basically to keep up with a trend. Plans to build the D.C. Bikeway along a route that would have run through the center of the capital and been a model for the nation were abandoned, as were scores of other ambitious cycling programs and infrastructure plans across the country.
What went wrong? Much of it came down to political support and funding. In New York City, which was facing increased auto gridlock and saw many early pro-bike actions, the financial crises that gripped the city throughout the ’70s meant bike lanes and infrastructure were destined to be unaffordable luxury items on an already-stretched budget. When advocates such as John Volpe left their posts, bike-friendly administrators didn’t necessarily follow. And, as the bike evangelist Richard Ballantine would write, cyclists were up against “the power of vested interests in maintaining a motor age.”
In many ways, the lessons of this brief bike bonanza have already been internalized by pro-cycling advocates. Fighting for more local control of cycling, supporting bike-friendly politicians, and backing reforms and rules that make it easier for the average American to commute to work by bike have all been key planks of the platforms of many transportation advocates. It’s fun to imagine what might have been had this boom not become a bust. But those early success show that, while cars may still rule the road today, at least cyclists are still on the right track.