Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling (Book Review)

© Bike Boom. Bike Boom

Unfortunately, it is also a lot of bike bust, too.

When I switched to a new high school in grade 10, I rode my one-speed CCM bike all of the one and a half mile distance. A friend took me aside and told me that nobody bicycles to school, I looked like a little kid, and I could park my bike at his house a few doors from the school so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed.

By the time I finished Grade 13 there were hundreds of bikes at Forest Hill Collegiate. All the cool kids cycled to school by the mid seventies. We were in the middle of a bike boom.

Now bike historian Carlton Reid documents the story in his new book, Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling. It follows his wonderful Roads were not built for cars, which documented the rise of cycling in the 19th and early 20th century, that we quote every time someone complains that roads were built for cars and bikes shouldn’t be on them.

I am not sure that the title "Bike Boom" actually reflects the content very accurately, because it really is about bike busts, booms, and battles. It can be summarized by one line in the introduction:

Bike Boom chronicles how cyclists have been in the vanguard of trying to change cities for the better, but, as you will read, bike battles have raged for an awfully long time, and victories, sweet as they are, have been few and far between. Keep aiming for the stars, but be aware that interstellar travel is a long haul.

There have been so many battles, dating back to the 20s and 30s when the motorists started really pushing cyclists off the roads, even though they were a significant minority of road users. So much of it is counter-intuitive. Who would have thought that the push for separate bike infrastructure would come from the motorists, not the cyclists? There are so many lessons here.

Lesson 1: Nothing ever changes.

via. Bike Boom

Bike Boom/via

According to a 1935 Ministry of Transport census, cycles accounted for 80 percent of the vehicular traffic in some English towns. The minister of transport admitted: “It is indisputable that the number of cycles on the road is far in excess of the total of all other classes of road vehicle, public and private, passenger and goods.” Despite this dominance, British motorists demanded that the majority users of the roads should step aside for their betters. Cycling organizations felt that if anybody should be corralled it ought to be motorists. Policy makers and urban planners – most of whom were rich motorists – begged to differ, and they wished for cyclists to be provided with their own infrastructure.”

CBC/ In Toronto today. Nothing ever changes, and roads weren't built for cars./Screen capture

The cyclists fought against separate infrastructure:

Framed as a measure to reduce what was a dreadful death toll among cyclists, cycling organizations believed the true motive of the “experimental” cycle-track building was to force cyclists to use narrow, inferior paths in order to increase the utility of motoring.

We have covered in an earlier post how much of this bike infrastructure from the thirties fell into disuse and even disappeared as the popularity of bikes waned in the face of the automobile onslaught. But here we are, 80 years later and still fighting over bike lanes. Motorists want the cyclist gone, but God forbid they take any space away from driving or parking to get them out of their way.

Lesson 2: If you build it, they won’t necessarily come.


© Ladybird’s Story of the Bicycle of 1975 praised Stevenage’s cycleways.

In Chapter 7, titled Where it’s easy to bike and drive, Brits and Americans drive, Reid tells the story of planned communities in both Britain and America where good bike infrastructure was built but it didn’t mean it got used.

Equality of transport-mode provision does not necessarily lead to equity in use – for instance, there are many factors that either encourage or discourage the use of bicycles, and we sometimes wrongly believe separation of modes leads to equality.

Instead, it becomes clear that just about the only way to get people out of cars and on to bikes is to actually promote one at the expense of the other. There really has to be a war on the car to make it work. Reid writes:

Cities without high cycle usage, but which want to gain the benefits that such usage brings individually and collectively, would need to restrict usage of cars. This does not require Soviet-style diktats; changing travel habits can be done by stealth over a number of years. How so? By removing car-parking spaces, slowly at first; by reducing motor vehicle speeds by strict enforcement; by placing bollards on rat-runs; by charging for parking and road use, and many of the other well-known measures used in cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Singapore, and others. Sadly, such measures are known collectively, by media and politicians, as the “war on the motorist,” and in our short-termist political cycles it’s incredibly difficult to do anything that interferes with the sacrosanct Great Car Economy.

Lesson 3: This isn't going to be easy.

CC BY 2.0. Life in the "separated" bike lane/ Lloyd Alter

Life in the "separated" bike lane/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Watching the battles over bike lanes where I live in Toronto, it’s clear that this is accurate. The truth will be out this September, when the Bloor Street “pilot project” is evaluated, when the drivers complain about their trip being slowed down, when the retailers complain that the removal of parking spaces hurt their businesses, when the police and fire services complain about longer response times. I predict that the lanes will be removed because Toronto is dominated by suburban politicians in love with their cars.

pyramidhat comment

CBC/Screen capture

Because, as Carlton Reid makes clear, changing attitudes takes a long time. It took decades of hard work to change the Netherlands, and much of the effort there was due to a groundswell of anger from citizens concerned about children's safety. In North America, the response is just to drive them in a bigger SUV. It took serious political will and investment; in America, bike lanes are being stripped out of infrastructure investments by the government. There is so much that has to be done, and so little will. But there are options. Our last words go to Carlton Reid, quoting his last words:

Much of this book has been about the fading away of bicycling cultures. It does not have to be like this. History is a lesson, it is not a template. Fight.