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The booms and busts of the two-wheeled vehicle.
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Humans in high gear
In 2020, the US entered its third great bike boom in 150 years. Once relegated to the dusty corner of the garage, the bicycle became an escape pod for millions of people otherwise trapped at home because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But it wasn’t the bicycle’s first comeback. Adults first discovered the joys of hopping on a bike in the late 1800s, and then rediscovered it in the 1970s, as new steel frame models rode a wave of popularity. Both periods of two-wheeled fever sent sales shooting up, just to come crashing down again.
City officials are racing to keep up with the latest boom, laying down miles and miles of new bike lanes. From Paris to San Francisco, bicycling’s revival may redesign cities for the long haul.
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By the digits
32%: Share of Americans (age 3 and up) who had ridden a bicycle in 2018, according to advocacy group PeopleForBikes
121%: Increase in sales of recreational bikes, to nearly 250,000 units, in March 2020
99%: Share of bicycles sold in the US in 2014 that were imported, primarily from China and Taiwan
40,000: Annual US bicycle manufacturing capacity in 1890
1.2 million: Annual US production in 1896
$80: Average price for a new bike at the peak of the 1897 bike craze (about $2,470 in today’s dollars)
$3-$15: Price for a new bike by 1902
$89: Average price for a mass-produced bicycle in the US in 2020
80,000: Number of rides on May 16, 2020, close to Citi Bike’s 100,000-ride record last year
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Charting cycling safety
Bicyclists in big cities may be safer than any recent generation. Collisions in April 2020 in New York City fell to 113 incidents, the lowest on record. But there’s still a scary amount of room for improvement.
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“The great avenues of our larger cities were made extremely picturesque in the dusk of evening by the endless line of bicyclists whose lanterns in the darkness produced the vivid effect of a river of coloured fire.”
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1818: The first bicycle is invented by German Karl von Drais. The 50-pound wooden contraption—aka “velocipede,” “hobby-horse,” and “running machine”—lacks a chain, brakes, or pedals.
1871: The Penny Farthing bicycle arrives on the scene, a precarious model with one large and one small wheel. It will later be known as the Ordinary.
1885: The modern “safety” bicycle arrives with more stable, equal sized wheels and gears. Pneumatic tires are soon added.
1890: Biking mania begins to peak in the US, sparking fashionable bicycle parties, weekend outings, and daily commutes crowding city streets.
1970: Approximately 45 million bikes are sold in the US as cycling becomes America’s top outdoor recreation.
1973: At least 252 bicycle-oriented bills are introduced in almost every US state while national highway funding includes $120 million for bike routes for the first time.
1975: US bike sales halve within a few months. One author calls the bike “the hula hoop of the 1970s: all the rage one minute, all but forgotten the next.”
March 2020: Coronavirus-related lockdowns send millions back to their bikes. Sales more than double.
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British rock band Queen’s 1978 B-side “Bicycle Race” was allegedly written after Freddie Mercury was enchanted by watching the Tour de France pass by under his hotel room window. Where the band played live, bicycle shops sold out of bells, as fans would buy them to ring during the song. In a story that may or may not be true—we tried hard to verify—when the band rented 65 bikes for a staged nude all-female Wimbledon race, the rental company made them buy all the seats.
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The way we 🚲 now
The pandemic got cities rethinking their transportation plans to winnow out cars and encourage more bikes (and walking). The US is only just beginning to contemplate such measures at the national level, while Europe is racing ahead. The UK is banning cars on many of London’s streets. Brussels will permanently repurpose car lanes for bikes. Paris is getting 400 miles of dedicated cycling lanes and subsidizing bike repairs. But Ireland outpaces them all. Ireland’s Green Party, led by a former bike shop owner, has ensured the country will spend 20% of its transportation budget on cycling and walking, with most of the remainder dedicated to transit.
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