The May 30, 2022 issue of The New Yorker has a terrific book review by Jill Lepore that is a whole lot more than a typical review, since Lepore describes her love affair with bicycles in the course of describing Jody Rosen's "Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle."
I encourage you to read the entire piece. But if that link doesn't work for you (I'm a subscriber), here's excerpts from what was called Easy Rider in the print edition, and the title below online. The New Yorker has some of the best writers anywhere. Lepore is no exception.
Currently I'm helping Salem Bike Vision with their proposal to build a network of protected bike lanes in Salem via a petition. Please sign it. As you'll read below, riding a bicycle is dangerous business in a country dominated by cars and trucks. Cyclists need all the protection they can get.
Bicycles are the workhorses of the world’s transportation system. More people get places by bicycle than by any other means, unless you count walking, which is also good for you, and for the planet, but you can travel four times faster on a bicycle than on foot, using only a fifth the exertion.
People all over the world, and especially outside Western Europe and North America, get to school and work, transport goods, cart passengers, and even plow fields with bicycles. In many places, there isn’t any other choice. Bikes are cheap, and easy to fix when they break, especially if you can keep track of your Allen keys and your tire levers. Mine are on the breakfast table, because, at the moment, I have a bike stand in the kitchen.
For every car on earth, there are two bikes, one for every four people. (I refuse to count stationary bikes, including Pelotons, since they go nowhere.) “We live on a bicycle planet,” Jody Rosen writes in “Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle” (Crown), a set of quirky and kaleidoscopic stories.
But roads and parking lots and entire cities are still being built for cars, even though they’re wrecking the world. Or, as bicycle advocates would have it, riffing on Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” two wheels good, four wheels bad. Two wheels are better than two wings. In a contest of humans against all other animals in the efficiency of locomotion, humans on foot are about as ungainly, or gainly, as sheep. Condors come in first. But humans on bicycles beat even birds.
...In 1899, 1.2 million bicycles were sold in the United States. Henry Ford’s Model T made its début in 1908. The next year, only a hundred and sixty thousand bicycles were sold in the U.S. In the absence of bike lanes, cyclists in all states but one have to follow the rules of something known as the Uniform Vehicle Code, first adopted in 1926.
Like jaywalking, a crime invented by the automobile industry to criminalize being a pedestrian, the U.V.C. treats bicycles as cars that go too slow. “It shall be unlawful for any person unnecessarily to drive at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic,” the U.V.C. decreed in 1930. E. B. White was among those who protested, calling for “a network of permanent bicycle paths.” (Many paths were built under the direction of Robert Moses.)
...By the nineteen-fifties, when the League of American Wheelmen disbanded and bicycles were excluded from many roads (including all of the new federal highway system), bikes had been reinvented as toys, child’s play. Grownups drove cars; kids rode bikes. Girls were supposed to ride girls’ bikes, although when, at age twelve, I inherited a girl’s three-speed Raleigh, I decided I hated girls’ bikes.
Twelve was when I first started to see clearly the price you had to pay for being a girl, the vulnerability, and right about then I got more scared of cars, too. A boy in my sixth-grade class was killed riding his bike home from school. I covered the frame of that feckless three-speed Raleigh with black duct tape, to make it meaner.
It’s bad enough being powerless, because of being a kid and, on top of it all, a girl; it’s worse when the adults are riding around in cages made of three tons of metal. It felt then, and still feels now, like being a bird flying in a sky filled with airplanes: the deafening roar of their engines, their impossible speed, the cruelty of steel, the inescapable menace, the looming sense of catastrophe, your own little wings flapping in silence while theirs slice thunderously. Black duct tape is no defense, and no disguise, but it was all I could find in the kitchen drawer.
The first time I was ever hit by a car, I was riding home from school on a robin’s-egg-blue Fuji ten-speed. I’d painted it polka-dot, strapped a milk crate to the back rack, and duct-taped a transistor radio to the crate, so I could listen to Red Sox games. Maybe I was distracted: ninth inning, pitching change. I don’t remember.
A station wagon hit me from behind; I broke its windshield, bounced off the hood, and tumbled onto the road, into oncoming traffic. I remember lying on the pavement, unable to move, watching a truck heading straight at me. Swerving to avoid me, it ran over my bike. A few minutes after I was taken away in an ambulance, my father happened to be driving by, on his way home from work, and saw my unmistakable polka-dot bike on the side of the road, its frame crushed and mangled, the milk crate and the transistor radio smashed. He fainted at the wheel and nearly crashed, too.
I’ve been hit more times since—doored, mainly, though that’s enough to cost you your life if you fall into traffic. J. K. Rowling’s left stiletto once nearly ended me; she swung open the door of a stretch limo and stepped out, pelican-legged, just as I was cruising by. I veered into traffic to avoid running over her foot and almost got mowed down by a bus. It doesn’t matter how cautious you are on a bike. Cars and trucks can kill you just by bumping into you. People in my city are killed by trucks every year.
...The biggest bicycle boom in American history, after the one in the eighteen-nineties, took place in the nineteen-seventies, even before the gas crisis. On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, bicycling activists staged protests all over the country. In San Jose, they buried a Ford. Later, in Chicago, they held a “pedal-in.” Bike sales rose from nine million in 1971 to fourteen million in 1972, and more than half of those sales were to adults.
Time announced a national bicycle shortage. “Look Ma, No Cars” was the motto of the New York-based group Action Against Automobiles in 1972. “Give Mom a Bike Lane,” a placard read at a bike-in rally in San Francisco that year. The following year, as Carlton Reid reported in “Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling” (2017), more than two hundred pieces of bike legislation, including proposals to establish bike lanes, were introduced in forty-two states.
In 1972, 1973, and 1974, bicycles outsold cars. Within a few years, though, the automobile lobby had bulldozed its way through state legislatures, and most proposals for bicycle infrastructure had been abandoned; by the time I was in college, in the nineteen-eighties, the boom was at an end.
...The latest bicycle boom began with the pandemic. In March of 2020, New York City declared bicycle-repair shops “essential businesses.” Pop-up bicycle lanes opened in cities all over the world. Roads were closed to cars and opened for bicycles. In the U.S., more than half the bicyclists riding for the first time during the pandemic, or returning to it, were women.
More people riding bikes meant more bicycle accidents—the rate of them doubled. More than a quarter of cars that hit and killed bicyclists left them there to die alone. Bike lanes, bike shares, new bike-safety laws: the rate of bicycle fatalities keeps going up all the same. Cars and trucks refuse to yield. The bike boom of the pandemic, Rosen argues, was a lot like the worldwide rewilding. Bears on street corners, cougars on cul-de-sacs, bicycles on highways. These things happened. Briefly.
“Traffic, for all intents and purposes, is back to about 2019 levels,” the head of highways in my state declared in June of 2021. The cars came back. By the end of that year, the bicycle boom had gone bust. “I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware . . . how far behind we are on bicycle and pedestrian safety,” Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, said. Republicans warned, “Democrats are coming for your cars.” No one is coming for your cars.
Meanwhile, I am avoiding the inevitable e-bike. I still ride my very, very old Bad Boy, slowpoke and getting slower every year, towing a trailer to carry books, a radio bolted to the handlebars, rusting.