Then & Now: Bicycles Are Back–and Booming! (National Geographic, May 1973)

This edition of Then & Now will be guest posted by Nick Magrino, who is functionally aware of copyright law and would not like to upset the good people at the National Geographic Society. Full copies of the featured article are available at the link towards the bottom and also probably at your local library/cabin.

Time travel: In all likelihood, it’s unlikely.

However, the next best thing is readily available in many (most?) Northern Minnesota lakeside cabins. I’m speaking, of course, of old issues of National Geographic. This Fourth of July weekend I stumbled across this May 1973 issue, initially interested in The Volga, Russia’s Mighty River Road, but quickly struck gold when I came across the article Bicycles Are Back–and Booming!

Good times were had by all.

Title

The motorist is always angry

 

It's

It’s a toy, guys. Shout out to Madison, Wisconsin on the upper right!

 

"Riders fill a street in Columbus, Ohio for the annual Tour of the Scioto River Valley, the largest cycling event in the U.S."

“Riders fill a street in Columbus, Ohio for the annual Tour of the Scioto River Valley, the largest cycling event in the U.S.”

 

"Cyclists claim two out of four lanes in the eight miles between Alexandria, Virginia, and George Washington's Mount Vernon."

“Cyclists claim two out of four lanes in the eight miles between Alexandria, Virginia, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.”

As the graduate of a Northern Virginia high school/Google Maps user, I would reckon that this is probably US Route 1, which now looks like this. There are two (2) Wal-Mart Supercenters, as well as a Target, on that eight mile stretch.

Other great excerpts:

Bikes are back, piloted by legions not limited to motorless youngsters; more bicycles were sold in 1972 for use by adults than by children. Europe, that bastion of bikedom, has now fallen behind the United States in total production. In 1972 an astounding 76 million men, women, and children in the U.S. had bikes to call their own. By sheer weight of numbers, they are slowly gaining acceptance in American traffic.

Europe! Have we, in 2014, reached peak Europe yet?

Bike power is beginning to penetrate legislative halls throughout the land. “All but a few states had some kind of bike bill proposed in the past year,” said a spokesman for the Bicycle Institute of America, a New York-based trade association. “Oregon, Washington, and California passed model laws that let them use a percentage of state highway funds for bikeway construction.”

This went okay!

As a Houston cyclist told me, “The 10-speed is the sports car you always wanted but could never afford.”

Houston!

Although pleased at the thought of millions of pairs of pumps [leg muscles] flexing on bicyclists in the United States, the sprightly octogenarian [Dr. Paul Dudley White, medical consultant to President Eisenhower] is greatly concerned for cyclists’ safety. “I’m in favor of bicycling, but not on the same streets with cars,” he said.

Still controversial!

An era [in the early 1900s] of cycling contests inspired by the low-wheelers’ speed reached its zenith of masochism with six-day races–body-racking events where riders, pedaling 20 or more hours on each of six consecutive days, had to log at least 1,350 miles. Humanitarian legislation by several states soon forced the brutal sport to assume milder forms.

That’s new information!

“Highway statistics show that 43 percent of all urban work trips by car in this country are of four miles or less,” said Marie Birnbaum, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s bicycling-program officer. “If we could get that many people on bicycles, think of what it would mean to our traffic problem. As for parking, you can put 40 bicycles in the space required for two cars.”

It’s about parking, it’s always been about parking.

“We see cities eventually growing vertically, not horizontally,” said 26-year-old Peter Fromm of Eugene, Oregon, a photographer and longtime cyclist. “That way you could leave large tracts of rural areas unspoiled for people to enjoy, and help keep the compact cities pleasant by depending on bikes for intown mobility.”

Yes, that is a thing we could have done!

In ballooning accident statistics, most serious bike injuries and nearly nine hundred annual deaths result from collisions with cars.

How much life could those people have lived since 1973?

There’s not really a “Now” part to this post, I just thought it was a great reflection on both 1) the accurate reportability of trends and 2) the slog this has all been. We’ll get there someday.

Note: While I do subscribe to the print edition of National Geographic, I refuse to sign up for any more damn online accounts out of general principle–but it looks like the whole article may be available here if you register.

Also: There are no fewer than 20 ads for military schools in the back of the issue. One of them loudly advertises, in all caps, “Exclusively Individual Classes for the Underachiever.” And people complain about kids these days?

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4 Responses to Then & Now: Bicycles Are Back–and Booming! (National Geographic, May 1973)

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke July 10, 2014 at 9:31 am #

    Also, “Bicycles are Back” in India these days (http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-newdelhi/bicycles-are-back-on-track-delhiites-take-to-pedalling/article6073348.ece) and “Bicycles are Back” six years ago in Boston (http://blog.masslive.com/greenidea/2008/06/bicycles_are_back_and_so_am_i.html).

    PS, here’s another blogpost on the same Natl Geo article w/ some other pictures… http://simplicityvintagecycles.com/2012/08/07/cycles-in-print-part-iii/

  2. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell July 10, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    Great find! I am a product of that bike boom (I was young though, very very young). I’d forgotten about ’10-speed bikes’. Hah!

    When this was written Amsterdam (and The Netherlands in general) was just beginning their attempt to reign in the auto centric culture that had overtaken them just as it had the U.S. and elsewhere. They chose a path, we chose vehicular cycling. Yes, hopefully we’ll get there some day!

  3. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell July 10, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    It’s fascinating (and sometimes depressing) how much of what was said then is still very applicable to today.

  4. Matt Brillhart July 10, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

    For some reason, 1973 doesn’t sound like *that* long ago (even though it was 9 years before I was born). Weird/sad how things don’t change much in 41(!!) years. It was probably right around this time that people started talking about building a rail line on/under University Avenue.

    This is sort of tangential, but when you think about “where we went wrong” in the U.S., I can think of no other culprit than gas prices remained so cheap, for so long (aside from an occasional crisis). I mean, gas was still right around $1.00/gal at the turn of the millennium! We’re basically only about 13 years (since 9-11 more or less) into an era of significantly higher gas prices than we enjoyed for decades upon decades. If the US had seen significantly higher gas prices (or gas taxes) in the 70s, 80s, or even in the 90s (the sprawliest, exurbiest decade in history), I think we would have significantly different land use patterns and transportation systems than we have today (or hell, are still fighting to get in the future).

    Hopefully we make more progress than in the last 41 years…

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