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Thus spokes Zarathustra -- a philosophy for the bicycle

A lot of New York are becoming discourage by the crisis of the bicycle. This most durable of cities has survived the Concorde jet, and even worse, its own taxicab drives. But now a two-wheeled, foot-propelled vehicle has the natives beginning their sentence, "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we . . . ?"

There has been a half-hearted attempt to pass a law requiring New York City's two million bicyclists to register their machines, perhaps on the theory that anything stored in a computer somehow seems safe and nicely under control. Not too many cyclists favored the idea. A conspicuously unsensational study by city officials recommended that the best notion for how is to enforce existing traffic laws. This obligatory report was followed promptly by the obligatory request for federal funds -- $300,000 to help finance the enforcement.

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For many New Yorkers -- the quickest of people to seize on a hysterical nuance -- the crisis of the bicycle has become another parable of the ungovernability of modern society, if not final evidence of the decline and fall of the West.

A letter writer to the New York Times, L. Melamid, has pictured a city of barbarians on wheels. The Melamid jeremiad shakes a fist at buses and, of course, taxis, as well as bicycles, reaching its climax with a thunderclap against roller skaters, who, "more often than not, travel against the flow of traffic -- sometimes backward and wearing ear-radios."

Melamid's dour conclusion: We have becom "a willful populace, disdainful of laws . . . in a word, uncivilized."

Another spokesman on the subject of spokes, henrik Krogius, has told New York it needs a "bicycle culture," along European lines.

At this point a sudden gust of deja vum drove us from our perch on the curb to jaywalk to our bicycle history books. Sure enough, sources like Robert A. Smith's "a Social History of the Bicycle" suggest that New York has already had its bicycle crisis, and indeed, its "bicycle culture."

The time was the 1890s, when observer wrote, "city streets became dueling grounds between horse- drawn vehicles, pedestrians, and cycles, all fighting for the right of way."

One August Sunday in 1898, 100,000 bicyclists toured out of New York City into the countryside and, presumably, back.

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Laws were passed against this horde on wheels, forbidding them to frighten horses, denying them access to the paths of Central Park.

Policemen enforcing the traffic laws of that day -- without a federal grant, we may be sure -- lay in wait in "sidewalk traps" to snare cyclists who invaded pedestrian territory.

Editorial writers, fearing that the roads to Coney Island were turning into impromptu bicycle race tracks, inveighed against "the restless scorcher on his mad flight to the sea."

At the height of emotion, small boys threw stones, and petty elders made popular ridicule of the "bicycle face," set in a rictus of joyless resolve above all these handlebars.

But despite the mutterings about "social chaos," heard in the 1890s as today, a "bicycle" was, in fact, forged.

A revolution in clothing occurred. The bicycle led to rubber-soled shoes and a code of "rational dress.

The bicycle became an instruments for the emancipation of women from Victorian corseting. AS one poetless put it, the sheltered maiden with h er spinning wheel discovered quite another kind of wheel, "and now goes spinning round the world."

Idealized as "the most democratic of all vehicles," the bicycle bore on its saddle the wealthiest of New Yorkers, John D. Rockefeller, and roving missinaries of the Salvation Army -- Theodore Roosevelt's wife, and members of the Socialist Wheelmen's Club, distributing pamphlets on the road between Boston and New York.

Cannot New Yorkers today do what New Yorkers did almost a century ago -- survive their own vitality?

We are talking about more than bicycles. We are talking about the capacity of human beings to survive all their inventions -- an ancient faith that seems to be wobbling nowadays like a six-year-old on its first two- wheeler.

We say to New York: Don't drop dead. Enough of this defeatist, ten-speed-Spengler moaning! First, deal with the bicycle. Then let's all get back to the SALT talks.

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