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Bicycles Have Evolved. Have We?

Biking innovations brought riders freedom. But in a world built for cars, life behind handlebars is both charmed and dangerous.

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.) “A great many people have now reached forty years of age in this country, despite all the handicaps,” White wrote in this magazine in 1933, when he was thirty-four, “and they are the ones who specially enjoy bicycling, the men being somewhat elated on discovering that they can still ride no hands.” In 1944, in what became known as the Far to the Right law, the U.V.C. stated that “any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable,” which could mean being driven off the road.

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.