Bicycle History with an Eye on Portland

This is from a presentation I gave at a film festival celebrating Portland Transportation. Much of the material comes from David Herlihy's comprehensive examination of the two-wheeled steed, Bicycle: The History, and from Steve Reed Johnson's dissertation on Portland Civic Culture.

The bicycle was the culmination of a long quest for a mechanical horse – a human-powered machine that could replace the onerous burden of using horses for transportation. For 150 years, some of the world’s most distinguished technical and scientific minds attempted to design and build a practical and effective machine. Most were based on the four-wheeled carriage model and lacked the efficiency necessary to make them practical. In the early 1800s a two-wheeled vehicle called the Draisine burst onto the scene, but it lacked any mechanical drive and was propelled much like a scooter. It soon faded from the quest for a mechanical horse.

Then in 1867 in France, a blacksmith named Pierre Michaux took the much-maligned Draisine and attached crank arms and pedals to the front hub. The first bicycle, as we know it today, was born. From the time of its appearence in Paris, Michaux’s innovative, human-powered machine spread rapidly throughout the industrializing world. In 1869 the New York Times remarked, “Never before in the history of manufactures in this country has there arisen such a demand for an article.”

Other, more refined models soon followed. The High Wheeler, with the large wheel in the front, spread rapidly throughout Europe and North America, all the while new innovations were improving the bicycle. Bearings, pneumatic tires, brakes, the freewheel, and the chain, all soon followed the High Wheeler, leading to new a model called the Safety Bicycle. The Safety Bike has essentially all of the same basic features of the bicycles we use today.

As bicycling’s popularity spread major social, technological, and political ramifications followed. Socially, the restrictive Victorian dress required of women in public was abandoned for more appropriate clothing. Technologically, the U.S. once boasted over 300 bicycle manufacturers and included perhaps the most famous bicycle mechanics, Wilbur and Orville Wright. Henry Ford’s assembly line was modeled after a bicycle factory and the early network of bicycle repair shops evolved into the first gasoline stations. Politically, the Good Roads Movement – spearheaded by cyclists – led to a national highway movement, which of course, ended up benefiting the bike’s clunky, loud, four-wheeled cousin much more.

Although the quest for the mechanical horse was meant to supplant the animal’s transportation services, the bicycle became a recreational vehicle. While there were attempts to demonstrate the bicycle's utilitarian value, its prohibitive cost kept it from serving as the cheap transportation that its earliest dreamers had hoped for.

In Portland, bicycles were just as popular as the rest of the country. People like Fred Merril, an early bicycle advocate and entrepreneur, helped establish bicycling’s popularity by opening shops throughout the Northwest and building one of the area’s first bicycle race courses where the Rose City Park Golf Course is now located. In 1896 the Multnomah Wheelmen published a map of preferred bicycle routes in the Portland area, including locations of public houses in case a thirsty cicylist might be in need of refreshment.

By the early twentieth century, the bicycle had finally come down in price enough to fulfill its role as a utilitarian machine for transportation, although it took longer to gain acceptance in the U.S. then it did in Europe and Japan. By 1908, Henry Ford had introduced his Model T, and by 1920 sales had increased rapidly while prices fell commensurately. While there were brief periods where bikes were used as utilitarian transport - such as during the Depression and World War II - the automobile's popularity led the U.S. to effectively abandon the bicycle as a primary form of transportation.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the bicycle has made a comeback. Interestingly enough the bicycle was originally designed to function as a means of utilitarian transportation and became a recreational pursuit. In the last 20 years, the widespread popularity of the mountain bike, intended as a off-road recreational vehicle, has helped propel the bicycle back into the transportation conversation.

But its taken very much more than the mountain bike to bring bicycles back into the fold as a viable transportation mode. As we just learned in Clarence Eckerson’s film on the Mt. Hood Freeway, the 1960s and 1970s saw Oregonians and particularly Portlanders asking whether we wanted to rely solely on freeways and automobiles to get around.

Part of this new questioning led Sam Oakland, a Portland State University creative writing professor to convince the Oregon Legislature to set aside funds for bicycle network development. In 1971, Don Stathos a representative from the southern Oregon town Jacksonville, successfully sponsored what has become known as the Bicycle Bill. This legislation required the state to set aside 1% of its highways funds for bicycle and pedestrian developments to create better places to walk and bike. In addition, the bill sparked the city of Portland to create a citizens advisory committee to make recommendations on developing the city’s bicycle network. The legislation however left some significant questions: Were funds available for on-street improvements or just paths for non-motorized vehicles? How would projects be prioritized and who would decide? Because of some of these ambiguities, the legislation was not strictly enforced until a lawsuit in 1995 forced the courts to decide on, and municipalities to follow, the legislation’s original intent.

While there was a growing chorus of Portlanders calling for integrating bicycles into our transportation system, not very many projects were getting funded. In 1980 the city’s bike network was comprised of a few wide bridge sidewalks and a couple of very small sections of paths. But the work during the 1970s – the creating of citizens committees, the philosophical arguments between engineers and advocates over the proper role of bicycles, and eventually the adoption of plans to integrate bicycle networks on the roadways, led to a large increase in the network. By 1990 we had the very earliest signs of the skeleton of our network. The I-205 path running north-south, three bicycle boulevards in inner SE, and several long stretches of bike lanes on roads like Highway 30. We also had some colorful leaders, like former Portland Mayor Bud Clark, who rode his bike everywhere. A culture of bicycling was coalescing in the city and the 1990s would see this intersection of culture and public policy explode in a fluorescence of bicycle development throughout the city.

In 1990 a group of cyclists formed a small advocacy group, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, to make “bicycling safer, more convenient and more accessible.” The BTA convinced Tri-Met to adopt bike racks on all buses and MAX lines, fought for the Bike Bill in court and in the legislature, and even managed to get a Bicyclists Bill of Rights passed in Salem in 2005.

Shortly after the BTA formed, Congress passed legislation called the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (affectionately referred to as Ice-Tea), which not only gave state governments more control over how they used federal transportation dollars, it also allowed that money to go to projects beyond highway construction. Luckily, Portland had a dedicated cyclist on its city council. Earl Blumenauer understood that ISTEA’s passage meant the city could augment its bicycling network funds with federal dollars. Blumenauer went out and hired Mia Birk to head the city’s Bicycling Program. Birk went out and hit the streets, meeting with citizens groups, churches, business associations, and even bringing donuts to the city’s street maintenance crews to bring bicycling to the forefront of the city’s transportation conversation. Her work in the city led to the adoption of a Bicycle Master Plan in 1995, which laid out a grand vision for Portland’s Bicycle Network. If Birk’s vision is fully realized we’ll have an over 600 miles of paths, bicycle lanes, and bike boulevards that will fully connect all areas of the city.

There are many more people, events, and stories that have propelled Portland to the forefront of, as Oregonian reporter Jeff Mapes has argued, a national bicycle-as-transportation movement. Portland’s hard work has been recognized over and over again. In 1995 and again in 1999 we were named best bicycling city in the country by Bicycling Magazine. In 2003, the League of American Bicyclists awarded Portland its gold medal for cycling – the first large metropolitan area in the country to be recognized at such an esteemed level. And the proof of all this hard work is not in just the accolades of magazines, but in those stubborn, non-conforming things called facts. Portland has witnessed an increase of over four-hundred percent in cyclists using the four bicycle-friendly downtown bridges over the last 15 years. In fact, bikes count for approximately 10% of all traffic using those four bicycle-friendly bridges.

Portland is poised to lead the country in re-thinking how bicycles integrate into an efficient transportation system. Let’s hope that the next century is even more fruitful than this past one.


RMH said...

>>the 1990s would see this intersection of culture and public policy explode in a fluorescence of bicycle development throughout the city.<< Ooh, good sentence.

Insightful stuff and it's awesome to read about something I don't have a frickin' clue about.

Bicycling is so organic - it makes me wonder what a different world we would live in (we see it elsewhere) if we could not auto-commute out of our local communities to work.

Anonymous said...


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