Bikes in the Pre-Automobile and Post-Automobile Age

As Barack Obama prepares to unveil his infrastructure-oriented green economy stimulus package, the major fossil fuel-based, greenhouse gas contributor transportation interests – the highway builders and all those focused on long distance/global transport of goods by ship, truck or rail, for example – are also gearing up to get a piece of the action. At the same time, the environmental and smart growth groups are putting together their own lists of more environmentally friendly projects such as upgrading bus and rail transit systems. At the margins of this discussion are bike riders and pedestrians, seeking even just minimal support to ramp up what should in fact be a major part of a green economy transportation approach.

Bikes, in fact, had at one time been at the center of the action when it came to transportation. A century ago, in the pre-automobile age, a bicycle boom emerged, with bikes supplanting horses as the main form of (environmentally friendlier) transport within cities. The bike boom meant new infrastructure (paved streets and bikeways), new manufacturing (plants springing up in industrial centers like Chicago), and new cultural shifts (bike riders including women who achieved new types of freedom in relation to dress standards and mobility). Bicycle production was identified as “the largest specific manufacturing industry in America,” and, in the Los Angeles region, the bike capital of the country, plans were afoot to create what would have been a “bike freeway” stretching from Pasadena to Los Angeles.

But over the next hundred years, the automobile, armed with what amounted to a huge shift in transportation planning and a vast set of subsidies in the form of auto-exclusive infrastructure support,  systematically began to supplant first bikes, then the electric railway, and ultimately all other forms of transport. The automobile became king and brought with it a brown economy that reconfigured cities and suburbs, made air quality problems a fact of life, and ratcheted up our greenhouse gas emissions.

But now the auto industry, especially in the U.S. but increasingly at the global scale, is in trouble, begging for its own stimulus (read bail out) package.  There are calls for accountability and a shift in planning to incorporate green economy goals. But, as I argued earlier, stimulating new bike production as part of an overall green transportation economy approach could also create jobs and help influence bikes as transport, at least for short 1-2 mile distances which may represent the most efficient mode of transportation. More to the point, we might well be entering a new post-automobile age, although when and how that will occur still remains to be seen. But as that happens, as sales of automobiles in fact continue their decline and the search for more radical strategies regarding global warming becomes more pressing, bikes need to be seen not just as a marginal opportunity but at the center of a broader shift in the way we think about transportation, about infrastructure, and about what we mean by a green economy.
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Bob is Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute. He is the author and co-author of twelve books and numerous other publications, including Food Justice with Anupama Joshi (MIT Press, 2010), Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City (MIT Press, 2007), The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City with Mark Vallianatos, Regina Freer and Peter Dreier (UC Press 2006); Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Island Press, 1993); A Life of its Own: The Politics and Power of Water (HBJ 1989), and Environmentalism Unbound: Exploring New Pathways for Change (MIT Press, 2001). He is also the editor of two MIT Press series, “Urban and Industrial Environments” and “Food, Health, and Environment.” A long time environmental and social justice activist, Bob Gottlieb has been engaged in researching and participating in social movements for more than 50 years.

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4 comments on “Bikes in the Pre-Automobile and Post-Automobile Age
  1. Krisha says:

    Bob – I couldn’t agree more! Bikes are the “new” future to bring back from the past. Thanks for generating energy on this important issue of transportation!

  2. ramonchu says:

    subsidies! you’d think we’d have learned that subsidizing dysfunctional forms of transportation just doesn’t work out…

  3. Milton Takei says:

    Since the problems of United States automakers have been in the news, I have been again wondering if the end of the automobile age will mean less jobs. Along with the jobs for auto workers, cars create jobs at filling stations, car washes, insurance companies, etc.

    Fighting global warming will mean more people will be driving buses, repairing bicycles, making renewable energy equipment, etc. But I suspect that society as a whole will experience a net loss of jobs. Governments will need to adopt measures to help provide food and housing for the unemployed during the transition to a sustainable society.

    Organic farming would be one place for people to obtain a livelihood. Farmers might make less money than auto workers, but they have a chance to be their own boss. They can also grow a lot of their own food. But potential farmers might not have access to land.

    Governments should try to provide land for organic farmers; the richer countries also need land reform.

    Milton Takei
    Eugene, Ore.

  4. Milton Takei says:

    I seem to be entered my e-mail address incorrectly when I made my comments on the automobile age.
    –Milton Takei

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