Bike Battles: Why We Debate Who Owns the Road


A new book explains the fascinating history of American bicyclists and makes the case for why that history still matters.

Cyclists in New York City

A new book explains the fascinating history of American bicyclists and makes the case for why that history still matters.

During a recent stop on his book tour, author James Longhurst was surprised to hear an audience member accuse him of fabricating part of his new work.

The University of Wisconsin – La Crosse professor was promoting Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road when he explained the story of the “sidepaths,” a late 19th century plan to create a network of separate bike paths throughout the nation.

“You are making it up!” one listener said, despite Longhurst’s meticulous research, which included photographs. The speaker simply wasn’t convinced sidepaths existed because he couldn’t see them today.

Of course, the reason for that is simple: over the years, roadways covered them up. Likewise, the politics that led to the rise and fall of the sidepath movement are hidden behind decades of history.

But Longhurst’s story highlights one of the underlying themes of his book: the powerful influence of today’s infrastructure. We see the built environment used in certain ways and often assume that’s how it always looked and it’s impossible to change. In reality, our urban systems are constantly in flux.

“We should make the road adapt to us,” he said. “We don’t always have to adapt to the road we have.”

It’s a message that’s especially relevant in Houston, where historically, conversations about transportation infrastructure have really been conversations about driving infrastructure.

But those conversations appear to be shifting. Groups like Bike Houston and organizations such as B-Cycle are working to promote the notion that roads are not just for cars. All Houstonians, they argue should be able to bike safely. And a small but growing number of Houstonians are doing just that. Longhurst explains the context of today’s bicycling boom in this Q&A.

The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you expand on what you see as the essence of the “bike battles” and why you think bikes have been at the center of controversy for so long?

It’s a good question. When it comes to bicyclists as users of the road, we’re talking about a shared resource. And shared resources of all kinds are the center for huge and divisive debates.

Humans have problems of dividing resources and power fairly. The public road is like all of these other resources, like forests or fisheries or spectrum – or when you argue with roommates about sharing the bathroom or kitchen. These are human arguments. In a lot of ways, people come to the road, and they no longer think of it as a resource but solely the province of automobiles and automobile drivers who pay for it.

It’s easy to forget it’s shared between many different users, and that’s the only way the public road had really existed for millennia before one user type became more successful than others.

You talk about the position of cyclists as path-dependent. What does that means?

It’s a way of injecting history into our current way of thinking. The narrative of history – what came first and which decisions were made when – shifts our landscape today. Decisions made in the past, that made sense at the time, shape the decisions open to us now. These are all decisions that constrain our choices today.

I think of path dependency as a way to break out of the world we see around us. The world we see around us is powerful. We say ‘the city must have always been like this’ or ‘it must always be like this in the future.’

So I speak with advocacy groups, what I can bring to them is the idea that the city doesn’t have to look the way it does now. It’s not as if we got here through a carefully reasoned, rational process. We got here through a series of decisions and failure to make decisions.

Cities are the debris fields of history. They’re the leftover physical monuments of decisions that were made and not made in the past. I tell advocacy groups that this is very freeing. When someone says we can’t make a change or redesign that intersection it’s actually not true at all. The decisions we made in the past were shockingly recent. They’re the result of happenstance, and luck, and debate and failure to take action. They may be poured in concrete, but they’re not set in stone. That’s a good line.

One of the themes I liked is the idea that different public attitudes and perceptions of who bicyclists are affected the politics around them throughout history. Can you talk about one of those sets?

Many Americans do not consider bicycles to be serious, so the records on decisions about them are scattered and often lost. I thought of looking at legal history of bikes but it became clear that would be hard to come by. Instead what I found was the popular culture representations of cyclists and who they were. That’s much more accessible. I thought the story I could tell was how the public representation of who is and who isn’t a cyclist affects support for what they do.

One example is from the 1930s and 1940s. People continued to ride and buy bicycles but not as extensively as during the bike boom of the 1890s. There was a concept that bicycles were for children, and because of that, American manufacturers came to prize and service that part of market. They didn’t make the bicycles that adults rode in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. They thought bicycles were for children, so they made bicycles for children, and adults didn’t ride.

At the same time, tariff policy protected American bicycle manufactures from European competitors – which were producing practical, daily bicycles that didn’t come to American markets in large numbers. So there’s a strange relationship between what people think the bicycle is for and what it actually gets used for.

There are three pretty distinctive Golden Ages of biking. I imagine a lot of critics today are wondering why we’re rebuilding our cities when there’s a perception that this boom could go away. How do we talk about that?

It’s a question I get myself when I engage in advocacy. I think the language of boom and bust is deceptive. One of the things we’re really talking about is a boom in attention to cycling. After the 1890s Golden Age of cycling, after World War II and after the 1970s oil crisis – bicycling continued. If you look at sales figures, they don’t entirely match up to a sort of “three boom” story line.

Bicycles last a shockingly long time. As a hobby, I rehab 1960s Schwinns. I’ve picked up bikes from garages with original tires on them, and they roll. These are fads but fads as cultural phenomena. Just because journalists aren’t writing about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Bicycling never really goes away. Our attention is diverted.

The 1970s boom was in the absence of political organization. Adult bicyclists had no meaningful representation. The 21st century bike boom is far better organized and far more inclusive.

There’s also something really different about our bike boom now because of the economics of transportation. State legislatures and Congress are really not capable of funding personal automobile infrastructure the way they have in the past. The economics of getting around dense cities will have to include something other than single-occupancy vehicles. Even as gas prices come down, we can’t afford the infrastructure for cars. It doesn’t get cheaper the more of it we build.

Houston just opened its first protected bike lane and the mayor has done a good job shaming people who park in it. How important is local government support for changing the way we think about bikes in the city?

It’s important, but not as important as something else. The most important thing is the perception of who the user group is.

They’re starting to expand the bike share system in Chicago. One of the great things about their user group is that it’s simply people. It’s not the easily dismissed group of middle-aged men in Lycra. It wasn’t just tourists. It wasn’t just people who were clearly socioeconomically well off. It was just people, clearly using it for daily transportation. It’s a wide, diverse swatch of the city.

I told them if they could keep it going for 5 to 10 years, in the minds of people who pay taxes and vote, the user group of bike share will be Chicagoans, not a limited group of cyclists we call “others.” If you can make the user group mainstream, so people in cars look at them and think ‘that’s us,’ then voters and taxpayers will see the users simply as the public.

Kyle Shelton


Mailing Address

6100 Main St. MS-208
Houston, TX 77005-1892

Subscribe to our e-newsletter

Physical Address

Rice University
Kraft Hall
6100 Main Street, Suite 305
Houston, TX 77005-1892

Featured Sponsor

Support the Kinder Institute