Saturday, February 22, 2014

Capital Bikeshare Usage Visualized

Mobility Lab, a kind of think tank/advocacy organization in Arlington (Virginia), has this blog post that links to interactive displays of various kinds of usage of the Capital Bikeshare system based on 2013 statistics displayed on an aerial photograph of DC and northern Virginia. One of the amazing things about bikeshare systems is that they provide detailed statistics about cycling that have never been available before.

Washington DC Bicycle Map, 1896
PDF of map for cyclists in the Washington DC Morning Times, May 24, 1896

The above "Washington Bicycle Road Map (presented in a newspaper) is one I like very much since it covers so much of the DC region - it reminds me that at that time, the growing popularity of cycling was about leisure riding and a significant part of that for long rides into the countryside (which would now be suburbs, mostly). The city was only around a quarter of a million people after all. The map extends at least 12 miles out in all directions from the center of DC.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"Bicyclists, Get Off the Road"

A letter to the editor of the Yakima Herald-Republic (in Washington state) is titled, "Bicyclists, get off the road" and starts out:
Yes, it keeps happening. People riding their bicycles on roads and highways designed for motorized traffic. Thank God my parents had enough common sense to beat my rear end and ground me if they caught me riding my bike in the street. Just because the law allows stupidity does not mean you have to make yourself a dangerous liability. . .
- and so on, from some fellow in Moxee (apparently a place in eastern Washington state).

What a point of view, from one a resident of one of the top bicycling-friendly states in the nation! I guess this says something about the divide between urban sensibilities and whatever Moxee Washington represents.

On the other hand, we have this.

The Power of Bicycling (Get Psyched) from Streetfilms on Vimeo.


One wonders if the Man from Moxee is aware that the Good Roads Movement" that created all these roads he feels belong to motorists exclusively was started by cyclists (then known as "wheelmen"). OK, OK - one could add that they were helped in organizing by bicycle manufacturers like Colonel Pope. One can read about these efforts in their monthly journal from the 1890s, entitled "Good roads: an illustrated monthly magazine devoted to the improvement of the public roads and streets." There were no motor vehicles.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Looking Forward from 1894 - Cycling Options

I found a curious and amusing article in the Phillipsburg Herald (Phillipsburg, Kansas) from April 5, 1894. In the 1894 the "bicycling craze" of the 1890s was well underway but the "safety bicycle" (that is, a bicycle with the basic design we still have today) was still being improved each year and the peak of the craze would not be until 1896-1897. As with any "craze" there was speculation as to what might come next - this long article from the middle of the United States covered the possibilities (most of which were quite improbable) extensively, with illustrations.

Ngram results - wheelmen
nGram shows discussion of "wheelmen" in newspapers peaked 1896-1896 -- 1894 was still early

As you can see below, the article on bicycles and cycling took up the entire left side of the full page.

Entire Page
Image of the full newspaper page

The article begins:
The friends of cycling are legion and their number is augmented every day. As a sport it remains as popular as ever, and during the enforced dullness of tho winter months the cyclist dreams but of the perspective enjoyment another season. Long before the advent of the first robin and the timid crocus, the wheelman has burst in full bloom and can be seen gayly "pumping" through mud and slush having a glorious time in making himself and others believe that gentle spring has come.
Then it continues with illustrations and descriptions of a variety of possible bicycle types, including some more imagined than real.

Bicycle Ideal for a Family
A fanciful illustration suggests the skepticism of many about cycling at the time

Hand & Feet Driven Bike
A bicycle driven by one's arms as well as legs

Sail Bicycle
A bicycle equipped with a sail

Ice Bike
A bicycle equipped for ice (only)

Milking Maid Bicycle (?!)
An apparently regular bicycle used to help create a "new" milking maid

Cargo carrying with bicycles can require considerable skill - Egypt, 2008 example

Yes, this fellow is riding along with an open tray of Egyptian flatbread on his head.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

More on the Bicycle of the Future (a View from 1901)

An article in "Modern Culture" from 1901 looks at "The Future of the Bicycle" from a few years later than my previous post that was a view from 1897 - between 1897 and 1901, the market for bicycles collapsed and prices fell and at the same time the automobile was being introduced, along with motor bicycles (motorcycles).

I have only reproduced here the text of some representative paragraphs from the beginning, middle and end of the article but it is not very long and may be interesting to read the entire thing.

The introduction is written in a rather overdone style I often see in articles written around this time.
THERE still are those, as there were ten years ago, who persist in their contention that the days of the bicycle are far spent, just as there are those who commune with nature on a spring day with their fingers in their ears and admit the earth is beautiful while they lament that the birds have ceased to sing in the tree tops. And because it takes all manner of people to make a world, there doubtless are those also who confess that wheeling exhales a most seductive influence, but who will resist it for the same reason as of yore; they will wait until bicycles are cheaper. Not while green Nature allures when winter wanes, and mankind enjoys his liberty, will bicycling or some kindred recreation lose its fascination. The industry has felt an impulse to renewed activity, and while it is in a measure true that this spirit of optimism is perennial, the conclusion is so logical that it must be shared by everyone.
The article then reviews the history of the bicycle's development and makes the following conclusions:
All sorts of impossible inventions continue to emanate from the patent office, but the prospect of another radical step forward on present approved lines is obscure. Advancement is not an abstract condition which exists as a natural course,and the improvement of the bicycle cannot be said to cover a century, but was rather confined to two decades.

There have necessarily been greater variations in the different designs for the last ten years than reason demanded, but the amount of experimentation to which it is attributable has not been without a favorable effect on the present high standard of excellence. Every important feature has been carried to opposite extremes in order to attain the happy medium, and possibly with an ulterior motive of keeping the public curiosity whetted by constantly changing fashions. But now there is no longer need to perpetuate that expensive custom of adopting a radically different design every year, and marking wheels a scant year old down to bargain counter prices. Evolution has been toward uniformity. . .
Here the writer has in mind bicycles for general use and not a bicycle used by a professional racer, which would have been a much more narrow market at that time. Since then, of course, it has turned out that there can be a great variety of bicycle types overall, but here question was whether there would be some additional leap to improve bicycle technology comparable to the introduction of the pneumatic tire.

The article then has the following flowery conclusion:
While prices are not actually increased this year, it augurs well for the quality of the bicycle that there is a tendency to buoyancy in this direction. With the public clamoring for prices lower than the cost of a good bicycle, there was a flood of inferior wheels, cheap in all save price, assembled from a fortuitous medley of unrelated parts and pieces. The sale of assorted parts has decreased, which means that with wheels of established reputation within the reach of all, the profit in home made work is lost.

So give the bicycle its due. It will live though a few immunes deny it the right. It will bear the same relation to the motor bicycle that the horse does to the automobile. Society will resurrect it as a fad; indeed it may even now be bent upon it since King Edward of England is an enthusiast. And society will eventually drop it again without affecting its stability. For as a leveler of distances between the city pavements and the green of country earth it is a boon to the nature-lover, while its utility appeals to man's commercial instincts.
"A bicycle is to a motor bicycle as a horse is to the automobile" is not how things have worked out, but the basic logic that the bicycle's "utility appeals to man's commercial instincts" seems to be true for some today at least, if we take "commercial" to mean "it's economical."

Columbia Catalog 1900
A good quality bicycle from 1901 at the reduced (from 1897) price of only $50

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The "Bicycle of the Future" (of 1897)

A short piece looks at the "bicycle of the future" published in the Washington DC Evening Star, August 14, 1897. I have reproduced here just parts of the article, which speculates on what will be the "radical" changes in the design of the then-named safety bicycle (essentially the same basic bike design used today). After a ten year period of introducing and perfecting this design, including the introduction of pneumatic tires, it was apparently assumed that there would continue to be innovations of similar significance.
By many it is predicted that the bicycle of the future will be a radical departure from the wheel of today. As near perfect as the wheel of today may be, it is not so perfect that improvements cannot be made in it. This has been the invariable rule of mechanics, and the bicycle can hardly prove an exception. Stimulated by the demand of the public for something better, the manufacturers will endeavor to put an article on the market to meet the popular taste. As it seems at present, there is no need for any improvement, yet there are many who are demanding something unique and novel in the line of bicycle construction, and the manufacturers find it a lucrative investment to gratify the whims of this class.
Arguably the most significant statement is at the end - the market for bicycles at the then prevailing prices was apparently satisfied, so the manufacturers were hoping that some new enhancement would allow them to sell new and (literally) improved bicycles even to persons who already had one but would feel a need to have a new one that was clearly better.
The diamond frame has been recognized as the strongest combination that could be made for bicycle construction. It has stood the test well, but now the demand is for something different. Accordingly, the triangle or pyramid, frame wheel has made its appearance. It may be several years ahead of its day, as popular fancy has not taken to that style of construction as yet. This is only one of the most prominent departures from the present style of bicycle frames. There are innumerable designs on the market, but they are either lacking in some qualities, or else do not equal the present style in weight, and are therefore objectionable to riders. No cyclist is going back to a thirty-pound wheel after having pushed a twenty-pound or twenty-two pound wheel for several years. It would be a foolish move, indeed.

Triangle Frame Bicycle Design
"Triangle" frame design - failed to attract interest
Within the past three or four years there have been no improvements in the general design of the bicycle. The improvements that have been made are mostly in the line of detail, though In this direction some wonderful strides have been made. The number of changes in this direction are too many to mention here. The weight of the wheel has been reduced to a point undreamed of four or five years ago, until The Friction Ch. today the factor of safety Is the smallest known in mechanical construction. The tires have been wonderfully improved upon, and the matter of repair brought into the hands of all riders.

The tread has been brought down to a scientific basis. The bearings have been made as near perfect as is possible, though it is admitted by all bicycle experts there is plenty of room for improvement yet. The bearings have also been made as near dust proof as possible, while arrangements for the chain adjustment have been patented by a number of people. The cranks and sprockets have been brought down to a scientific basis also, and innumerable other smaller details have been looked after. all tending to produce the bicycle of today. If one make of wheel had all the improvements on it we would have a model bicycle, but as it is the improvements are scattered over a number of different makes and as a result no particular wheel is perfect.
Cog Chainless Bicycle Drive
Cog-based drive system to replace chain - never caught on

The article goes on to suggest that a likely place for innovation would be to replace the chain with some other kind of "chainless" drive system, although the article dismisses shaft-drive approaches (which were marketed by a number of companies and still exist today) in favor of exotic approaches like the cog-based approach shown above, even as it admits that this system has some drawbacks.

Somewhat oddly, on this same page in the next column over from where this article appears, in a collection of short items called "Cycling Chat", a Professor Carpenter from Cornell University is quoted saying, "no better power conveyor can be found than the chain that is today in use on the bicycle" - he discounts the greater efficiency from chainless systems.

(The next post takes a further look at the "bicycle of the future" as described in 1901.)

Bike Train Commuting?

Voice of America decides to report on a bike commuter innovation in L.A.

Voice of America, the "official external broadcast institution" of the United States, has an article (along with the video, above) about a way to make car-centric Los Angeles better for bicycle commuters.
To make cycling safer, some bicyclists in Los Angeles, who live and work near each other, are commuting together in what's called a “bike train.”

“You’re a big enough group that cars don’t have the same behaviors as if you are just one person," said Nona Varnado, who co-founded L.A. Bike Trains. "And you’re also with an experienced cyclist.”

L.A. Bike Trains launched in May 2013 and the number of participants and routes around the city has been growing.

“We specifically design each route so we avoid problem intersections,” Varnado said.

This has been going on since May 2013; it is described more fully on the L.A. Biketrain site.
"DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - When it comes to riding a bicycle, especially on city streets, the rule of safety in numbers applies. A group of cyclists pedaling at the same pace is simply more visible to car drivers. There’s another plus about riding in a group: It’s more fun.

I understand the concept but I think this is arguably a misapplication of the idea that there is "safety in numbers" with urban cycling. As cycling grows in a particular city or area, motorists get used to seeing more cyclists and interacting with them more successfully (that is, less dangerously for the cyclists). It appears there is some kind of threshold for this - it doesn't happen until you get enough cyclists out on the streets as a presence. The "bike trains" may be more people out riding (which is good) but it also presents motorists with something on the roads that they almost certainly don't like and won't know how to interact with, bicycles in a group - so that aspect seems more problematic. The statement, "cars don't have the same behaviors as if you are just one person" seems correct from my experience, but in the wrong way - motorists here seem much more inclined to get really annoyed with a group of cyclists riding in some way that they don't like than with just one. They can almost always easily figure out how to get around one.

Another problem from my personal perspective is that bicycle commuting is a delightfully independent activity, and to be part of a "bike train" you have to be on a schedule that syncs with the train's and so on. Perhaps I come at bicycle commuting all wrong, but being part of an organized "train" would take away much of the appeal.

On the other hand, whatever works? Sure.

This sort of group ride looks more pleasant and functional than trying to manage a commute as part of a group

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Two Wheels North: Bicycling the West Coast in 1909 - Book Review

Two Wheels North: Bicycling the West Coast in 1909Two Wheels North: Bicycling the West Coast in 1909 by Evelyn McDaniel Gibb

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a blog about cycling history and although my main interest is the 1890s, this book about two young men traveling up the west coast from Santa Rosa California to Seattle to visit the Alaska-Yukon Exposition in 1909 was both enjoyable to read and informative in its providing some sense of the obstacles to this kind of long distance cycling at that time.

The text is a first-person narrative written by the daughter of one of the two men, based on her father's description of the trip as well as post cards sent both home and to a newspaper that published updates about their travels. This historian's blog post gives a good summary of the book's contents.

As someone interested in cycling history, I was pleased to read a book that included enough description of the bicycle-related aspects of their trip. For example, they paid to have someone weld racks much like those used to hold panniers on cycles today to their bike frames in order to carry some of their baggage - although generally they traveled very light. One understands quickly why their trip was considered so unusual - the road conditions were varied but often very poor, and they ended up walking about 200 of the 1,000 miles they traveled (measured by an odometer fixed to one of the bikes). While there were macadam roads in some towns, most roads were dirt or gravel (which might be rolled gravel which was better but often not) and "corduroy" log roads and even a road made from corn stalks. Long distance travel in this part of the world was supported at this time by the railroads, not the road system.

At first it seemed surprising that they felt pressed for time when they had six weeks to go only 1,000 miles, but this was not a bike trip where there were any 100 mile days, given the road conditions in particular. In addition, they stopped from time to time to take on day jobs to earn more money to continue their trip, since they left with only about five dollars cash - apparently at this time it was generally not a problem to find such work.

One might wonder about the attraction of the Alaska-Yukon Exposition for two fellows in California - apparently the publicity across the U.S. was very well organized, and it was expected to include what would then have been exotic exhibits from Hawaii, Japan, and Alaska (among others). The site of the exhibit and some of the buildings then became the main campus of the University of Washington (where I went to school). A number of photograph books of the exhibit were published and are available today online, such as Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition or this Souvenir Guide for visitors.

View all my cycling book reviews