Pedal-ins and car burials: what happened to America’s forgotten 1970s cycle boom?

Bicycle madness once saw US bike sales outstrip cars, and spawned ambitious plans for 100,000 miles of cycle paths. Then the music stopped

The bicycles biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history, gushed Time magazine in 1970 at the start of Americas five-year love affair with the bike. Some 64 million fellow travellers are taking regularly to bikes these days, more than ever before, the report continued, and more than ever [they are] convinced that two wheels are better than four.

US bicycle sales, which had been rolling along at 6 million a year, shot up to 9 million in 1971, 14 million in 1972 and 15.3 million the following year, according to a Bank of America report. While most pre-boom bikes had been sold for children, suddenly 60% were destined for adults.

Highly placed politicians a few of whom were cyclists told planners to get on and build miles and miles of urban bikeways. Both national and local governments have recognised the phenomenal growth of bicycling, reported Time, and the Department of the Interior has plans for nearly 100,000 miles of bicycle paths to be constructed in the next 10 years.

In 1973, 252 bicycle-oriented bills were introduced in 42 states. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of the same year provided $120m for bikeways over three years.

Bikes are back, claimed National Geographic writer Noel Grove in the magazines May 1973 edition. Glutted roadways, ecological concern, the quest for healthful recreation, and the sophistication of geared machines have all contributed to a flood of cycling activity, he explained, adding that legislators are beginning to think bikeway as well as highway. He concluded that with bikeway construction and ecological concern marching hand in hand, Americas bicycling boom could harbinger a whole new era in transportation. What went wrong?

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A 1970 anti-automobile cartoon by Richard Hedman. It originally appeared in Autokind V Mankind by Kenneth R Schneider. Photograph: Richard Hedman

Ecological concern was certainly one of the drivers of the boom. During the 1967 Summer of Love, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco reeked of patchouli oil, weed and incense. With flowers in their hair, some of the areas self-styled freaks protested not just against the Vietnam war but also against waste.

The automobile became a potent symbol of everything that was wrong with the militaryindustrial complex. In February 1970, 19 humanities students at the San Jose State College bought a brand new Ford Maverick and, with the blessing of their professor, buried it in a 12 ft-deep hole dug in front of the campus cafeteria. This crowdfunded destruction of the hated motor car made news around the world.

Chicago-based Edward Aramaic explicitly linked cycling with environmentalism when he founded the Bicycle Ecology group and organised a pedal-in in October 1970. This was the era of -in demos which started in the 1960s with sit-ins protesting against racial segregation at American colleges and universities. Later, there were teach-ins, love-ins and, in 1969, the famous bed-in with Yoko Ono and John Lennon who espoused world peace from the presidential suite of Amsterdams Hilton Hotel, and who were gifted a White Bicycle by the citys Provo anarchist group.

Bicycle Ecology want to ban trucks, buses and automobiles from [downtown] and replace them with bikes, reported the Chicago Tribune. 1,500 to 2,000 enthusiastic riders of all ages braved a stiff north wind and temperatures in the 40s to wheel down major arteries to the civic centre, where speeches extolled the bicycle as good for the individual and for the environment.

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A Bicycle and Equestrian Day in Los Angeles in September 1971. Photograph: AP

New York urban planner David Gurin joined with other activists to form a Triple-A with a difference. An Action Against Automobiles demo in November 1972 called for an end to highway spending, and for cars to be barred from downtown Manhattan. Riders met in Central Park and rolled past the Greater New York Automobile Show, chanting Cars must go! Cars must go!

Speaking to a crowd of cyclists, Gurin applauded the radical bicycle activism of the Provo anarchists, and urged New Yorkers to adopt similar eco-tactics. One of the posters he designed to promote the AAA protest rides promised massive demonstrations until the streets are cleared of the auto gangrene.

(In 1978 Gurin, who had been writing anti-car polemics in Village Voice since the mid-60s and was a friend of Jane Jacobs, became NYCs deputy commissioner for transport, a post he held for 12 years. In the late 1980s the city banned not cars but bikes. Action Against Automobiles continues as Transportation Alternatives.)

Congressman Ed Koch who would become New Yorks mayor in 1977 rode on some the early 1970s protest bike rides, and in 1971 he stressed: The only way to ensure safety for the many thousands of New Yorkers who want to bicycle is to designate official and exclusive bike lanes. Koch installed bikeways when he became mayor but he also ripped them out again.

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Bike Boom is published by Island Press

In Portland, Oregon, the bike lanes stuck. Sam Oakland, a Portland State University professor who led a group known as the Bicycle Lobby, told the Associated Press in 1971: We want to redesign Portland to make it a city for people instead of what it now is: a giant, smelly parking garage for commuters. His lobbying for funds worked and a bill was passed which set aside 1% of state transportation spending for bike-specific facilities the first designated state funding for cycling in the US.

A citizen Bicycle Path Task Force was appointed to oversee the programme, and Oakland was appointed chair. The Task Force met with resistance from the citys car-centric engineers who had little interest in the use of bicycles for transportation and instead wanted to use money from the highway pot to build recreational trails. As long as the bicycle continues to be considered a toy for recreational use only, were not going to get anywhere with paths in the city, complained Oakland. After many struggles with city officials, the Task Force was able to push through a plan in April 1973. By the following year, 60 miles of bikeways had been striped statewide, with another 50 miles under construction and 70 miles to be delivered. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow; Portland is now one of Americas most cycle-friendly cities.

In March 1972, interior secretary Stewart Udall one of the greenest US politicians of his generation told the New York Times: Weve got to get away from the pretence that there is some easy painless way that we can save energy. Were at the final stages of the climax of the automobile era Weve gone as far as we can go. Give people a choice, he said, build more bikeways. People cling to their cars because there is no alternative.

Students, too, were keen on cycling. In 1972, University of Montana students could choose from geology, psychology, biology or new for that year bikeology, a combination of bikes and ecology.

And hundreds of articles in the mainstream press demonstrated that there was an alternative. If National Geographic was to publish a spread today similar to the one from 1973 it would likely have glossy adverts from the likes of Cannondale, Specialized and Trek, Americas leading homegrown bicycle brands. The three were founded during the boom years.

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A cyclist marks Earth Day 1970 on 5th Avenue in New York. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

In Washington DC, there was a young Post staff reporter called Carl Bernstein later to become half of the Pulitzer Prize-winning pair known as the office hippie and a long-haired freak who rode a bicycle

Many cyclists harbour fierce antipathy for what they regard as an automobile culture that is choking the nation with fumes, speed, noise and concrete, he wrote in the Post in 1970. He went on to describe a growing group of cyclists who regard pedalling as an almost political act and inevitably flash the two-finger peace symbol upon encountering another person on a bike.

The facilities for DC cycle commuters had been poor, but improved by the early 70s, partly because of John A Volpe, President Nixons secretary of transportation. In 1969, Volpe who routinely rode a fold-up bicycle to work told the city council chairman to build bikeways for the growing number of cyclists who, like him, were not all long-haired hippies. As Bernstein wrote in the Post, bike-boom cyclists were just as likely to be stockbrokers and congressmen, secretaries and lawyers, students and government clerks, librarians and teachers, youngsters and oldsters.

Hundreds of cyclists staged a bike-in in 1971, demanding more space on the key commuter route of Beach Drive. At the first bike-in I burned someones drivers licence on network TV, bicycle advocate Marchant Wentworth remembers. Heady times.

In 1974, DC cyclists started to take direct action to improve streets. Cary Shaw installed an asphalt bike-ramp where the city Highway Department had refused. When a container of asphalt appeared on his street for a road-mending task, he decided to borrow some, adding a big traffic stripe leading to the ramp. When it was finished, I turned around and almost immediately someone was wheeling her baby carriage up the ramp, recalled Shaw. A couple of minutes after that someone whizzed along on a bicycle, saw the thing, zipped up on the ramp, and away he went. The ramp Shaw built was later adopted by the city, and is still there. Direct action works sometimes.

Blame it on the baby boomers

Shaw, like other cycle advocates, was a baby boomer. The post-second world war birth spike resulted in a glut of teens and 20-somethings at the beginning of the 1970s. Many had cash, were eager for novelty, wanted independent mobility, and were desperate to throw off the shackles of their elders.

These consumerist kids, who came of age at the end of the 1960s, kept on buying, and despite the bulge predicted in the 1950s, the bike industry was caught off guard when the demographic alighted on their products. It was a perfect storm, with drop-out baby boomers attracted to cycling for its anti-motoring environmentalism; suburban-conformist baby boomers latched on to cycling because it was healthy and outdoorsy; and pre-motoring teens upgraded to lightweight 10-speed bikes after having been attracted to cycling because of bikes like the Schwinn Stingray, the cycle that inspired Raleigh to make the iconic Chopper.

Thanks to the 45 million bicycles sold at the height of the US boom, cycle ownership was higher than ever. The US was on the cusp of building a whole bunch of bikeways, with high-level support from the US Department of Transportation.

David Rowlands, writing for Britains influential Design magazine, was impressed that the Department of Transportation organised a key 1974 conference, Bicycles USA. What emerged from [this conference] was a far more comprehensive response to an expanding population of cyclists than any other country at present offers. Government assistance has been a major factor in this new awareness of the bikes potential as a means of transportation in the developed world. It is an example that deserves much wider imitation.

A report from the US Environmental Protection Agency, also published in 1974, came to the same conclusion. And the Department of Transportation published its first ever cycle infrastructure style guide, Bikeways: State of the Art 1974.

Even LA had a programme part of the Los Angeles County General Plan to crisscross the county with a 1,500-mile network of bikeways. It was ambitious, but too late.

The LA County plan was published in 1975, the year fashions changed and the boom imploded. The bike had turned out to be the hula hoop of the 1970s: all the rage one minute, all but forgotten the next.

Bike sales in the US fell by half within months. Despite the obvious fillip to cycling in America from the 1973 Opec oil crisis when fuel was in short supply and getting around by car became expensive and, because of oil-saving speed restrictions, slower cycling hadnt changed the world.

The bike-friendly John Volpe left the Department of Transportation to become the US Ambassador to Italy. State highway planners reined back what had been grandiose bikeway plans. Bike shop lines thinned out to nothing. Bicycle manufacturers cancelled overseas orders.

In the words of the chairman of the Bicycle Manufacturing Association of America to a Senate committee in 1976: The boom has turned into a bust.

This is an edited extract from Bike Boom by Carlton Reid, Island Press, Washington DC

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