New York City Mayor John Lindsay leads a group ride in 1970. AP

CityLab explores the ever-changing role of the bicycle, the machine that makes cities better.  

In college, I worked a summer as a bike messenger in the late 1980s, which was roughly when that profession—pre-email—was enjoying a swashbuckling pop-culture mini-renaissance. (Remember when Ed Koch tried to ban them? And this guy?) Equipped with the hefty 10-speed I’d gotten for my 13th birthday and a helmet I’d borrowed from my friend Doug, the only person I knew who had one, I rolled into Magic Messenger, Baltimore’s best and only bike messenger company, and rolled home with a job on two wheels.

I’d set out every morning with pockets bulging with quarters, for the pay phones we used to communicate with the dispatcher, and puff home 8 hours later, staggered by heat and bus fumes. It was very much not like the Kevin Bacon movie Quicksilver. The best riders could take home $200 a week or more. I did not, because I was terrible at it—timid and slow—but it was still a great gig.

The city revealed itself to the messengers; we knew every elevator, every alley shortcut, and every public bathroom in town. (The best: the glorious restrooms in the golden spire of what was then called the Maryland National Bank building.) Being a sweaty and helmeted biker in delivery mode gave you an open ticket to appear in any workplace and roam around at will; over the course of the summer, I found myself in a kosher meatpacker in East Baltimore, where I was given a free hot dog, and in a warehouse factory that made fake eyeballs (it’s now a upscale live-work space). On a bike, silent and unannounced and unnoticed, you can see the weird ways a city really works.

Baltimore has changed enormously in (holy crap) nearly 30 years. Its topography is as familiar as ever—I think I’m dodging some of the same potholes—but when I ride around now I’m usually in the company of others on bikes. This was once unheard of. I don’t ever recall seeing any recreational riders or bike commuters on city streets back in the 1980s, just a scraggly and lawless little mob of messengers. There were no bike lanes, either, needless to say. Now, riding home from work after dark, I might be part of a stream of cyclists—young and old, men and women—plying a new cycle-track that runs up the city’s spine, our blinking red lights climbing northward for blocks. Just in the last several years, the uptick in our numbers is noticeable: Even on the foulest and wettest winter days—in the middle of a city that is on no one’s list of most bike-friendly burgs—I’m never alone out there any more.

It’s tempting to see a seismic shift in changes like these, which have been paralleled in other cities nationwide that have launched bike-share programs, installed bike infrastructure, and encouraged commuters to ride to work. As our Richard Florida points out, this urban bike boom is in part an optical illusion: The bicycle’s share of the commuting pie is increasing, but it remains slender, except in a handful of college towns and West Coast cities. Beyond these bike-centric bubbles, Americans are getting off their bikes: Ridership has dropped since 2000. Bicycle sales are down. Most troublingly for those who plot an enduring bike restoration in American cities, the decline is particularly sharp among children: In 2000, more than 11 million kids’ bikes were sold in the U.S.; by 2013, it was less than 5 million.

In Margaret Guroff’s cultural history of the bicycle, The Mechanical Horse, you can see a sobering pattern in the cyclical bike boomlets and busts that have defined the bike’s journey through American life since the 19th century: Toys for the affluent, then tools for workers, and then back again. What will be the thing, she asks, “that will finally make city cycling normal?

That’s one of the questions CityLab will be exploring this coming week as we explore the bicycle’s role in shaping urban space, and its prospects for finally finding an enduring place there. The numbers of riders may be small, but in cities that struggle with issues like traffic congestion and social fragmentation, they can play an outsized role in helping communities function better. As Guroff writes, “The automobile may have annihilated time and space on the interstate … but in a car-choked city, it is once again the bike that magically shrinks the distance between here and there, allowing riders to percolate through the gridlock while drivers sit and fume.”

In other words, cities make bikes make sense, and vice-versa. That’s what I discovered almost 30 years ago (again: holy crap), and it’s even more true today.

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