Geography book takes a ride through the cult of the bicycle

Glen Norcliffe on a bicycle
Glen Norcliffe on a “boneshaker”
Glen Norcliffe on a bicycle
Glen Norcliffe on a “boneshaker bicycle”

Geography Professor Emeritus Glen Norcliffe’s anthology of essays takes a new look at an old technology. Critical Geographies of Cycling: History, Political Economy and Culture is a ride through the evolution of the bicycle, a mode of transportation born during the days of horse-drawn buggies and still ridden on today’s streets.

“The key word is ‘critical.’ It’s asking people to re-appraise and re-think the role of bicycles historically and in current society. They play an important role in economic life and an important role in social life, in the city and the countryside,” said Norcliffe, who is a senior scholar at York University and the president of the International Veteran Cycle Association.

Norcliffe’s essays, some of which are co-authored with other researchers, are now easily accessible with this compilation on cycling innovation. It is geared not only at geographers, but also to other social scientists in urban studies, cultural studies, technology and society, sociology, history and environmental planning.

Invented by Baron Karl von Drais, the bicycle rolled onto the traffic scene in 1817 Germany. The first bikes had no pedals, with riders propelling themselves with their feet to the ground. The centuries would see the bike evolve in practical and culturally significant ways, such as shock-minimizing technology, the globalization of manufacturing and the gendered use of bicycles, among others.

“In the 1880s, the era of the high bike known as the ‘ordinary,’ they were almost exclusively ridden by men. Women did not ride them, except in the circus,” said Norcliffe. “Over the next 10 years with the advent of the safety bicycle, a third of cyclists were women.”

Glen Norcliffe on a "boneshaker" high wheel bicycle
Glen Norcliffe demonstrates a high wheel bicycle

This shift in gender ratio saw the use of bikes for racing and in cavalry-like riding clubs — with bicycles instead of horses — transform into bikes used for fun, for social outings. Streets were cleaned up. And in the midst of road rage between cyclists and other road-users, like wagon drivers, the Cyclists’ Rights Movement was born. This movement saw cyclists, then-wealthy young people, influence legislation to stake claim on cyclists’ rights to the road.

“There was a bicycle craze up until about 1900 when the first cars started appearing in North America, particularly in the United States,” said Norcliffe. “With Henry Ford producing a really cheap, reliable car – the Model T – the car rapidly took over and by the 1910s and ’20s, bicycles had become a children’s toy.”

Then the bike’s image was reborn starting in the 1970s with the BMX mountain bike, suspension and fancy gears, re-igniting its popularity.

“Soon after, biking becomes recognized as a healthy, recreational activity,” said Norcliffe. “But only recently, in the last 10 to 15 years does bicycling in North America become utilitarian, a way of getting to work, getting to school, going shopping, going to the library, etc.”

The bike, however, never went out of style in Europe.

“The Dutch have been riding right through. They have miles and miles of fantastic bicycle networks. Nobody wears a helmet because you’re on separate bike networks. European cities in general are investing in good, segregated bicycle networks or well-marked ones,” he says.

In East Asia and Africa, he says, riders are trying to ditch their bikes for cars and other motorized vehicles. This especially includes China, despite the country being a major bicycle manufacturer and its widespread use of tricycles for local deliveries and as micro-businesses.

“They are where we were 50 years ago. It’s a class thing. Getting status as a car owner and going out in the country to see Grandma in the car,” said Norcliffe. “One of the things that surprises me is the timeline between where they are and where we are in the West, where we’re rediscovering bicycles as a green way of getting around the city, as a good way of getting around the city.”