Social impact of the bicycle

Affordable travel for all

For most people, travel by means other than public transit was unusual, if indeed one traveled at all. But the advent of the bicycle at affordable prices in the mid and late 19th century made personal transportation practical for the general population - or, at least, that fraction that had access to usable roads.

The safety bicycle made the two-wheeler a practical commuting vehicle and also a weekend recreational vehicle. It also offered an unprecedented degree of independence to women and fed the fires of the growing feminist and suffragette movements.

The rapidly growing numbers of bicyclists soon became a potent political force for the creation and improvement of roads for rubber-tired vehicles. Bicycle clubs foreshadowed the role of automobile clubs in both social and political functions. And the availability of an inexpensive commute vehicle began the growth of suburbs and the liberation of the working population from the health and social problems of the urban slums.

The changes begun by bicyclists were further reinforced as motorcycles, then automobiles, became major factors as individual transportation.

Women - Bicycling to Freedom

The bicycle craze, which dominated sporting activities of America and Europe in the 1890s, started a revolution of independence and emancipation for women.

For one thing, it changed the feminine wardrobe. Women no longer had to be hampered by tight corsets and long skirts, but could enjoy the freedom of comfortable and practical bloomers and divided skirts. The short lived bloomer fashion was a good solution for women riding bicycles, but many women rode bicycles in long skirts. Much later shorts and pedal pushers pants made bicycling easy. Now women and men alike often choose tight spandex clothing for biking comfort.

Moreover, the beginning of bicycling was the end of the chaperone. Ladies, and even young girls, began riding alone or accompanied only by friends.

Bicycling became important for women in all walks of life. Office workers and shop assistants rode bicycles to work. Women from the upper social classes used bicycles for leisurely rides or to call on friends.

In 1896 Susan B. Anthony said, "the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world."

Marguerite Wilson, Bicycle Racer

In the 1920s, several women accomplished great bicycling feats. However, no permanent official record of their times and distances were kept. Many considered this unfair, and with the rapidly increasing interest shown by women in the sport, action was definitely needed. Time and time again efforts were made to persuade the Roads Records Association officials to allow women to ride for records, but to no avail.

Eventually in 1934, a small body of women bicycle enthusiasts met to form the Women's Road Records Association to verify and certify the best performances by women riders.

A rider of outstanding ability, Marguerite Wilson, appeared in 1938. She raised the Women's Road Records Association records to such an extremely high level that amateur and professional classes had to be separated. Marguerite Wilson won over 50 medals and trophies.

The impact on the arts

Like every other major development, the bicycle influenced the arts, inspiring art, music, and even poetry, such as the delightful example below:

From Songs of Singularity, 1874
by Walter Parke

One Autumn eve, when, sharp and chill,
The wind blew like an icicle,
I met, fast speeding o'er the hill,
A youth upon a bicycle.
"How glorious thus to skim!" I cried,
"By Jove! I too will try-cycle;
And when like him I've learnt to ride,
Why, then, I'll also buy-cycle."
That very day I made a start,
First practising the tricycle,
Then soaring to that nobler art,
The riding of the bicycle.
So well I liked my hired machine,
That, having ask'd the price-ical,
I bought it, and it since has been
My own peculiar bicycle.
And now, at morn, and noon, and night,
My life is paradisical;
I emulate the eagle's flight,
When mounted on my bicycle.
Oh, all ye gay and festive youth,
Remember my advic-ical,
And haste to prove this precious truth -
There's nothing like the bicycle!

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