mailto:email@example.comMore bicycle articles by David S. Lawyer
Today, with more and more people becoming aware of the need to conserve oil and reduce global warming, the potential of the bicycle as a solution (or partial solution) to the passenger transportation problem looms large.
Most people think that bicycles are energy-efficient and thus save energy. They are only partly right: While the bicycle may not be all that energy-efficient, it usually saves energy. The internet is loaded with erroneous statements that claim that the bicycle is much more energy-efficient than the automobile. Actually, when one considers that for every Calorie of food eaten it takes several Calories of fuel to create, distribute, and cook that food, then a bicycle is only perhaps twice as energy efficient as the auto. But bicycles do save energy because they encourage less miles of travel since they are much slower than the auto. They also may save energy since much of the energy people expend riding them might be expended anyway for recreational exercise. See Bicycle Energy
The bicycle was never a major mode of transportation in the United States. It was mainly used as a vehicle for recreation and juvenile transportation. While about 70 million people own bicycles in the U.S. today (2005), most of them aren't ridden much and when they are ridden, more than half of the miles are for recreation and exercise.
In 2001-2 it was estimated that only about 0.2% of passenger travel (in terms of passenger-miles) was by bicycle. See Passenger-miles. This, in spite of the large expenditures made by governments in recent years for bicycle paths, lanes, and parking racks. The bicycle competes with passenger motor vehicles, mainly the automobile (including SUVs and pickup trucks). It's pretty obvious who has won this competition.
But to understand what's going on, it's necessary to examine the characteristics and costs of bicycle transportation. What does it cost to ride a bicycle? These costs include the costs of accidents and the costs of the time expended. And what are the benefits of the exercise resulting from riding a bicycle? How much energy is conserved by riding a bicycle? Of course there are many subjective aspects to these questions but that doesn't obviate the need to search for answers.
Two things that could make utility bicycle riding more feasible are shorter commutes and bicycles better suited for bad weather.
A major reason why more people don't ride bicycles much is the danger of accidents (both actual and perceived). Bicycles account for about 2% of highway fatalities but only for about 0.2% of the passenger-miles. Thus it seems that the risk of being killed on a bicycle is about 10 time greater per mile. See Appendix for details: Bicycle Safety (Accidents).
For non-fatal injury, the bicycle is perhaps 100 times or so more risky than the automobile per mile. This is so both because a bicycle has a much greater chance of getting in an accident per mile and also because for most bicycle accidents the rider gets injured, even if it's just a minor scratch or bruise. In contrast to the auto, a bicycle usually tips over in an accident, throwing the rider to the pavement or ground. In most auto accidents, the driver/passengers don't get hurt at all due to the protection the auto offers, including being held in place by seat belts. However, the seriousness of the injuries from a bicycle accident are likely to be less than for an auto accident since the bicycle moves as a slower speed.
But wait; let's see what would happen if the bicycle were to become the major mode of transportation in America. What would happen in such a case also illustrates what would tend to happen if the modal share of the bicycle were to increase. Since bicycle speeds are lower than automobiles, people relying on bicycle travel tend to travel much less than those relying on automobiles for travel. With most road travel by bicycle, we would travel far fewer passenger-miles so bicycle riding per year and thus the risk wouldn't be as great as it would otherwise be. Also, about 90% of bicycle fatalities are due to collisions with a motor vehicle. Thus if there were few motor vehicles on the roads then the fatality rate for bicycling would be about the same as for the auto (per passenger-mile). But with shorter trips (and less passenger miles) the bicycle would have a fatality rate much less than the current fatality rate for the auto. Or so it seems.
Actually, since the bicycle goes slower, if the time spent on passenger travel were to remain constant and bicycle travel were to replace auto travel, then the amount of traffic on the roads would increase since it takes 1.6 bicycles to replace an auto with 1.6 people in it (reported as the average occupancy). With all the bicycles, there would be many more bicycles colliding with other bicycles, thus increasing fatalities. Also, there would be far more riding under unfavorable conditions: rain, snow, winds, night resulting in increased fatalities. Also, travel on bicycle paths tend to be more dangerous than on vacant streets since the paths are narrow.
Thus, if it were not for motor vehicles, the fatality rate per trip for bicycles (due to the shorter trips) would likely be lower than for the automobile. But the fatality rate per mile would likely be higher than for the auto.
Injury rates are another story. Since the bicycle rider has no protection from injury (like being strapped in by seat belts in an enclosed automobile) the injury rate for bicycles is high, and would be high even if there were no motor vehicles. There just aren't any accurate statistics on this since the great majority of bicycle injury accidents aren't reported since most of them don't involved collision with another vehicle. Bicycles can easily skid, topple over due to road surface defects and debris, etc.
So overall, the bicycle accident rate is very high (perhaps 100 times higher than that of the automobile) But since the bicycle goes slower, the risk of a fatality (or very serious injury) per accident is much less than for a motor vehicle. So without motor vehicles, there would be many more minor injuries from bicycle accidents but perhaps a lower number of major injuries and deaths. There's also the problem of possible injury between ones legs due to bicycle saddles, sometimes resulting in male impotency which is not fully corrected by saddles that have grooves or slots down the center. Thus a society based on bicycle transportation instead of auto would still have serious problems of human injury from bicycles. But this might be compensated for by the health benefits from the exercise of bicycle riding.
The so called "golden age" of bicycling was during the 1890's when there was no competition from autos because there weren't any autos. Then, like today, recreational use of bicycles was of major significance. Since bicycles were expensive during the "golden age" most working people couldn't afford them. But they dropped in price by 1900 so that a worker earning $500 per year could perhaps afford a $50 bicycle. By 1900, they were likely used relatively more for practical transportation than today.
But bicycle use for practical transportation was not too widespread then since the bicycle designs of that era had difficulty coping with the mud, snow, sand, etc. of the prevailing dirt roads. Extensive paved roads like we have today just didn't exist then. Some roads were surfaced with stone, clay, brick, gravel, etc. but they were not all that great for bicycling on with the narrow-tired bicycles of that era.
The reasons that bicycles were not used much for commuting include not only the poor condition of the roads. Well-to-do men who could easily afford bicycles wore business suits to work and riding on a bicycle might get them dusty, sweaty, muddy, or wrinkled. Their wives of course were housewives and didn't commute to work. The streetcars had been electrified in the decade of the 1890's and generally had an edge in the competition with the bicycle. And most people had located their residences fairly convenient to their work so that they could get to work by walking or streetcars with little need for a bicycle.
The location of residences and stores had been selected for a walking, streetcar, and animal-pulled wagon based transportation system. For rural residents that had to travel many miles to the nearest store, they would only make infrequent trips to the store, picking up a large amount of provisions, etc. on each trip. Bicycles were not suited for carrying such large quantities of goods.
Bicycles then were only single speed. Thus for steep hills, mud, or sand, one would have to get off and push the bicycle. Brakes were poor by todays standards. The "spoon brake" consisted of a metal brake shoe that looked something like a spoon and pressed on the rubber tire tread. But many bicycles had no brakes since one could slow down gradually by attempting to pump backwards (like a child's tricycle). In most cases one couldn't just stop pumping and coast like today's bicycles, since the cranks (and pedals) rotated all the time (like a child's tricycle). In other words the bicycles had no freewheeling. Thus, if there was an obstacle on the road (like a rock) a pedal might hit it. And if one took their feet off the rotating pedals to coast downhill, they would have trouble trying to put their feet back onto the rapidly rotating pedals in order to gain control of the bicycle.
Another problem with women bicycling was self inflicted. The social tradition (the Victorian dress code) did not permit women to show their legs in public, even if covered by pants and stockings. Thus men outnumbered women bicyclists by perhaps two to one. The main bicycle organization was aptly named the "League of American Wheelmen". By 1900, it had become acceptable for more daring women to ride bicycles in bloomers (puffed out pants that were almost twice the diameter of ones legs at the knees). Only a few dared to ride in regular pants. Prior to 1900, some women had been stopped by police for bicycling in pants (instead of dresses). Thus the social mores in that era were a severe impediment for women cyclists but just as the situation was improving the golden age of bicycling came to an end.
There were hundreds of companies making bicycles in the 1890s and some were large enough to mass produced bicycles. With so many companies making bicycles (and many going out of business near the end of the "golden age") spare parts for some bicycles were likely difficult or impossible to obtain.
The bicycle had the potential to become a major means of environment-friendly transportation in the United States. Unfortunately, it never happened. The bicycle was relegated to become a vehicle used primarily for recreation (exercise) and for juvenile transportation. Today in the 21st century U.S., over half of bicycle use is for recreational riding (including exercise). Only about 1/2 percent of workers use it to get to work.
There were times during the 20th century when the bicycle was used somewhat more than average as a means of transportation: 1. The early period from 1900 to 1915 when many couldn't afford autos. 2. World War I 3. The later years of the great depression (1935-1940) 4. World War II. Just what percentage of passenger transportation they provided during these periods is unknown but it's clear that railroad and/or automobile transportation greatly exceeded that of the bicycle during these 4 periods. That's partly due to the fact that long distance travel by bicycle is much slower than by rail/auto. Thus the potential for utility bicycle use was mainly for urban transportation, including transportation in small towns?
This was the time when most people couldn't afford automobiles and it would seem to be an ideal opportunity to introduce bicycle transport to the multitudes that couldn't afford autos. But it didn't happen. There were many reasons for this.
One was that by 1900 most all streetcar lines had been speeded up by converting from horse traction to electric power. It was a time of intense construction of electric streetcar and interurban lines which competed with the bicycle. The increasing number of automobiles on the streets presented a hazard for bicycles, especially since the autos of that era were highly polluting. Highways were often narrow with limited room for bicycles. Even streetcar tracks could be a hazard if the bicycle wheel got caught in the rail groove.
Office workers and store clerks were expected to dress well and riding on a bicycle might mess up their clothes due to wrinkling, sweat, and possibly rain/snow and dust. With the Victorian dress codes pretty much intact, this problem was especially severe for women who could might risk be losing their job if they dared to show up for work in bloomers after riding a bicycle.
Still, this period was likely the era that bicycle use reached its maximum in terms of the percentage of urban passenger-miles by bicycle. If one looks at street scene photographs from this era, one often notices at least one bicyclist in the photo. What was the volume of urban bicycle travel compared to walking, horse, streetcar, and urban electric railway travel? One might guess that bicycle riding could have been close to 10% of urban travel. This would be about 40 times greater than today, but 10% could well be too high a guess. Were photographers more likely to snap a photo when a bicycle appeared in the scene thus biasing a modal share estimation based on these photos? Many old photos show all four modes of transportation: bicycle, streetcar, walking, and horse & buggy.
With up to 25% of the workforce unemployed at the peak of the great depression, some people were able to save on transportation expenses by bicycling. Bicycle production began to increase in the later half of the 1930's but some of this increase was likely due to increased usage by juveniles.
During World War II from 1942 to 1945, bicycle travel increased. But by how much? We do know that railroad travel shot up 4 fold, mostly due to gasoline rationing. See trans_in_Am . Before the war there was about 12 times as much intercity auto travel as intercity rail travel. But during the war, auto travel was only double that of rail. See trans_in_Am . The main reason for less auto travel was gasoline rationing but a lessor reason was that new cars were not being made since the auto industry factories shifted to production of military equipment.
Did bicycle travel also increase 4 fold? The author remembers those years as a boy and traffic on the streets was mostly all autos. Why? Well, anyone can ride the train but only a minority could ride a bicycle because they didn't own a bike. Gasoline rationing allocated most people enough gas to get to work and for minimal shopping, but didn't provide enough for much vacation travel. Thus people that wanted to travel on vacation tended to take the train and/or bus instead of autos and bicycles. The bicycle wasn't usually a candidate for longer vacation trips due to its slowness. Why didn't people that didn't have a bicycle just go out and buy bicycles? Because the government restricted bicycle production during the war to a half million per year.
Americas Highways 1776-1976. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), 1976. Table on p. 50 shows surface of roads in 1904.
History of Public Works in the United States 1776-1976. American Public Works Association (Chicago, IL), 1976. See chapter on Highways. This seems to have copied much material verbatim from the above book by FHWA. On p. 68 is the 1897 survey of city street pavements.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) 2001 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) data shows that about 0.2% of passenger-miles are by bicycle (6.2 billion passenger-miles). See BTS Daily Travel by Walking and Bicycling (from NHTS 2001)
I've also checked the raw data at the ORNL website, using "Create a Table" several times and obtained the same results: I found bicycles at 6.27 billion passenger-miles (BTS had 6.2 billion) which is 0.178% of motor vehicle passenger-miles (excluding motorcycles). Then there are 26 million trips reported for bicycles for access to and egress from transit. If they are 1 mile each, the result is only about a 1/2 % increase in bicycle passenger-miles. Trips by bicycles to access autos were also neglected as were surveying students in college dorms. Thus increasing the 0.178% estimate to 0.2% seems reasonable. In late 2005 with high gasoline prices, it may be higher than 0.2%.
The NHTS telephone survey may have missed sampling enough poor people who rely on bicycles more. Could this bias the results? No! While poor people rely more on bicycles they travel less on bicycles than rich people. This make sense since poor people travel fewer miles per year while richer people often ride bicycles for recreation and exercise. So while a higher percentage of poor peoples mileage is by bicycles, they travel fewer total miles with the result that they travel less on bicycles than rich people. The NHTS data bears this out (using table creation) and shows that while the average person (including non-riders) rides about 23 miles/year, people with family annual incomes of over $100,000 average 34 miles/year while people with family incomes under $20,000 average only about 18 miles/year. The lowest ridership is for families in the $20,000 to $35,000 range who only average about 13 miles/year per person.
Why would this be? Some of the poor ride out of necessity, but lower income families ($20,000 - $35,000) can afford automobiles and may not have the time and money to mess with bicycles. Richer people are more likely to have both the time and money to enjoy recreational bicycling.
NHTS data doesn't ask for the miles travelled when using a
bicycle to access (or egress) to public transit. Such a bicycle use
doesn't count as a "trip" and thus no miles are reported for it.
The 2001 NHTS Users Guide, Appendix E, p.11, states:
A travel day trip is defined as any time the respondent went
from one address to another by private motor vehicle, public
transportation, bicycle, walking, or other means. However, a
separate trip is not counted in two instances:
1. When the sole purpose for the trip is to get to another vehicle or mode of transportation in order to continue to the destination.
See User Guide (pdf) or User Guide (html)
Thus when the bicycle is used to access transit it doesn't count as a trip. Inspection of a few samples of raw data shows that the egress trip, if taken by bicycle or walking, doesn't seems to count as a trip either. The wording of "sole purpose" seems to mean that there was no other purpose for the access trip except as part of the main trip. For example, if you rode a bicycle to a train station to meet someone arriving on a train, but then after talking to that person took a train trip away from the station, then one bicycle trip purpose would be to visit friends/relatives (and the sole purpose would not be to access the train you took).
Also missed are cases where someone uses a bicycle to access, egress a parked motor vehicle (often using a portable bicycle). This may happen when parking very close to ones destination is difficult or expensive, so one parks further away where parking is easy or free and rides a bicycle from the parked auto to the destination.
However, the survey did request the modes used to access and egress from public transit and to estimate the time taken. So if only bicycle was used, then from the time one could estimate the mileage. In cases where more than one mode was used for access to transit, one can't do the above since the time reported is the sum of the time on all access modes.
Per DOT Traffic Safety Facts: Bicyclists for 2005 about 2% of traffic fatalities and 2% of reported injuries are bicyclists. But per Passenger-miles only 0.2% of passenger-miles is by bicycle. Thus a typical bicyclist is about 10 times more likely to be killed for each mile of travel.
Also, a bicyclist is about 10 times more likely to suffer a reported injury per mile. But most bicycle injuries are not reported and thus don't appear in the statistics. If 90% of bicycle injuries are not reported then a bicyclist would be 100 times more likely to be injured per mile of travel than someone in a motor vehicle. See below for the 90% estimate.
Per Adult Bicyclists in the United States, 1998 only 28% of serious crashes were reported to the police while for each serious crash there were over two non-serious crashes which were presumably not reported. Thus for each reported injury accidents there are almost 9 other injury accidents that don't get reported. This results in the 90% figure used in the previous paragraph. But, it's likely that many of the injuries would be very minor: like a small scratch or bruise. Since this was a survey of a national bicycle club, it would be expected that members of such a club would be somewhat more likely to report accidents than persons who don't belong to such a club. So this factor might compensate for the cases of crashes with no injuries of any type.
See also NHTSA - Improving Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety, 2004 and search above url for "reported". See also bicycling crashes, 2003 which also speculates that 90% of bicycling accidents don't get reported.
"Bicycle, the history" by David V. Herlihy. Yale University
Press, New Haven, 2004. Since it's frequently cited the short name
"Bicycle" is used in this article.
Bicycle - Wikipedia
Attire: "Bicycle" pp. 267-271. Women that dared wear shorts, pants or bloomers for bicycle riding were sometimes stopped by police (pp. 268-271). Bloomers were a compromise between a skirt and pants. They were medium length, loose, puffy pants that extended down to somewhere below the knee (something like knickers). Long socks were worn to conceal the bare skin of the lower leg. The bloomers made ones legs (at the knees) appear to be about twice their actual diameter. But bloomers were short enough to prevent them from being caught by the bicycle chain or pedals. Most of the photos from that era show most women riding woman's bicycles in long, ankle length dresses and not in bloomers. See Rational Dress Reform, Victorian Bloomers and Cycling Costumes
Don't confuse this meaning of "bloomer" with the other meaning: less puffy woman's underwear of similar design. That's the meaning of "bloomer" in the song "All Er Nothing" from the musical "Oklahoma". Some bloomers could be used as either underwear or outer-wear so that a woman wearing them under her skirt could just remove her skirt and go bicycle riding. It seems that seeing a woman wearing pants then, was significantly more shocking than that of seeing a man wearing a skirt today.
Women that tried to ride with long skirts were in some danger of the skirt being caught in the pedals or chain with the possibility of a resulting accident. By the mid 1890's a new dress code (unwritten) was established for women cyclists that allowed them to wear bloomers or shorter skirts (but not pants or shorts). See "Bicycle, the history" p.298.
Women were 1/3 of market for bicycles in 1890's: "Bicycle" p. 266.
Class: "Bicycle" pp. 272-5.
No freewheel: "Bicycle" p. 297, 310
Gears: "Bicycle" p. 297, 313-5, 361 (in 1930s, gears a rarity)
Coaster brake 1899: "Bicycle" pp. 297, 310
Braking by backpedaling: "Bicycle" p. 262 (inc. spoon brakes), p. 310
See interview with the author of Bicycle: The History "And in the early twentieth century, when cars were still prohibitively expensive, millions of working-class people relied on the bicycle for everyday transportation." This doesn't seem to be in the book and may be an exaggeration. It should appear in Ch. 13: Utilitarian Cycling
Good Roads Magazine, Jan. 1902: "Riders are using bicycles for utilitarian purposes almost altogether. For the most part, the cycler is going to and from his business or is on an errand"
"Bicycle" p. 317: 1909, US production under 1/4 million: (Auto
production 181k in 1910: per Sidney L. Miller: Inland
Transportation, Principles and Policies, McGraw-Hill, New York,
1933. See p. 578) "Bicycle" p.325, top: 1921, US production again
under 1/4 million
"Bicycle" p.325, middle: 1921, Cycle Trades of America shifted its focus back to the juvenile market.
"Bicycle" p.327: During the great depression, bicycles made somewhat of a comeback but children's bicycles were still primary.
Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, Vol. X, Manufactures, Part IV, Special Reports on Selected Industries, pp. 325-339: "Bicycles and Tricycles" by Axel Josephson.
On p. 325 regarding 1890-1900: "During this decade, taken as a whole, the industry has made extraordinary progress, but the climax was reached about the middle of the period, and since then there has been a decided decline." From p. 329: "The boom of a few years ago has past and in its place has been established a legitimate demand for the bicycle as a means of conveyance." Well, sort of. In 1899, sales were 1.11 million, down from over 2 million in the middle of the decade. So Mr. Josephson may thought that the decline would stabilize there. But it didn't and further declined to 0.23 million bicycles in 1904. So while there was a demand for the bicycle as a means of transportation, such demand was quite low. See the table below.
"Historical Statistics of the United States from Colonial Times to 1970 (Part 2)", U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1975. See pp. 695-6 "Series P231-300, Physical Output of Selected Manufactured Commodities: 1860 to 1970.
BICYCLES MADE in USA, Millions 1899 1.11 1921 0.22 1931 0.26 1947 2.88 1904 0.23 1923 0.49 1933 0.32 1954 1.75 1909 0.17 1925 0.30 1935 0.66 1958 2.05 1914 0.30 1927 0.26 1937 1.13 1963 3.81 1919 0.47 1929 0.31 1939 1.25 1967 4.87
See also Passenger-miles. For 1990, 2000, US census data for commute trips: Journey to Work: 2000 For both 1990 and 2000, only 0.4% of commute trips were by bicycle (age 16 and over). This is almost a half-million trips. Some postings on the Internet claim a higher figure. However, if one looks at the bicycles share in terms of passenger-miles, it would be well under 0.4% since bicycle trips are usually shorter in distance than motor vehicle trips. Walking was about 4% of commute trips in 1990 and dropped to 3% in 2000. So walking to work is several times more common than bicycling to work.
However, considering trips for all purposes, about 1% is by bicycle, but roughly half of these trips are just pleasure rides for exercise. See comment by Peter Gordon from "Transportation Quarterly" 1998, (vol. 52, No. 1) pp. 9-12. See also Fact Sheets (originally at bicycleinfo.org).
As a sanity check, the author counted (while he was bicycling or walking) the number of moving bicycles and autos (including SUVs) seen in his neighborhood in Pasadena on Sept. 16, 2005. He observed 782 autos and 19 bicycles. Assuming 1.4 persons/auto and assuming that autos travel at 3 times the speed of bicycles, this results in about 0.6% of passenger-miles by bicycle. But the route the author took seems to be a favorite for recreational bicycle riders since it goes through high-class residential neighborhoods with very light traffic and past parks. A lot of joggers are seen here too. The weather was also nice. Thus the 0.6 % figure personally observed is likely well above the average figure for the U.S. Thus the 0.2% figure reported by NHTS seems within reason.
1910+: Kids ride bikes to school and get jobs as delivery boys
and messengers using them: "Bicycle" pp. 319-20.
1920's: Kids use bikes for getting to school, errands, visiting friends
1890's boom price was about $100 but in 1897 prices reduced by
1/4 to sell unsold stock "Bicycle" p. 283.
Mid 1890s: Child's bike $50. "Bicycle" p.278.
Start of 1899: Dept. stores selling bikes for under $50. "Bicycle" p. 290.
1910: Bike reached price of about $25 "Bicycle" p.??
"Transportation in America" (annual) by the Eno Transportation Foundation, Washington DC. (Formerly Transportation Facts and Trends, by the Transportation Association of America) Some of their "statistics" are now found in the "Statistical Abstract of the U.S."). The 18th edition of Trans. in America is available with a "Historical Compendium 1939-1999" which covers years that other editions ignore. The table "Domestic Intercity Passenger-Miles by Mode" shows the modal split for intercity travel (but excludes international air travel).