Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro history: The great bicycling renaissance of 1936

November 2, 2011 - 05:18 PM
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(Photo: Popular Science)

You think the bicycle is surging in popularity now? If only you had lived in America's age of bike polo.

In July of 1936, Popular Science magazine confidently declared it: "The bicycle is back. Four million Americans now pedal along streets and highways." Yes, D.C., the bike had returned (from where? From that very bicycling mecca Martin Austermuhle described bubbling up in the late 19th century). In any case, Popular Science dubs what happened in the mid-'30s a "dramatic boom in popularity" and says that newspapers all over the country were covering the surge in biking. What does this mean? In Chicago, 165,000 people petitioning for bike lanes; in D.C., people enduring winter to see an amateur bike race, and of course, the metric that is cycling clubs. Accompanying these clubs are races and, naturally enough, the bike polo.

The photos tell the story just as plainly. Can you disagree with the magazine's premise when there's a photo of "300 girl cyclists" racing through California?

The piece indeed suggests that biking spiked in popularity around a hundred years ago and then enthusiasm cooled off for a few decades. No one's quite sure why people took to the pedals so notably again the mid-'30s. Hilariously and fascinatingly, the article talks about how Hollywood became "bicycle conscious" around that time. Stars sought out photos of themselves biking as part of a "publicity stunt" that set off a fire of passion for biking throughout the country. Another suggestion is that American tourists were inspired to bike more after visiting Bermuda, where cars were "taboo." The Great Depression, I suspect, was a powerful contributing factor at the time due to the expense of cars. In the 1930s, nascent biking organizations apparently had begun advocating for "special paths along the shoulder of roads." The decades from the late 19th century through this boom time in the 1930s likely did inspire much of the advocacy we would begin recognizing today. Bike makers had begun adding reflectors and horns and other innovations of the 20th century. The D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists, which now claims to represent 57 million cyclists in the U.S., was founded in 1880 (or as it was known then and in 1936, the "League of American Wheelmen"). In the years since, the notion of biking commuting rose into popular consciousness, and today we have the dawn of various bikesharing programs.

But read the 1936 Popular Science piece and sees its old-time biking photos for yourself and recognize how far the mode of transportation has come.

Read more pieces of Metro history here.

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