Cycling has experienced a renaissance in the United States, as cities around the country promote the bicycle as an alternative means of transportation. In the process, debates about the nature of bicycles—where they belong, how they should be ridden, how cities should or should not accommodate them—have played out in the media, on city streets, and in city halls. Few people realize, however, that these questions are more than a century old.
In the 1890s, American cities were home to more cyclists, more cycling infrastructure, more bicycle-friendly legislation, and a richer cycling culture than anywhere else in the world. Evan Friss unearths the hidden history of The Cycling City, demonstrating that diverse groups of cyclists managed to remap cities with new roads, paths, and laws; challenge social conventions; and even dream up a new urban ideal inspired by the bicycle. When cities were chaotic and filthy, bicycle advocates imagined an improved landscape in which pollution was negligible, transportation was silent and rapid, leisure spaces were democratic, and the divisions between city and country were blurred. Friss argues that when the utopian vision of a cycling city faded by the turn of the twentieth century, its death paved the way for today’s car-centric cities—and ended the prospect of a true American cycling city ever being built.
“Friss has a good story to tell. In the late nineteenth century, bicycles were not just a sweet means of romantic transport–‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,’ and all that–but a technological triumph creating fanatical followers and interest groups. The bicycle was more like a personal computer than like a love seat…Friss is a demon researcher, and his book is full of revelatory facts…” (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker)
“Evan Friss’s The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s deserves recognition as the definitive account of the 1890s bicycle ‘boom’ in the United States.” “Friss’s book also presents a story that deserves a wide readership, one that would benefit both academic and popular readers…scholars and popular readers will appreciate the book’s admirable blend of historical detail and colorful, often vivid storytelling.” “What sets this book apart is its exceptional research.” “The book shows that Friss scoured not only the early bicycling industry’s immense material culture, including everything from club uniforms and banners, to tool kits and pneumatic tires and maps, but also more traditional historical sources, such as municipal records, newspaper articles, manuscript collections, and diaries.” “Friss has produced a truly indispensable volume relevant far beyond his likely readers in urban history.” “Combining exceptional research and clear-eyed analysis, Friss has produced an accessible yet authoritative account, an accomplishment in and of its own…It seems impossible now to tell the story of the US city, the automobile, or the nation’s urban landscape without first considering the bicycle craze of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Friss, in other words, has taken an essential step in reinserting the bicycle into American history…” (Winterthur Portfolio)
Friss “refuses to homogenise riding practices, insisting throughout on the multiplicity of meanings and practices that the term ‘cyclist’ can cover. Importantly, his comparative stance exposes the recursive relationship between cities and their transport and mobility systems” “There is a high degree of theoretical sophistication in his analysis of place and the processes of construction.” “Friss refuses to be drawn into crass connections with 21st century bicycle transport policy debates: nevertheless, his study carefully shows than an historical analysis is deeply pertinent to those debates.” (Journal of Transport History)
“Friss offers a deeply researched, highly textured account of urban cycling in the 1890s.” (Reviews in American History)
“The Cycling City is aided by sharp prose, illustrations and graphs, and a well-researched narrative. By contextualizing cycling in environmental, urban, and cultural terms, the author makes a fine contribution to sports history and the history of cities, one that will appeal to scholars in various disciplines.” (Journal of Sport History)
“This is an interesting and readable discussion of the bicycle’s role in the US in the 1890s.” (Choice)
“Friss rejects as overly simplistic the standard explanation that motor vehicles replaced bicycles as a mode of transportation once cyclists abandoned their machines for motor vehicles demonstrating persuasively that the vogue for cycling had already ended by the time that automobile registrations and sales began increasing…Urban and cultural historians will find much of interest in this fine study.” (Journal of American History)
“His interdisciplinary study makes welcome contributions to environmental, urban, and cycling history and draws our attention to the inextricable ties among all three, in modern as well as historical contexts…One might argue cogently that transportation is the single most direct avenue in any quest to confront environmental degradation…Friss understands this, and he invites readers to park their automobiles, pedal back to 1895, and share in cyclists’ utopian visions of future cities…That journey is time is strengthened by the author’s depth of research that documents the remarkable extent to which the bicycle penetrated so many aspects of American society during that period…Friss’s study points in pioneering directions.” (Environmental History)
“As cyclists fight their way back onto the streets of American cities—they’ve had a prominent place in European cities forever—it is instructive and, yes, lots of fun, to travel back in time with Friss to the ‘cycling city’ of the 1890s and the moment in time when the bicycle offered New York’s wildly varied populations of natives and immigrants, men and women, boys and girls, the idly rich and working folk alike, a cheap, healthy, efficient, effective, noiseless, pollution-free, and, in good weather, fun way to get to work and, when work was done, get out of town. Powerfully argued, beautifully composed, timely, and with some great photos, The Cycling City is history as it should be written.” (David Nasaw, author of The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy)
“The Cycling City tells the story of an ephemeral city—half imagined, half real—a city of bicycles. Powering these new machines with their own muscles, Americans of the 1890s found that they could travel farther and faster than their legs alone would take them, in directions no streetcar tracks ran, through the city and into the countryside. Though sometimes ridiculous in their utopian pronouncements and their fashion choices, they understood the bicycle’s potential, and Friss has done important work in recovering their insights and their voices.” (Zachary M. Schrag, George Mason University)
“The Cycling City is a deeply researched and insightful study of the rise and fall of the bicycle as a critical factor in American urban transportation history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. At a time when the popularity of the bicycle is again sweeping the American city it would be wise for its proponents to ponder the lessons contained herein.” (Joel A. Tarr, Carnegie Mellon University)