I am delighted to post this short announcement of the 2019 publication of Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road, now in translation as Las Batallas de la Bici by Katakrak Press of Pamplona, Spain. This edition is translated by Laura Carasusán. It has a new forward by Elisabeth Lorenzi Fernández, social anthropologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Madrid and an interest in citizen initiatives for cycling mobility; and Diego Ortega Botella, anthropologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Valencia. Together, these two individuals have explored the social, political, and personal meanings of cycling both through their scholarly work and on the ground.
I am honored to be included in the work of these scholars, and excited to engage with an audience that I had not envisioned when I began researching US bicycle history. In the same way that I’ve interacted with audiences in Germany and Japan, I’m fascinated by the way that the many meanings and histories of the bicycle have diverged over the course of the 20th century. We can learn a great deal just from the observations that these experiences are not universal — the fact that variation is possible means that our transportation futures are neither universal nor unchangeable. The subtitle of the original book — “A History of Sharing the American Road” — was a humble nod to the fact that this is not the history of all roads, and that more stories and experiences were out there.
I’m especially interested in finding perspectives from outside of the history of the United States that demonstrate the peculiarity and contingency of the American experience — that American urban cycling is not exceptional, but also not inevitable. How is this the same or different from other histories? What choices in policy debates, at what points in time, have shaped our distinct transportation cultures and relationships with urban environments worldwide?
Accompanying the release of the book, Katakrak Press has included a brief translation of a hilarious and resonant editorial from the bike boom of the 1890s, and I wanted to post the original here. The editorial, titled “The Scorcher,” comes from the center of bicycle side-path development in Rochester, New York. It decries the subject of a bit of a moral panic in the midst of the bike boom, the “scorcher.” This term was largely invented in the immense press coverage of the bike boom, and the “scorcher” is vilified here as the (invariably) male bad-actor, spreading havoc and creating ill-will that triggers a popular uprising that punishes all cyclists for the actions of a few. But I have to admire the flourishes of the unnamed author; the result is a great piece of humor that has a kernel of truth at the core.
“A scorcher is a creature of the human species with imperfectly developed intellect and perfect developed calves,” is translated by Laura Carasusán as «El loco de la bici es una criatura de la especie humana con los gemelos mucho más desarrollados que su pobre intelecto […]. Baja el manillar hasta que la espalda se le curva como si fuera un gusano medidor sobre una rama […], monta en su bici con el salvaje resplandor del júbilo demoníaco en su mirada de serpiente y atropella un carrito de bebé en cuanto tiene ocasión».
The translation continues: “A su paso, «como los muertos en la verde ladera de Cemetery Ridge tras la carga de Pickett en la batalla de Gettysburg, quedan las víctimas abatidas por este maníaco salvaje y descontrolado».”
It’s hard to tell how this reference to the Civil War battlefield would have been taken by the Post Express audience in 1896; the carnage that Lincoln memorialized in the Gettysburg Address was only three decades past at that point and surely within living memory of huge numbers of readers. Was this humor “too soon,” or was this hyperbole that mocked the fears of those who used the image of the scorcher to attack all cyclists? I think that the author was probably defending the interests of cyclists by illustrating how the bad actions of the scorcher were weaponized against all cyclists. Of course, the florid descriptions of the demonic scorcher could still serve as evidence against all cyclists, even if it was meant hyperbolically.
In any case, the bracing reality is that the editorial still feels real in our present-day bike battles: this sort of demonization of rampaging bicyclists is used today — occasionally disingenuously — as a recognizable part of political discourse. Casting the dangers of bicyclists as “others” is a part of every political debate over sharing the scarce space of the public street, with rare but genuine incidents held up by aggrieved pedestrians, people on bikes occasionally chastising their own for bad behavior that threatens the rights of all, and non-riders using such demonization as reason to ban the lot. One clear difference between 1896 and 2019, of course, is that the editorial writer in 1896 had no inkling that the streets of Rochester would soon be filled beyond overflowing with a huge number of vastly heavier vehicles moving at speeds two and three times what the scorcher could ever dream of reaching.
Looking in my research records, it’s likely that I found this particular editorial in the microform collection of the New York State Archives in Albany. The Rochester Post Express was not digitized at that point (probably 2012 or 2013), though it may be now. The full editorial is linked below.
As the editorial staff of Katakrak Press have written, “En el último siglo y medio de desarrollo urbano se ha creado una situación en la que las vías públicas son el campo de batalla de contendientes desiguales: los automóviles de combustión interna, potentes y numerosos, y las bicicletas, vulnerables y menos numerosas. Décadas de decisiones jurídicas, políticas y de infraestructuras han acabado favoreciendo al automóvil y las vías urbanas se han diseñado en consecuencia. Pero esas mismas decisiones no han suprimido los derechos fundamentales de ciclistas y peatones; han mantenido el compromiso de una vía pública compartida, lo que puede tener sentido desde un punto vista jurídico abstracto, pero en realidad ha dado lugar a una competencia desigual de frenos chirriantes. Partiendo de las calles y carreteras como bienes comunes, James Longhurst recorre las pugnas por el espacio público desde el siglo XIX hasta la actualidad.“
Thanks to all of the editorial staff at Katakrak Press for their work, and to Laura Carasusán, Elisabeth Lorenzi Fernández, and Diego Ortega Botella. I appreciate being in conversation with people around the globe who are thinking seriously about how we get around, and how we shape our cities to make that mobility safe, equitable, and sustainable.
— James Longhurst, July 2019