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Bikes for Children, Cars for Adults: Postwar Educational Films

Policy and culture locked Americans into climate-changing transportation modes.

In 2021, West Virginia University Press published Transportation and the Culture of Climate Change: Accelerating Ride to Global Crisis.

Cover of the book Transportation and the Culture of Climate Change: Accelerating Ride to Global Crisis.

What follows is an edited and expanded excerpt of the submitted version of my chapter in that volume; the full chapter is titled “Bikes for Children, Cars for Adults: Postwar Transportation Culture and the American Legacy of Moving Images.” What is presented here is really just the part on educational films, excluding the introduction, literature review and analysis of Hollywood feature films. For this excerpt, I’ve inserted embedded links (where I can find them) of the films referenced, and added discussion of a a few films that were omitted from the published chapter. Most of those links are to the fantastic collection of films organized by the Prelinger Archives and hosted on Archive.org.  The database of sponsored films maintained by the National Film Preservation Foundation was also invaluable to the research. Remember to support all of these organizations in their important work.


This chapter argues that, for North America, responses to anthropogenic global climate change in the 21st century face challenges left by the cultural production of the 20th: in particular, the fact that postwar culture consistently promoted the view that the bicycle is for children, while automobiles are for adults.  This creates a significant problem: the “adult” choice is now the greatest contributor to climate emissions in the United States.[1]  

America is an autocentric culture, and has been for the last 75 years. Particularly in the postwar period, these cultural beliefs have been encoded in a variety of expressions, from films to television to music to advertising. They have also been shaped by – and in turn have shaped – laws, policies, budgets, and the design of cities. In post-WWII bicycle safety films (theoretically meant to support bicycle use), audiences were instructed that children rode their bikes as practice to become adult drivers.  Automobility was associated with masculinity, independence, technological mastery, and adulthood; while bicycle usage was associated with childhood and foreign cultures.  This cultural production occurred in dialogue with changes in policy and law: as the Interstate Highway System spread and facilitated suburbanization, the Uniform Vehicle Code increasingly diminished the status of the bicycle as transportation, and street design focused almost exclusively on the automobile. Working together in the postwar period, policy and culture locked many Americans into energy-intensive and climate-changing transportation modes.  

Working together … policy and culture locked many Americans into energy-intensive and climate-changing transportation modes.

An autocentric culture and intertwined policies complicate responses to anthropogenic climate change today. It seems unlikely, but any meaningful response to an issue considered existential by this generation is threatened by the legacy of elementary school filmstrips and B-movies of previous decades.  

A Brief Review

Scholars have written extensively about America’s automobile culture, but “there has been surprisingly little analogous work devoted to the bicycle and bicycling,” according to Zack Furness.  While urban planning and public health professionals explore bicycles as transportation, outside of those areas, “one still finds relatively few serious engagements” with cycling.[2]  A review of the limited scholarly literature is warranted, and a brief outline is found here; a longer version it can be found in Transportation and the Culture of Climate Change: Accelerating Ride to Global Crisis.  

Over nearly 150 years of American history, the bicycle has been variously associated with high society, middle-class masculinity, vitality, courtship, modernity, lawless self-endangerment, independent womanhood, advanced technology, slapstick comedy, youthful innocence, patriotic sacrifice, foreign lifestyles, childish playthings, cardiovascular health, environmental consciousness, yuppie entitlement and millennial indulgence.  As an object free to be appropriated by different groups and generations, the bicycle came to possess all these meanings, and more.  This essay will focus on the time periods that shaped the associations with childhood and foreignness.

At the moment of the first appearance of the high-wheel, penny-farthing or ordinary of the 1870s in North America, the bicycle was associated with men and modernity.  The bicycle was for a wealthy elite capable of affording high technology, the appropriate attire, and the leisure time to show them both as public spectacle.  Historian Glen Norcliffe notes that — starting in the high-wheel era and continuing into the “Golden Age” of the safety bicycle in the 1890s — “owning a bicycle was a recognized indicator of modernity, just as having a web site is today.”  Further, “the boom in ownership was limited to people of high social status . . . and was therefore an activity confined to the affluent, many of whom formed exclusive clubs.”[7]

After the golden age bicycle fad diminished in the new century, the newly-affordable bicycle was increasingly associated with children.  Motorcycles and automobiles supplanted it as the height of new technology and conspicuous consumption for adults.  By the interwar period, the domestic bicycle industry largely gave up on maintaining adult sales, and turned instead to children. As Luis Vivanco puts it, “the manner in which bicycles have been sold in the U.S. has contributed to, and helped sustain, dominant American attitudes towards bicycles as children’s toys.”[8]  Historian Robert Turpin argues strongly that a significant part of this shift is attributable to industry marketing: 

As bicycle production increased and prices fell, the bicycle industry’s target market–white middle-class males–lost interest. In response, manufacturers began a series of attempts at redefining the bicycle . . . the industry’s decision to begin targeting America’s youth–beginning in the 1910s–had an adverse impact on adult participation in cycling.

[9]

The bicycle thus became the province of childhood, and policy and popular culture alike reflected this throughout the 20th century.  

Pre-war Educational Films

Solely addressing an audience of children, pre-war safety films told them that the bicycle was a tool for their path to adulthood: “I want to encourage every boy and girl to ride,” says the uniformed police officer in the 1939 safety film Bicycling With Complete Safety. “It helps you grow into strong, healthy men and women.”

The film ends with the promise that if young boys learn to ride safely, “Twenty years from now, you’ll still come home to dad and mother, . . . you’ll be the man they want you to be, and fellas listen, sometime you’ll have a boy of your own, and you’ll want him to always be careful.”[10]  Riding a bicycle was a rite of childhood.

At the exact same time across the United States, traffic laws were being standardized through the Uniform Vehicle Code and Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance. These laws marginalized the use of bicycles for adult transportation, and increasingly diminished the bicycle’s legal status from that of a vehicle (equal to other users), to that of a plaything.[11]  Except in a scattering of recreational uses, the bicycle in America became largely a toy for children, and seeing an adult on two wheels was an oddity.  

The exception was WWII, during which adult bicycle use for transportation was encouraged by a federal rationing program colloquially known as the “Victory Bike.” This emergency accommodation – adapting to gasoline, rubber, and metal rationing that restricted automobiles – is captured in the 1943 safety film “Points for Pedalers”:

“Before the war,” intones the narrator, “bicycles were used principally for recreation and pleasure . . .  but today the bicycle is playing a vital part in helping to relieve America’s transportation problem.” Unlike most such films, it shows adults in the saddle:  “Men and women in all walks of life pedal smoothly and conveniently to factories and offices,” says the narrator, over footage of a suit-and-hat wearing adult rider. The rolling signifier of the bicycle was briefly associated with patriotic, voluntary sacrifice.[12]

But after the war, adults volunteered to return the automobile, and the bicycle increasingly became a prized purchase only for children. As the New York Times Magazine observed in 1949, “in the Western Hemisphere are bicycles considered something only for the kids to play with.”[13] An economic think tank summarized 25 years of this transition, looking back from the point of view of 1956: 

Since adults in the United States no longer use bicycles as a means of transportation or for recreation, American machines for the past 25 years have been sold almost exclusively to boys and girls . . . Some 15-year-olds continue to ride, but social custom, especially strong among adolescents, taboos the bicycle after its user becomes eligible, usually at 16 years of age, for an automobile driver’s license.

Margaret Guroff roots this shift in signification in the changing history of the family: “As children moved from the periphery to the center of the middle-class American family, a process largely complete by the 1950s, the bicycle became an indispensable accessory for them, an emblem of parental love.”[14] Frank Berto writes that the postwar bike was “used almost exclusively by children or teenagers too young to get a driver’s license,” while Zack Furness writes with finality that in postwar suburbia, “bikes are for kids, cars are for grownups.”[15]

Postwar Educational Films

How was this signification disseminated, and what was its legacy?  In post-war America, society rarely paid attention to adult bicycling, and urged children to think about the bicycle merely as practice for future driving. Vivanco argues that postwar America shaped “a deep-seated cultural framework that informs Americans’ views of bicycles” into the present.  It was then that they started to consider bicycles “as technologically static and obsolete vehicles inferior to more ‘advanced’ vehicles such as motorcycles and cars.”  Therefore, the bike was “not suitable for serious transportation but ‘less serious’ pursuits like . . . child’s play.”[16]  One form of cultural production – educational films and filmstrips – spread the message that bicycle usage was associated with a childish, dependent state, appropriate as a developmental step but unsuitable for adults.

In countless educational films, children of the 1950s, 60s and 70s were trained for their inevitable future as automobile drivers.  Primarily, bicycle safety education of the postwar years was the domain of non-cyclists.  With the League of American Wheelmen largely defunct, there was no national advocacy organization to commission or contribute to educational filmmaking, or shape the message in ways that promoted cyclist rights or adult transportation.  Instead, bicycle safety education was dominated by small, regional production companies that sold films to school districts or police departments.  These were the same companies that made the infamous social hygiene and public health films used by schools throughout the postwar period.[17]

[In postwar films,] bicycle usage was associated with a childish, dependent state, appropriate as a developmental step but unsuitable for adults.

One of the earliest of these, a 1948 cartoon filmstrip Bike Behavior, demonstrates that the audience is children alone; policing their behavior in rhyming stanzas.  “Boys and girls, remember these words you’re hearing / leave hands free for steering!”  Each child in the filmstrip shows off a dangerous behavior before ending up in the hospital: “ah, reckless youth, just having fun / a goofy boy, I know one!” The last example threatens death for a dazed victim:  “Here lies . . . a wiser child . . . she could be killed, that’s very true / just be sure it isn’t you!”[18]

Bike Behavior, a Cathedral filmstrip, is quite a rare holding in archives, is occasionally mis-identified as a 1958 film, and is currently not available online in any streaming format. I found it online on Youtube some years ago, and took notes on scenes and narration, but the film has been subsequently made private or removed. The film is listed in several print catalogs, however, including this entry from the United States Information Agency’s catalog United States Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Motion Pictures and Filmstrips: Education Section 1958, Selected and Available for Use Abroad, available from HathiTrust

Less chillingly, many films attempted to appeal to children’s attention by emphasizing bicycle riding as training for the adult responsibilities of automobile driving. This theme runs through both the pre-war and postwar era: the film Tomorrow’s Drivers (1954), funded by the Chevrolet Dealers of America, features actor Jimmy Stewart as narrator. 

 Bicycles here are presented in the same light as the toy cars third graders are shown driving: they are training tools for automobile-owning adults, not a viable transportation mode of their own. “And when tomorrow’s drivers outgrow the small cars,” intones Stewart, “safety on two wheels is stressed . . . in preparation for the day when actual driving instruction begins.”[19]  Similarly, Bike Safety, shot in 1950, showed only adolescents riding bicycles while emphasizing their future responsibility. “You are now an operator of a wheeled vehicle,” declared the narrator: “You are the automobile driver of tomorrow.  And good, safe bicycle riders often turn out to be the best drivers.”

In a better-than-average example of the genre, no less a figure than Jiminy Cricket echoed this point of view in the 1956 Disney cartoon I’m No Fool With a Bicycle. “Remember,” instructed the conscience of a generation of children, “a bicycle is to you what a motor car is to a grown-up.”[20]

There is no online streaming version of the Disney educational film “I’m No Fool with a Bicycle” available at this time, but the Retrogrouch has a nice scene-by-scene summary.

Drive Your Bike (1955) reinforced the theme of bikes as automobile training.  The film starts with a shot of three pre-teen boys in the front seat of a car, turning the wheel and bouncing along as the car sways from side to side.  Eventually the camera pulls out to reveal that they are still sitting motionless in the driveway.  

An unidentified father figure steps to the driver’s side window to ask, doubtfully, if they are really ready to drive.  But they reassure him that they’ve been taught all the traffic laws at school:  “We call it learning to drive our bikes.  Coach tells us that we have to follow all the same traffic regulations as the cars . . . we’ll be ready to drive when we’re old enough.” Drive Your Bike dwells on that growth to manhood; the purpose of bicycle riding is handed down to the boys by male role models: “That’s why Coach says we should always drive our bikes like we would drive a car, and never do anything we wouldn’t do if we were driving a real car.”  The “father” figure concludes that the boys were doing “learning a lot of valuable and important things that will be very useful to you when you learn how to drive a car.”[21]

Bicycle Clown (1958), possibly the most overwrought of all the safety films, reinforces the place of bicycles as the sole province of children; as an older brother investigates his brother Jimmy’s (thankfully non-fatal) bike crash, he visits all of the male adults who observed his unsafe bicycling: bike shop owner, policeman, basketball coach, newspaper route supervisor.

All judge Jimmy’s behavior as “foolish and childish.”  None of the adults, it goes without saying, ride a bicycle themselves – though they all have opinions about how Jimmy rode.[22]

You and Your Bicycle, shot in 1948 and re-released in 1959, is similar: there is no adult on a bike anywhere in the film.  

The narrator addresses the child riders: “it’s difficult for a motorist to see you,” making it clear that the judgmental adults are always in cars, and never on bikes.[23]

Repeated shots in both versions of the film are framed — rather unnervingly — through the windshield of a car that is closely following a lone child on a bike.  This is what modern advocates call a “windshield perspective,” alternatively termed the driver’s gaze.  Children on bikes are an “other” on the road, viewed only by adults from within their cars, never as equals.

The 1960s: Things Get Weird

As the floating signifier rolled into the 1960s, the educational films more regularly in color, and got a little odd in some productions, but the themes stayed constant. Arguably the strangest of all is One Got Fat (1963).  In this parable, the bike riders are not just children, they’re . . . monkey-children.  Or at least ten young actors in crude monkey masks, with psychedelically strange names.  Nine die or are badly injured on a ride to the park, crashing horribly after failing to follow a minor safety rule, sometimes with splatting noises involving steamrollers.

In this parable, the bike riders are not just children, they’re . . . monkey-children.

The undeterred monkey-children continue on their ride after each fatality, until only one is left to eat all the picnic lunches. Only then is he revealed as a real human child and “not a monkey.”[24]  Much less bizarrely, 1969’s Bicycle Today, Automobile Tomorrow flatters children by comparing them to the adult operators of exciting motorized machines; police motorcycles and even helicopters. The concluding lines drive home the title:  “Remember, the bicycle rider of today is the automobile driver of tomorrow.”[25]

The 1970s Bike Boom

Even after the return of adult cycling amidst the energy crisis and the arrival of affordable multi-speed bicycles in the 1970s, the focus on the child continued.  Bicycle Driver (1973) shot in Seattle, Washington, closely reflected many of the same themes of Drive Your Bicycle (1955); good cycling was not a reward in itself, but really a training tool for future drivers. Still there were some accommodations to the changing circumstances of the energy crisis and environmental movement; adult-appropriate multi-speed bicycles are featured, an adult is shown riding a bicycle, and the police authority-figures emphasize that “according to the traffic code, bicyclists have the same rights – and responsibilities – as a motor vehicle operator.” It might be seen as an improvement.

But the equivalence is made to argue that the bicycle served as a classroom for future drivers, not to encourage adults to ride bicycles as an alternative form of transportation. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the film was financed by an insurance company; its purpose was making safer adult drivers. The protagonist, “Jim,” is shown entering a bike shop, while the narrator (the voice of a driver’s ed instructor and bike club organizer), explains: “this boy is 14 years old today.  He’s too grown up for kid’s bikes, too young for his driver’s license.  For his birthday, he gets to pick a ten-speed.” Later, Jim practices riding in an empty shopping center parking lot, but he’s not studying his driver’s guide to become a better cyclist: “I’m just going over my hand signals, I’m going for my driver’s permit next year I might as well start learning about them,” he says.  A cut, and the actor delivers the same line from a different camera angle to emphasize the central purpose; Jim answers a question by replying that it’s “just driver’s ed, you can learn how to drive on a bike, you might as well start now.”  

The mixed messages continue as Jim negotiates some riding skills — “in light traffic, he handles his bike just as it were an auto” says the narrator, before transitioning to heavy traffic when Jim dismounts and crosses an intersection as a pedestrian. But the theme of childish bicycles is reiterated as the narrator, discussing peer pressure to ride bikes badly, implores the protagonist: “Think it over Jim: are you going to use THEM for an alibi? Stay a kid? Playing in the street?  Whether on a bike or in a car, to become a first class driver, you either drive alone or you seek out company with the same interest.” Staying a kid means riding a bicycle; the road to adulthood means learning to negotiate traffic on a bicycle, but then actually graduating to adulthood requires becoming a driver. (It should be noted that Bicycle Driver showcases quite possibly the worst acting in any of these bicycle safety films, an extraordinary feat in a genre that includes the mind-bogglingly cringeworthy Bicycle Clown, from 1958.)

The mixed messages continue throughout the 1970s. While it was now at least conceivable that adults might ride, the genre continued to primarily address children — Peddlin’ Safety (1974) starts with a televised report of a child’s bike crash, with the anchorman declaring ominously that “the child was taken to a local hospital in undetermined condition.” Turning off the TV, the extravagantly bell-bottomed father makes it a teachable moment: “That’s why I didn’t want you to take your new bicycle out onto the street until you finished your bike safety course,” he instructs his daughter.  “I think since we all ride bikes,” he continues, including the mother in his lesson, “we ought to let Colleen tell us what she’s learned about bike safety,” and the rest of the film recounts those safety lessons.[26]

Similarly, the General Motors-financed I Like Bikes . . . But from 1978 shows both adults and children on bikes, while still managing to demonstrate that bikes are childish. It’s perhaps the most outrageously anti-cycling film among the examples presented here. At age 5 and 10, Lisa says “I like bikes” – but as the film shows her learning to drive, now “at 15, she likes bikes, but now she loves cars.”  Ike the anthropomorphic cartoon bike insinuates: “When she gets her license, will she change her likes, will she still like bikes?” The implication is that she will not; bikes are a shabby stand-in for the freedom of the automobile (preferably a GM). 

Symbolically, on her first solo car outing after getting her license, Lisa backs over her own abandoned bicycle on the driveway: adult car driving brings an end to not only bike riding, but the childish bike itself.  It’s just one tactic among many used to convince the audience that “safety-wise, you must realize, you never should trust me,” as sung by Ike the self-hating bike.[27]  

The Remarkable Only One Road

The films surveyed here all emphasize this theme of bikes for children, cars for adults; but one possible explanation of this tendency is that the safety educational films of the postwar era were almost all targeted towards children as an audience. There is one counter-example, a singular example of a bicycle safety films that conceived of adults as a potential audience. It’s the remarkable Only One Road: The Bike/Car Traffic Mix (1975), a project of the AAA or American Automobile Association. It’s a film that was clearly created as the 1970s energy crisis briefly transformed the calculus of transportation.

Only One Road provides an important counter-example. Its existence renders the trope of “bicycles are for children” in the other films even more visible. Portraying adults biking — often in traffic, and at least once in a suit — is surprising enough. But the film also presents practical tools for adults on bicycles to interact in traffic as legal vehicles in their own right, and does not infantilize their choices.

“There’s a complex mix of vehicles on the road today,” begins the narrator, noting that the bike boom of the 1970s had changed that mix: “And more than ever, bicycles.” Over images of adult cyclists obviously commuting to work, including one man in city traffic wearing a suit, the narrator calls the bicycle “a realistic choice for serious transportation. These people, like motorists, have a legitimate use for the road.” In a series of vignettes, different bicycle riders and drivers talk about their experiences sharing the road, their talking-head interviews intercut with recreations of the incidents they are describing. The effect is to humanize drivers and riders alike; of varied demographics and backgrounds, they nonetheless are equal in the unblinking eye of the film camera.

Viewing Only One Road in the early 21st century is bittersweet, however, since it is truly one of a kind. In this review of bike educational safety films, I’ve just found one that treats the bicycle as an appropriate mode of transportation for adults. What if there were other cultural products that had this portrayal of adult cycling for transportation? What if this message existed in anything beyond this single, largely forgotten AAA safety film — what if it had broken through into popular culture, that adults might choose to use a bicycle as practical transportation? Would the rest of the history of the 20th century, and our increasing understanding of humanity’s role in catastrophic global climate change, be different?


This essay suggests that the inability of Americans to conceive of the bicycle as a response to catastrophic global climate change lies in the cultural production of 20th-century automobility.  By the millennium, childhood and foreignness were the dominant meanings of the bicycle.  Either way, the bike was rarely portrayed in popular culture as being used by American adults navigating their daily lives; adults used cars, and politicians, planners and police took that assumption with them as they shaped the cities in which we live today.

Though the history of popular culture elucidates the difficulty in advancing the bicycle as a transportation solution for the 21st century, all hope is not lost.  In fact, our understanding of the bicycle as floating signifier is cause for hope: as with any such linkage, the association with childhood is not indelible.  As time passes, the meaning of the bicycle may change, given new economic or political pressures, or the growing realities of anthropogenic climate change.  Perhaps in the 22nd century, the bicycle may be for far-seeing adults, and the automobile for self-centered children.


[1] The 2018 “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks,”   https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks

[2] Zack Furness, “Foreword,” in Jeremy Withers and Daniel P. Shea, eds., Culture on Two Wheels: The Bicycle in Literature and Film, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), xi.

[3] John Urry, “The ‘System’ of Automobility,” Theory, Culture & Society 21 (2004): 25–39.

[4] Evan Friss, “Writing Bicycles: The Historiography of Cycling in the United States,” Mobility in History 6 (2015), 127-133; Withers and Shea, “Introduction” in Withers and Shea, ibid., 2.

[5] Withers and Shea, “Introduction” in Withers and Shea, ibid., 2.

[6] Luis A. Vivanco, Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing (New York: Routledge, 2013), 25.

[7] Glen Norcliffe, The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900 (Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 2001), 32.

[8] Vivanco, 50.

[9] Robert J. Turpin, “‘Our Best Bet is the Boy’: A Cultural History of Bicycle Marketing and Consumption in the United States, 1880-1960,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Kentucky, 2013), 7.

[10] Bicycling with Complete Safety (1939).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnO4amZldhY

[11] James Longhurst, Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road (Seattle: U. of Washington Press, 2015), chapter 3.

[12] James Longhurst, “Reconsidering the Victory Bike in World War II: Federal Transportation Policy, History, and Bicycle Commuting in America,” Transportation Research Record (forthcoming 2018); “Points for Pedalers,” Aetna Life Company, 1943. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzFMv-eIS7s

[13] Quote from Foster Hailey, “Bicycles Built for Millions,” New York Times Magazine (10/16/1949), 78-9; Herlihy, Bicycle, 336.

[14] Guroff, Mechanical Horse, 114.

[15] Percy Bidwell, What the Tariff Means to American Industries (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1956), 70; Furness, One Less Car, 115; Berto, Dancing Chain, 179, 199.

[16] Vivanco, Reconsidering the Bicycle, 25-6.

[17] See Orgeron, Orgeron and Streible, Learning with the Lights Off, 9-11; Alexander, Academic Films for the Classroom, 5-10.  Many of these films have been preserved for future generations by the Prelinger Archives, https://archive.org/details/prelinger

[18] Bike Behavior (Cathedral Filmstrip,1948).

[19] https://archive.org/details/Tomorrow1954  The film was produced by the “Jam” Handy Organization, perpetrators of thousands of mid-century educational and industrial films.   

[20] I’m No Fool With A Bicycle, with Jiminy Cricket, (Walt Disney Pictures, 1956).  See also Furness, One Less Car, 115-117.

[21] Drive Your Bike (Glendale, California: Sullivan, 1954).  

[22] Bike Safety (Lawrence, Kansas: Centron, 1950); Bicycle Clown, (Glendora, California: Sid Davis, 1958). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cg_ni72fhls

[23] You and Your Bicycle, (Oakland, California: Progressive Pictures, 1948, 1959). https://youtu.be/W489k-QWgOs

[24] One Got Fat.  https://archive.org/details/OneGotFa1963

[25] Bicycle Today, Automobile Tomorrow (Inglewood, California: Sid Davis Productions, 1969).

[26] https://archive.org/details/PeddlinSafety

[27] For further discussion of this film, see Furness, One Less Car, 114-118.