The cycling tradition in Europe: reinvention of the bicycle in the struggle for a better city

Author: Sonja Dragović

“Tens of thousands who could never afford to own, feed and stable a horse, had by this bright invention enjoyed the swiftness of motion which is perhaps the most fascinating feature of material life.” Frances Willard (1839 – 1898), reformist and suffragette

“Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.“ José Antonio Viera-Gallo (1943), Chilean politician

Modern debates on the bicycle as the green vehicle of the future often fail to sufficiently focus on the glorious past of cycling in European towns. In the late XIX century, in the eve of the era of social and political changes which were to recompose the world order, a simple invention which would speed up movement of people, but the upcoming changes as well, came into the wide use.

The bicycle made new rights, spaces and opportunities available to a great number of people, primarily women and workers, who had been limited to a previously determined space and clearly defined roles in a system which, finally, started crumbling down in the early XX century.

On the bicycle to equality, freedom and jobs

For the biggest part of the XX century, bicycle was the most popular means of transportation in the European urban traffic.

Even though it was, after the initial improvement of the velocipede model, considered a dangerous toy for rich young men who proved their courage and skill on this high unstable device, bicycle was soon adapted for a more diverse use.

With the emergence and improvement of the safety bike around 1880, which had the basic characteristics of the model we use today (wheels at the same level, breaks, air-filled tires), older men and, which is especially significant, women started using bikes.

Emergence of this bicycle coincided with the first wave of feminism and the new transportation vehicle soon became the trademark of “the new woman” who could finally go for a ride on a bicycle without escort, move more freely around her town, improve her own endurance and strength – physical training was, at the time, not recommended to women – and get rid of uncomfortable clothes: corsets were discarded due to women’s dedication to riding bikes.

However, this unexpected effect of the bicycle was not met with general approval. Concerned opponents believed women did not look nice and decent on bicycles, that the exertion caused by their focus on traffic would cause wrinkles and early aging of the female face or that the bicycle seat could cause unwanted sexual excitement and pleasure.

However, the upcoming changes could not be halted: feminists embraced the bicycle as a means of achieving the freedom they had not had before and the old order was altered forever.

Cambridge students protesting against enrollment of female students, around 1897: the dummy on the bike symbolized “the new woman”. Photograph: Archive Hulton /Getty Images

Until the beginning of the XX century, the bicycle was mainly used for outings and entertainment, exploration of suburban areas and enjoyment in nature.

The potential the new means of transportation had for work was first noticed by servants such as mailmen, doctors who visited their patients on bikes and, soon, vendors and craftsmen. Intense processes of industrialization and urbanization meant the growth of towns and increase of the length of routes workers had to take on a daily basis, which was why they increasingly started opting for bicycles.

This was contributed to by the improvement of the production process which made bicycles cheaper and, thereby, more available to the poorer strata. Between the two world wars, streets of European cities were filled with bicyclists.

Recruitment for the Divisional Cyclist Company, the First World War. Photograph: Archive of the Imperial War Museum

Even though the first motor car was invented at the end of the XIX century and presented in Paris in 1900 as the vehicle of the future, it won the place in the urban space it nowadays has neither quickly nor easily.

As Oldenziel and Bruhèze state, outnumbering the bicycles Europeans were riding by any alternative transportation was almost impossible: by mid-1930s, this number reached 15 million in Germany, 9 million in Great Britain, 7 million in France, 4 million in Italy and 2 million in Belgium.

In this period, around 3 million bicycles were on the streets of the Netherlands, which meant that every second citizen of this country owned one.

The increasing popularity of cars in this period was characteristic for American cities and numerous news analyses of the time pointed out the difference between the two continents in the choice of the dominant urban vehicle: American media assessed that, in the USA in 1930s, there were 17 cars per one bicycle, while in Europe, there were seven bicycles per one car.

Compared to cars and public transportation, bicycles remained the most popular means of transportation until the middle of the century.

Modernism: along the highway to Utopia

However, the most popular in no way meant the most desirable. Higher middle class turned to the car as the symbol of a brighter future and invested their political power in the preparation of the urban space for this future.

The rise of the motorized private transportation was planned carefully and encouraged with official traffic policies.

The bicycle became problematic, as well as poor workers who now used it the most and whose political interests were conflicting with the interests of the elite even when it came to traffic.

Even though the still rare, but increasingly present cars were heavier and faster than bicycles, cyclists were regularly blamed for traffic jams and accidents.

The solution for the arising conflict suggested by urban planners was the construction of separate lanes for bicycles and the ban on bicycles on main city roads, where they could slow down cars.

Cyclists protested against the planned segregation: in 1930s in Great Britain, for example, the Cyclists’ Touring Club opposed the construction of separate bicycle lanes, fearing that this could deprive cyclists of their right to be equal participants in traffic and, in fact, threaten their security.

They claimed that separate bicycle lanes would only additionally encourage car drivers’ reckless behavior: “It is wrong in principle that a cyclist should be required to put himself to considerable trouble and expense to keep from being run into by a driver who is not obeying the common law of England” (Oldenziel and Bruhèze, page 37).

Even though cycling associations of the time were numerous and well-organized, protests were futile; moreover, they contributed to the ruling elite equating once again cyclists with the working class and labelling them disobedient and profane.

This resulted in additional limitations for them, advantages for motor vehicles and gradual suppression of the mass bicycle traffic.

Between the two world wars, the car was an inspirational symbol of speed, strength, safety and luxury, as well as the new, modern urban future.

This is a period in which modernism as a direction in architecture got stable foundations through the work of the International Congress of Modern Architecture and attempts to systematically plan the city as a functional whole in which residential areas, areas for work, physical activities and transportation needed to be separated.

The two most influential architects of the modern era, Frank Lloyd Wright in America and Le Corbizier in France had opposing attitudes on how a city should look and function, but they both equally relied on the car for realization of their visions.

Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to return people to the nature and imagined the perfect city as a continuous space consisting of family houses with yards among which other city functions would be located that could be reached by a car.

Le Corbizier planned a far more centralized city whose inhabitants would live in huge buildings designed as “residential machines”, just like cars were “machines for movement” that take people via wide avenues to the clearly separated and sufficiently remote industrial and recreation areas.

These ideas had far-reaching consequences: urbanists all over Europe worked on planning and designing functional solutions, giving at each steps priority to the future, expected car traffic over the existing bicycle traffic.

Reconstruction after the destruction in the Second World War was also an opportunity for urban transformation based on modern ideas: many European cities, among them Podgorica, got their current shape in this process.

Illustration: Igor Kordej. Text: Vlada Divljan / Srđan Šaper (VIS Idoli). Source: Magazin Džuboks (Jukebox Magazine), 1981.

New urban policies which regulated the post-war growth and development of cities, combined with the increasing popularity and availability of cars almost completely wiped out bicycles from European streets.

Cycling associations lost not only the political power ensured by the great number of followers in the first part of the XX century, but also the right for their user experience and knowledge to be considered in the process of planning future roads.

The space for cars was expanding unstoppably, changing cities forever. For example, in Birmingham in Great Britain, the green surfaces in the city center were sacrificed for a roundabout to be built; in Stockholm in Sweden, a highway was built which connected city’s islands and which has, despite later expansions, remained the most congested road in the city.

In Copenhagen, whole neighborhoods in the western part of the city were about to be destroyed and city’s famous lakes covered by a highway with 12 lanes. Luckily, this did not happen, because after the Second World War, the city did not have enough money for such transformation projects.

A few decades later, this turned out to have been an exceptionally favorable circumstance.

Against the tyranny of cars: bicycle as the symbol of green resistance

In the middle of the XX century, even the space which had been reserved for bicycle lanes was gradually being turned into parking space for cars, while cities were investing into motorized public transportation so that it could assume the role the individual transportation by bikes had had.

However, the insufficiently regulated car traffic did not function without horrid consequences: car accidents happened frequently and pedestrians, especially children, were often the victims.

In 1960s, the public concern triggered by the way in which the mass use of cars affected the living conditions in towns started turning into a movement, which reinstituted the issue of traffic in public agendas.

In the beginning of that decade, the group Provo emerged in Amsterdam, whose members used bikes as a symbol of their efforts against the consumerist culture, materialism and pollution.

With the purpose of encouraging people to act, they initiated in 1963 a free system for the joint use of recognizable white bicycles.

One such bike had the central place in the “Bed-In for Peace”, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s performance during their honeymoon in Amsterdam in 1969. These images travelled the world and the bicycle became a permanent symbol of the counterculture of the sixties.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Amsterdam, 1969. Photograph: Getty Images

Protests which asked for stricter traffic limitations and alternatives to cars in Europe continued in the following decade, from the campaign “Stop the Child Murder” in the Netherlands in 1972 to the Global Bicycle Day, which was organized in 1977 by activists from a few metropoles – Amsterdam, Paris, Montreal – with the aim of requesting cleaner air, better public transportation and better traffic conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.

The wind in the back of activists’ efforts came in the form of the oil crisis of 1973, when, due to the lack of fuel for their cars, many drivers reached for their bicycles.

Copenhagen urbanists credit these developments with the current image of their city as the bicycle city.

International cycling movement in Europe

Efforts of activists were not in vain. In 1980s, the international cycling movement continued gaining strength through joint initiatives.

After the first Velo-City conference in Bremen in 1980, twelve national cycling organizations established in 1983 the European Cycling Federation, through which they were able to work on better conditions for urban cycling in the EU more efficiently.

Through cooperation and research, activists developed expertize and came up with solutions to challenges in urban traffic, willing to share them with public administration bodies which were looking for ways to make their towns and cities cleaner and safer, but also respond to challenges of urban mobility in the time of the economic crisis of the eighties.

In 1990s, the first promotional initiatives “To Work on Bike” were initiated in the Netherlands, along with tax reliefs for all those who choose bicycle for their daily commute.

The questions of bicycle infrastructure, integration of public transportation and bicycles and promotion of cycling as a healthy way of moving through towns entered the public discourse again.

The Netherlands has been exporting its solutions related to cycling since 1996. The Cycling Embassy of Denmark was founded in 2009.

In the meantime, almost all big European cities have gone through some sort of a cycling transformation, which is still ongoing.

Measures such as bike rental stations and space for bikes in trains and metros are increasingly more present.

Experiments with bicycle lanes – either divided “bicycle highways” or the ones along the main roads designed to calm and slow down the traffic – have led to new solutions and results in advanced cycling cities.

The World Health Organization has recently published a research which analyzes the effect of cycling on the rate of employment and health of people in 57 European cities.

Conclusion: if these cities would reach the percent of people travelling by bike Copenhagen has reached (24% of all daily travels in the city), around 76,600 new jobs would be created and 10,000 deaths prevented in the process.

The level of development of the culture of cycling and the cycling infrastructure in Europe is nowadays uneven.

Authors of the book “Cycling Cities: the European Experience” describe five factors which need to be observed if we want to understand why this is the case: the urban geography, availability of alternative forms of public transportation, the dominant traffic development policy, efficiency of social movements that promote cycling and the status that the use of bicycles has in a culture.

It is not hard to notice how these factors shaped the last 100 years of urban cycling development nor to predict how they will determine the direction of its development in the coming period which will, most certainly, be characterized by the consequences of global climate changes and economic inequality.

It is worth remembering that the bicycle has already proven its emancipatory value and that we can be expected to reach a more fair use of the public urban space on two wheels.

The cycling past and future of Podgorica

The history of cycling in Podgorica is similar to stories from other European cities.

The plateau in front of the Crna Gora Hotel, the fifties of the XX century. Photograph: private archive

The bicycle was introduced to Montenegro by adventurers, noblemen and princesses, the society accepted it readily as a convenient and cheap means of transportation and then the car arrived.

However, it is interesting that it is hard to find any written testimonies on a great popularity of bicycles in Podgorica after the Second World War.

It is, therefore, good that we have photographs which show that it was popular in the fifties to park a bicycle in front of the Crna Gora Hotel and that, in the sixties, cyclists outnumbered their fellow citizens driving cars.

The paper Pobjeda wrote in 1965 that “pedestrians and cyclists represent a constant danger to traffic safety on our roads. (…) In order to make people at least somewhat familiar with their rights and obligations, as well as proper behavior in traffic, the Council for Traffic Safety of Yugoslavia organizes an initiative titled For Increased Safety of Pedestrians and Cyclists”.

Brothers Zlatičanin Bridge, the sixties of the XX century: a dozen cyclists and two cars. Photograph: private archive

It is clear that, even in Yugoslavia, measures were undertaken which, although well-meaning, transferred the burden of responsible behavior in streets to pedestrians and cyclists – just like in Western Europe. The great cycling revolution of the seventies did not happen here.

Even though Podgorica has the geographic and climatic conditions for the flourishing of urban cycling, the lack of good traffic policy and prejudice toward the bicycle as a means of transportation for the poor took their toll.

Former minister of urban development and protection of environment in the Montenegrin government at the time, renowned architect and urbanist Ranko Radović, tried to change this in the beginning of the 2000s, showing his fellow citizens that the bicycle is good enough to be the official vehicle of a minister. In a statement he gave a newspaper in 2003, he said he had bought his bicycle for €85 as the basic model without a gear box and breaks, which was, ‘due to its simplicity, less appealing to thieves’”. Radović planned measures for the slowing and calming down of traffic in the city center and reintroduction of bicycles into streets, but he did not have time to implement them: he stepped down from his position as a minister in the late 2003.

We have been waiting ever since that someone with similar dedication and understanding assumes the position in charge of adopting urbanistic and traffic policies.

The conditions for the regular use of bicycles in the city traffic in Podgorica have improved in the past few years. This is credited to cycling initiatives of non-government association Biciklo.me, which have made the presence and diversity of the cycling community in Podgorica finally visible.

First bicycle lanes, even though imperfect, encouraged those who had not ridden bikes regularly to join the movement.

Official plans for further development of cycling in Podgorica are not clear enough, but it seems at the moment that we can be optimistic, providing we continue working on the necessary changes.

As early as in 1967, Ranko Radović precisely defined the issues in the traffic in our towns, offering concrete solutions: “We have, unfortunately, ended up in a vicious circle: car drivers of poor traffic and other manners consider it almost noble to despise bicycles, this embodiment of slowness, clumsiness, even a mediocre personal income.

On the other hand, it is a great honor among cyclists to turn a deaf ear to the rules of roads. Instead of removing one or the other, we should invest effort in educating drivers, introducing bicycles into schools, marking bicycle lanes (as Ljubljana did) and differentiating traffic”.

What remains is that we learn from his instructions and make Podgorica a better place for living by creating better streets for cyclists.

Sources:

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