Episode 86: Two Wheels Good with Jody Rosen
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Jody Rosen: Yeah. I think it’s cool that what’s old is new and what’s new is old. That’s the really interesting thing about the bike’s history is that the bike always comes back.
Doug: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon, and with me is my co-host, Sarah Goodyear.
Sarah Goodyear: Hello!
Doug: So we are Aaron-less. We are Naparstek-free, unfortunately.
Sarah: It is sad, but we have someone here to make up for it.
Doug: Yes. We are joined in the studio by Jody Rosen, who is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. And Jody has just published a fantastic new book. It’s called Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle. Jody Rosen, welcome to The War on Cars.
Jody Rosen: Thank you, Doug. So happy to be here.
Doug: We’re really happy to have you here.
Sarah: Yeah. He already fits right in, I think.
Doug: Yeah. Tonight, the role of Aaron Naparstek will be played by Jody Rosen.
Jody Rosen: I’ll do my best. I don’t know about that.
Sarah: Okay. That’s okay, really. [laughs]
Doug: Jody, your book’s great. I really loved it. There’s no real simple way to describe it. I think I would be selling it short if I said it was a history book because it is not just that—although there is a lot of great history of the bicycle in there, but there are character studies, there’s travelogs. You talk about the social and cultural impacts of bicycling. You really approach the subject from a lot of angles. It’s also very—it’s a fun read. It’s very lyrical. It’s very beautifully written.
Jody Rosen: Shucks. Oh, my God. What can I say? No, I …
Doug: I put you on the spot, I know.
Jody Rosen: Yeah, it’s funny. Like, I wanted to write a book about bicycles for a long time, and I’ve always been, you know, fascinated by bicycle history and have read a lot of that literature, but I didn’t just want to write a history, in part because, I mean, part of this is sort of a writerly choice. You know, there’s a lot of well-trod territory there. So I did a lot of sneaky things to avoid writing potted history in this book, you know? Because I wanted to be—when I did the history bits, I wanted to be working with primary sources and doing my own stuff.
Jody Rosen: But yeah, I kind of thought, okay, the way to approach this thing is just to write thematically. You know, break the book up into chapters, each of which takes on a different kind of topic, and write each chapter in a way that feels right for that chapter. So as you say, there was—you know, my real day job is as a journalist, so I did a lot of that, too. That I think is sort of where my heart is, the reportage. Yeah, and that for me was the most exciting part definitely, you know, of kind of putting the book together. And it’s also, you know, just material that’s really—you know, it feels sort of by definition urgent, as opposed to when you’re writing about something that happened in 1817 or 1868 or 1896. Although there are a lot of resonances with those periods in our current bike world.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, that’s what I really appreciated is the way that you were able to make the connections across time and geography, and really show how the bicycle draws a throughline in terms of a lot of issues of class and social status and gender identity. I mean, like, really—like, politics, all of it. And that’s what I thought was so masterful about the book. I really liked the connections you made.
Jody Rosen: Yeah. You know, in researching and reporting and writing this book, one thing that really struck me was the connections between the past and the present day. I kept kind of bumping up against that, just how many things that I’d be writing about that took place in the 19th century have contemporary parallels and resonances. And I think that, you know, the biggest kind of mission that I had in the book was an effort to kind of de-quaintify—is that even a term?—the bike. Because the image of the bicycle often, even that’s championed even by people who love bikes, is of a thing that’s kind of twee, kind of cute. It’s vaguely Victorian. It’s old fashioned.
Jody Rosen: And that just hasn’t been the story for 200-plus years now. The bicycle has always really been an instigator of controversies and a flashpoint in culture wars. And moral panics have continually erupted around the bike. So that was something that I wanted to capture in this book. And, you know, I was really surprised to find that lots of the issues that you guys talk about on this podcast and, you know, the controversies that swirl around the bike now in the second decade—are we in the second decade? We’re in the third decade of the 21st century, are ones that were, you know, present, like, right at the beginning.
Doug: Okay. So we’re going to talk about all of that, that sort of—what did you say? Quaint-ification?
Jody Rosen: Yeah, that’s a brand new word. Maybe we can get that in Urban Dictionary or something.
Doug: But there’s a lot in there to unpack, and we’re gonna talk about that after the break.
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Doug: So Jody, the first few chapters of your book deal with the history of the bike, which I think a lot of our listeners probably are familiar with. The first, the Laufmaschine, the walking machine, the development of the safety bicycle. I want to focus on a particular slice of that history. I wrote one note in the entire book, because I wanted to actually just absorb it. I didn’t really want to think about it for the podcast. I wanted to just enjoy it. It’s in chapter four, which is titled “The Silent Steed,” and I wrote “The War on Horses.” Could you maybe talk about that chapter and sort of what happened when the bicycle in its various forms starts to become popular in the 19th century, and how horse drivers and horse owners reacted?
Jody Rosen: The bicycle was really a solution to an age-old problem, right? So people were for centuries, for millennia, humankind sought a vehicle, you know, tried to invent and develop a vehicle that could move people across land swiftly under their own power rather than relying on draft animals, you know? Rather than, you know, hitching up a horse or a donkey or a dog to it and dragging you along. And one of the curiosities about the bike, one of the ironies of its invention is that it took so damn long. Because the technology that you need to make a bike existed since the Middle Ages. So it kind of arrived late. It was sort of an anachronism at birth. The steam locomotive was invented before Karl Von Drais invented the Laufmaschine. Okay? So we had a steam locomotive before we had even a proto-bicycle.
Jody Rosen: And by the time we get to safety bicycle, you know, roughly 1885, the automotive age is kind of stirring. Karl Benz created his first motorwagen that first year, that same year. So the bicycle took a long time to develop, but when it arrived, it was instantly seen as a successor to the horse because like the horse, it was a thing—you kind of even wrote it like a horse. You know, there’s a saddle on a bike. You sort of straddle it like you ride a horse. And Karl von Drais, this guy who invented the first walking machine, the first, you know, kind of ur-bicycle in 1817, he pitched it that way right away. He said, “This is a successor to the horse.” He kind of hyped it up as something that moved faster than a horse. There was this conversation about what was in England called the dandy horse, right? About the bicycle as this kind of new horse, this mechanical steed. A lot of people thought, “Wow, this is a great thing. We’ve got this wonderful new machine. I no longer need a horse. It’s easier to take care of than a horse. I don’t have to put it in a stable. I don’t need to feed it. It’s cheaper. It doesn’t get sick.” But of course, that posed a threat to various individuals and industries because …
Sarah: Big Horse? [laughs]
Jody Rosen: Big Horse was not psyched about the bike.
Doug: I actually loved—you have a line from Columbia Bicycle that advertised the high-wheeler bicycle that they were selling as “An ever-saddled horse which eats nothing.”
Jody Rosen: Exactly.
Doug: Fantastic line.
Jody Rosen: Yeah. And there’s so much discussion about this at the time, and a lot of consternation about it, both among, as I say, the people who, you know, make their living in horse industries, everyone from veterinarians to people who run stables to Hackney carriage drivers. So this kind of battle between the horse and the bike played out in various arenas: in the courts when it came to determining who had a right to the roadways, and in the streets itself where there was a lot of road rage that we would recognize today.
Jody Rosen: Because it really prefigures what we all experience as cyclists, and I guess some people who listen to this podcast also are—maybe they’re motorists who rage at cyclists, although I doubt it. Anyway …
Doug: There’s a passage that you have in the book. You talk about the American touring cyclist and writer Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg, who wrote under the nom de plume, Karl Kron. And this is what he wrote about horses and their drivers, and this is 1887. “Delight in the dangerous pastime of driving skittish and unmanageable horses would be worth no more than a passing remark, except for the fact that the mere act of purchasing a horse creates the curious hallucination that he simultaneously purchases an exclusive right to the public highways.”
Jody Rosen: Oh, yeah. He was the guy who coined the term “roadhog,” which is obviously one that has been passed down through the ages.
Doug: I wasn’t aware that it came from horses and their drivers.
Sarah: What’s interesting to me is that the bicycle, it’s almost like a pivot point of disruption. Like, it disrupted horses, and then it sort of, you know, history kind of eddied around it, and cars came. And then it’s sort of pivoted and turned and now, you know, is considered to be a disruptor of cars. And it’s just so interesting to me that it never really sat in the place of primacy for any real amount of time.
Jody Rosen: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, there’ve been a few big bike booms, but kind of the one that historians love to talk about the most because it hit the 19th century so hard, and no other bike boom will ever—because the thing was such a novelty will ever hit with the same force, was the 1890s bicycle boom. There was this kind of really short period where the bicycle had arisen and seemed to be—you know, the future seemed to be there for the taking. But at the same time, as I say, you know, people were developing the automobile, so it turned out to be an extremely short-lived, halcyon period.
Jody Rosen: But another interesting, you know, aspect of this is the social class dimension of it, whether it’s a machine for the elites, whether it’s a machine for the masses, have really changed. And sort of there’s been a lot of back and forth movement about that across the centuries and the decades. But in the period that we’re talking about when, you know, at the time of the 1890s boom, a horse-drawn carriage was something that a rich person had. You know, maybe if you were a middle class person, you could get a ride in a Hackney Carriage, but you certainly didn’t own a horse. Suddenly in the 1890s with the arrival of the safety bicycle, the machine is democratized. It’s a lot cheaper and available to so many more people, including, crucially, women.
Jody Rosen: Suddenly we have this “people’s nag,” as they called it, to bring the horse back, you know, a machine for everyone. And this was seen as a real threat to the social order by elites who sort of clung to the horse as this symbol of what’s right and proper and how things should be in the social order, you know? So there was that whole class drama playing out in the horse versus bike clash.
Sarah: So another thing that really interested me about the book, and it starts right in the title: Two Wheels Good. That word “Good,” the idea that bicycles are sort of inherently good, or that they are means of virtue signaling, right? That’s how we talk about it today. Like, oh—and you hear a lot of motorists complain, “Oh, these smug bicyclists who think that they’re so virtuous.
Doug: Holier than thou.
Sarah: Holier than thou. And you get into all sorts of dimensions of this sort of moral quality that bicycles have as well, which is really interesting. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about this sort of moral ground that the bicycle occupies, because that is just as sort of multivalent as the other aspects that we’ve been talking about.
Jody Rosen: I know I’ve sometimes—especially when I’m out on the roads—have those attitudes myself, so I have to—it’s good to check one’s own sense of moral superiority. And a great way to do that is to thumb the pages of history because there’s always a dark story. And, you know, the rhetoric around the bicycle, as you say, has often been that it’s a virtuous machine.” The most noble invention,” I think, is the title of a book about the bicycle. You know, it’s often cast as this kind of green machine, you know, this environmental vehicle, more environmental than cars, certainly. And there’s the idea that it’s also redemptive. There’s like a messianic rhetoric around bicycles that, you know, the bicycle is the little machine that can save the world.
Jody Rosen: And I’m not pooh-poohing any of the ways in which the bicycle is a far more sustainable, beautiful way to move through the world, especially if you live in a city. But the bicycle, like all other real things in the world, maybe especially like products of industrial capitalism has, like, a checkered history. People who are bicycle boosters often frame the bicycle as an emancipatory machine. You know, the vehicle that imparts a sense of freedom and autonomy to individuals who ride it, which is certainly true. You feel—like, I know personally I feel better on a bicycle than I do almost anywhere else in the world. But the bicycle arrived in many places in the world ridden by armies or, you know, colonial officials in Africa and Asia and Latin America. That’s a complication right there.
Doug: Later in the book, you also tie it to even the New York City Police Department has a strategic response group which essentially just rides on bicycles to police protests, and uses the bicycle as a weapon, not just as a vehicle. They will use it to assault protesters. So it’s not always—you know, some people say, “Oh, more cops on bikes” as sort of like a “More female prison guards” meme that you see on Twitter.
Sarah: [laughs] Right.
Doug: But, like, more cops on bikes is not necessarily a good thing, just like it wasn’t necessarily a great thing in the 1890s or early 1900s that the bicycle started spreading around the world.
Sarah: Yeah. Like, just riding a bicycle is not making a good person.
Jody Rosen: It’s all about how you use it, right? It’s that the bicycle isn’t inherently benevolent, right? It’s like, all what kind of use you put to it. And in fact, it has been used as a tool of conquest and oppression through the decades. And then just one last note, which I think is especially relevant here at The War on Cars, which is that we just need to think a little bit more or acknowledge the relationship that exists, the historical relationship that exists between bikes and automobiles.
Jody Rosen: Because a lot of the time, we discuss this as a war on cars. And hey, don’t get me wrong. I’m down with the war on cars.
Sarah: [laughs] Okay.
Jody Rosen: Doug and Sarah know this. I have those stickers here.
Doug: I was about to say …
Jody Rosen: Okay, right? They’re on my bike. That’s how I get around. And man, I hate me some cars. Don’t own one. But a lot of the reason we have both automobiles and the roads that are dominated by automobiles is because of not just the bicycle, but also because of cycling activists in the 19th century. So to just, like, take a look at this history a little bit, the first bicycle moguls were very quickly kind of segued from building and distributing bikes to the auto industry when the car became a big thing at the turn of the century. Henry Ford’s first car was called the Quadricycle. It was driven by a chain. It had bicycle wheels, four bicycle wheels on it. It had an ethanol-powered motor. But it was just explicitly a kind of four-wheeled bicycle with an engine. You know, assembly line production, planned obsolescence, all of these things that became cornerstones of the automotive industry were first developed by the bicycle industry in the mid and late 19th century.
Jody Rosen: So there are those connections, you know? Really the bicycle and the automobile are kind of very close cousins. And then there’s something called the Good Roads Movement at the end of the 19th century, which was started by bicycling activists, by the League of American Wheelmen, which was, you know, the big bicycle advocacy group in that period. The 1896 presidential election, the power of the LAW, of the League of American Women was so great that the two presidential candidates at that time kind of vied for the endorsement of the LAW so they could secure the votes of the, quote, unquote, “Bicycle Bloc” in that election. So we’ve really …
Doug: The bike lobby.
Jody Rosen: Yeah, the bike lobby was bigger, wielded a lot more power then than they do now. But the main issue, the sort of central issue that bike advocates of that period were stumping for, was the building of roads and the paving of the landscape. The interstate highway system, suburban sprawl, these features of the American landscape that we associate with the automobile, it started with bike activists who were calling for the macadamization of the American land.
Doug: The law of unintended consequences.
Jody Rosen: Right. So, you know, like I say in the book, bike activists paved the way for the car, like, literally.
Doug: Also, you mentioned the League of American Wheelmen, which is now—actually exists. It’s the League of American Cyclists, and their very troubled racist history that goes much farther towards the present day than I think most people would really expect. And that way back, you know, Black riders were excluded from sporting events, they were excluded from the political activities of the League of American Wheelmen. And there were, like, really racist clauses in their sort of founding documents and bylaws, basically.
Jody Rosen: And they weren’t repealed until the 1990s.
Sarah: Yeah, I think it was 1999, I think I read in your book, which is kind of shocking and I’m glad they got around to it. And obviously, they—I doubt they were enforcing it for a while before that, but again, it gets to these issues of class, and really, class and race that still pervade the situation today.
Doug: So Jody, one of the things I really liked about the book as a bike advocate, as someone who thinks about these issues a lot, there is almost a singular focus in the bike advocacy world on Amsterdam, on Copenhagen, on Paris, on Europe, and there’s virtually no focus on other places where the bicycle really is an important tool, where governments are bike friendly. And you zero in on Bhutan as an example of one of those places that ought to be given more attention.
Jody Rosen: Yeah. So Bhutan is a real curious example of a cycling nation because, of course, it’s the most mountainous place on Earth, not the kind of place where you’d expect there to be a lot of bicycle infrastructure, or a lot of emphasis on, you know, putting people on bikes. It’s also probably the last place on Earth that the bicycle reached. There were so few roads there until the 1950s, until Bhutan, quote-unquote, “Opened to the outside world.” But shortly thereafter, the fourth king in what’s called the Druk dynasty, the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan—they do have a monarchy there, although they also now have a constitutional monarchy, there’s free elections and things like that. And that was instituted by the fourth king.
Jody Rosen: But the fourth king got hold of a bicycle. Probably the first bicycle to enter the country came because the king had been away at prep school, first in India and then in England, and everybody got around on campus on bikes. He learned to ride a bike, he wanted a bike, so they brought a bike in for the king to ride. And he became a real avid cyclist. He would go zipping around in the forests and up and down the big hills. This, by the way, freaked out a lot of the courtiers who were very worried about what was gonna happen to the king. But this is an example of, like, an interesting kind of path for a cycling craze to take, because it was because the king first got into it, and then now his son, the fifth king, the current king is also a big cyclist. But it is because of the fourth king’s love of bicycles and the love of bicycles that he passed on to his sons, including the fifth king, the current king of Bhutan, that there’s a kind of vogue for bicycles in Bhutan, and efforts by the government to, quote-unquote, “Make Bhutan a cycling nation.”
Jody Rosen: Now, what that means is something different than it means over here. It’s an extremely rural place. There’s a capital city—Thimphu—which is a small city with about 100,000 people in it. But people ride bikes there, up and down the hills. And there’s a lot of mountain cycling, and a lot of young people who aspire to be mountain bicycle racers. [laughs] So it’s just a very—it’s a different kind of bike culture. It’s one that we don’t—it doesn’t jibe with any of our associations over here, but to speak to the larger issue that Doug raised about Copenhagen, you know, Amsterdam, Paris, and the kind of parochialism of our thinking in the West about.
Doug: I thought that was a really valuable part of the book, the sort of like, “Hey, bike advocates: let’s stop for a moment and see why we’re really focusing on these places.”
Jody Rosen: Yeah. Yeah.
Sarah: And not just parochialism, but just plain old Eurocentrism.
Jody Rosen: Yeah. And I mean, like, the crucial fact here is, let’s take this on board: you know, most of the bikes in the world are in the global South. Like, the vast, vast majority of bicycles and cyclists are in places like Asia, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. I think one way to think about this is, you know, over here, we often frame bike riding as a lifestyle choice, right? But in places like India, China, Bangladesh, where I traveled to and reported a chapter for this book, the bicycle is often about livelihood. It’s a way of life. It’s the way people make their living. Often it’s the only way they can get around because they can’t afford any other means of transportation. In some cities there’s extremely poor public transportation options, and there are millions of bikes and other pedal-driven vehicles of all kinds that play an integral role in the lives of those cities and in individual lives.
Sarah: When you went to Dhaka, to Bangladesh, you rode around with a rickshaw driver named Mohammed Abul Badshah.
Jody Rosen: Dhaka is an absolutely fascinating city. It is just an amazing, mind-blowing place. You know, it’s the world’s fastest growing megacity. There’s something like 20 million people that live there now. There will probably be 30 million people there in a decade. And it’s the most densely populated big city in the world. And the reason that that place functions at all is because of these pedal-driven vehicles. So Dhaka is kind of the world capital. And obviously, there are lots of places that have cycle rickshaws, you know, Thailand, Vietnam, but Dhaka may have the most.
Jody Rosen: So when I went there, when I showed up, you know, I went there initially to report on the traffic problem there because there are lots of cars there. Now there are a growing number of cars and various other motorized vehicles, including those kind of like what they call tuk-tuks elsewhere, you know, those motorized rickshaws that buzz around the streets. But it’s really the rickshaws that dominate the cityscape. And they provide not only a means of transport for Dhaka citizens who otherwise would be in a totally paralyzed cityscape, but also a livelihood for some of the poorest citizens there. The so-called rickshaw pullers—or “Rickshaw wallahs” is the term they use there—they’re almost exclusively men, I should say male, because many of them are as young as 12, 13 years old.
Jody Rosen: The guy who I hung out with, Mohammed Abul Badshah, everyone just called him “Badshah,” he’s one of the older ones that you’ll see out there. He’s in his 50s. He’s like my age. But these people live in sometimes very desperate circumstances. A lot of them are actual migrants from the countryside who just kind of camp out in shanties in the city and work as rickshaw wallahs, make some money and take it home to the countryside during the months of the harvest. And then there’s the monsoon season where these machines, which are very poorly engineered, they have to pedal them through, you know, essentially lakes that swamp the city. So it’s quite something to see this kind of labor. But, you know, my experience with Badshah was interesting also because, like, he’s a man who, like possibly most of these rickshaw wallahs, has no education. He’s illiterate. The only thing he can write is his own name. And yet he is whip smart and very, very street smart and street savvy, and understands how his city works, and arguably how all cities work on some level.
Doug: You have a chapter in there that’s really deeply personal, that’s just sort of your life on a bicycle. It’s divided up into smaller sub-chapters, essentially. It starts with you learning how to ride a bike, but not really remembering exactly the circumstances of it, like we all do in middle age, all the way through your own children learning to ride a bike. I wonder if you could talk about that, why you chose—it’s a kind of a detour in the book, but it’s, I thought, an important and fun one.
Jody Rosen: Yeah. So this was a chapter where I got into actually some War on Cars type stuff. [laughs]
Jody Rosen: But also, yeah, just talked about that sensual experience of riding around. And, you know, I guess one of the things that I wanted to especially address in that chapter, which I think, you know, is relevant to our interest in this conversation, is just how a bike really reveals the city in a way.
Jody Rosen: You know, on a bike, you get to know the place you live topographically, even geologically, in a way that you don’t when you’re in a car or even on foot. Okay, so, you know, sometimes when you’re on foot, if there’s a big hill, you recognize that you’re on a hill, but often you don’t notice the gradients in the landscape if you’re, you know, walking around. And you definitely don’t notice it in a car, you know, unless you’re, like, in San Francisco or something, right?
Jody Rosen: Here when I’m on my bike, I’m like, “Oh yeah, they call it Cobble Hill for a reason.” Like, even Cobble Hill, which isn’t even that big a hill. And, like, I know why Brooklyn Heights is called Brooklyn Heights. But what’s a crucial thing here is the speed of the bicycle, how you can vary it in a way that you can’t exactly when you’re in a car in traffic. And that you can go really fast if you need to get some place fast, or if you just want to feel the wind rushing over you because it feels great. You can also move really slow, and it’s kind of the ideal pace for, like, being an observer of the city.
Jody Rosen: I quote this wonderful Mexican-born writer who lives in New York—I think she lives uptown—Valeria Luiselli. Great writer who wrote, like, a four-page essay about biking that’s one of the best things I’ve read about bicycles, and I’ve read a lot. And she coined this term “cycleur.” It’s like the bicycle meets the flâneur. So the idea that, like, the bicycle is just such a great way to move through the city, you know and, like, observe things, maybe even stealthily because you’re not, for better or worse—often for worse in War on Cars terms, you’re not seen on a bike so much. Especially not when there’s, like, some guy in a monster SUV who’s bearing down on you, right? But also, it gives you a kind of anonymity, and you can move stealthily through the town and just kind of check things out. It’s a cool thing about riding a bike.
Doug: There was a part in this chapter of your personal history where you talk about how you—like me, you learned to ride a bike with an adult pushing you from behind and then finally letting go. And we always talk about that freedom that children experience when that let go moment happens. But today, kids learn on balanced bikes, the small two-wheeled training devices that don’t have pedals and don’t have training wheels. You write, “History’s original bike has returned as a starter bike.” And I think it speaks directly to what we were talking about earlier of how your book does this wonderful thing of weaving connections between the origins of the bicycle and its modern day place.
Jody Rosen: It’s funny. It was something that, like, just dawned on me, because I see kids in the city riding those balance bikes. And it is a good way—it turns out it’s a much better way to learn to bike.
Doug: Well, the thing about biking that’s hard is not pedaling, it’s balancing.
Jody Rosen: Right. Yeah, exactly. So you learn to balance, and then when you move on to pedals, you’re okay. But if you’re riding around with training wheels, yeah, you’re fucked. You’re not—it takes longer to learn to ride that way, right?
Doug: But could you explain that explicit connection for our audience if they’re not aware?
Jody Rosen: No, of course. Yeah. So what I was saying was it did—like, suddenly it dawned on me, “Hey, wait, these balance bikes, I see all these little kids on it. It’s just like the Laufmaschine.” And in fact, many of them are made of wood, just like the very first bikes were. So the original bike, this is the bike that was invented circa 1817, didn’t have pedals. In fact, for this reason, some super pedantic bike historians are like, “No, that’s not even a bike.” Which is a weird thing because, like, the crucial breakthrough there was that Karl von Drais, this minor German nobleman who invented this thing, put two wheels in a line, one in front of the other. And yeah, that Laufmaschine was the first bike. It was the Ur-bike. And, as I say, it was invented in Germany. It kind of reached France, England. Came over to the States. But they were very quickly—there was a very quick rise and fall for various reasons, including some reasons that are very pertinent to this podcast because basically they were outlawed.
Jody Rosen: People were like, “These streets are for horses”—to go back to the horse. “This is like an insurgent, illicit machine. We don’t want these things all over the place. Also, people go too fast on them. They’re dangerous. They shouldn’t even be on the roads.” So it was kind of suppressed and crushed and driven out. And at the time, the 1820s, late-1820s, people looked back on the rise and fall of this machine, the Laufmaschine, or as it was often called the velocipede, the dandy horse, it had various names, as a real like flash in the pan, like weird trend, like a pet rock or something that would never come back. And there were only a few, like, visionary people who said—and there’s some articles that you can find if you comb newspaper archives, people who were like, “No, you know what? This was a great idea. Someday someone’s gonna come along and build the better one of these, and it’s gonna be a super important transformative machine. So don’t write off the velocipede. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened.
Jody Rosen: But the actual original velocipede has returned as this starter bike. So yeah, I think it’s cool that what’s old is new and what’s new is old. That’s the really interesting thing about the bike’s history is that the bike always comes back. There’s lots of rises and falls, there’s lots of booms and demises, but there’s a rusty bicycle in someone’s basement waiting to be hauled out when there’s an OPEC oil crisis or there’s a fitness boom or there’s a fucking pandemic.
Sarah: I think that’s a great place to end. And that is it for this episode of The War on Cars. Jody Rosen, thank you so much for joining us. It’s really been such a pleasure.
Jody Rosen: Thanks, Sarah. Thanks, Doug. I had so much fun.
Doug: If you want to pick up Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle by Jody Rosen, you can get it at the official War on Cars page at Bookshop.org, or support your local bookseller.
Sarah: And if you want to support us at The War on Cars, you can go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and join today. Starting at just $3 a month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content, and we will also send you stickers which you can put places.
Doug: Thanks to everyone who has signed up on Patreon, including our top supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, James Doyle and Martin Mignon.
Sarah: And we’d like to thank our sponsors at Cleverhood. Don’t forget, you can get 20 percent off everything in the Cleverhood store, including their new anorak with the War on Cars logo.
Doug: Yeah, it’s awesome. I have one. Yellow anorak, really bright reflective logo. It’s pretty cool. We’re very official now.
Sarah: Yeah. And if you use the code WALKTHISWAY, you get 20 percent off. And we’d also like to thank our sponsors, Rad Power Bikes.
Doug: This episode was recorded by Walter Nordquist at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by me. Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. I’m Doug Gordon.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear. And this is The War on Cars.