Congress Spins Its Wheels: A Brief and Selective History of Bicycles and the U.S. Congress
For this assignment, I wanted to make use of print resources, especially the Congressional Record, to practice doing governmental research. This paper was my conclusion as to how to repackage the information that I found when researching my topic: the history of bicycles and the U.S. Congress. I gained a new appreciation for the value of historical print collections, and the power of narrative to convey history and research. (Outcomes achieved: “Based on a diagnosed need, retrieve, interpret, and/or repackage relevant information resources, and evaluate their use and impact.”)
This paper provides a history of remarks and legislation made by the U.S. Congress regarding bicycles, with special attention paid to the bicycle boom periods in the 1890s and 1970s. Historical trends in bicycling, and correspondingly in Congress’s attention towards bicycles, are identified, and predictions are made for the future.
Congress Spins Its Wheels:
A Brief and Selective History of Bicycles and the U.S. Congress
Printable .pdf version here
Global warming. Fuel shortages. Rampant obesity. Many grim headlines vie for attention in the current year. However, there is one technology that has the potential to overcome them all: the bicycle. Throughout the bicycle’s surprisingly short history, it has been common knowledge by the U.S. government that the bicycle brings a number of important benefits to a county and its people: better individual health; less reliance on foreign energy; and a gentler impact on, and a greater appreciation for, the natural environment. The bicycle seems poised to gain national attention as a cure for what is ailing the country, and so it is perhaps a fitting time to look back at the U.S. Congress’s history with the noble machine.
The history of the bicycle has been one of booms and busts, and this paper focuses largely on the bicycle booms and busts of the 1890s and 1970s. I am not attempting to provide a comprehensive history of Congress and the bicycle – to do so would be beyond the scope of this project and would by necessity include much rather dry material. Instead, I have searched through Congressional documents for “the good stuff,” which when presented together gives, I believe, a sense of historical trends. I have concentrated primarily on documents from the Congressional Record, with all the high rhetoric contained therein. Hopefully this paper will be of use to readers interested in bicycle history and the relation of bicycles and government in the United States.
The bicycle is not an especially old invention. Originally referred to as a “velocipede,” the first patent for a pedal-driven bicycle was filed in 1866 by Pierre Lallement (U.S. Patent No. 059,915, 1866). The patent is viewable online by searching for patent number 059915 at http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/srchnum.htm. In the 1870s and 1880s, the most popular form of bicycle was the high-wheeler, with an enormous front wheel and tiny back wheel. When the modern, lower bicycle was developed in the 1890s, it launched a boom and “triggered revolutions both social and technological” (Herlihy, 2004, p. 3). The League of American Wheelmen was founded in 1880 as a lobbying group for legal access of cyclists to roads and paths: they “demanded a federal highway program, spearheading what soon became the powerful Good Roads Movement” (Herlihy, p. 205).
It is in the 1890s, and in relation to road legislation, that we find our first significant mention of bicycles on the floors of Congress. In 1893, a man named Albert A. Pope wrote a letter to his Senator, George Hoar (Republican of Massachusetts), calling for better roads, and which Sen. Hoar presented to the rest of the Senate (Hoar, April 3, 1893). “I beg leave”, Pope wrote in his letter, “to suggest that one of the most potent causes of the depression of the agricultural interests of the country is the wretched roads of the farming districts” (Pope, 1893). However, what Pope nowhere states in the letter is that he happens to be in the business of making and selling bicycles, and had been since 1877. In 1879, Pope had gained control of the Lallement patent, with which he “proceeded to rein in his growing number of competitors” and dominate the American bicycle industry in the 1880s (Herlihy, 2004, p. 192). This all was revealed on the floor of the Senate after Sen. Hoar presented another missive from Pope, this time a petition with 150,000 signatures “praying for the establishment of a department of roads as a department of executive administration of the National Government” (Hoar, December 20, 1893). Sen. Jacob Gallinger of New Hampshire (Republican) noted that, although he personally was “quite as anxious as the Senator who has presented the petition to do anything that Congress can … to improve the roads”, it might be important to consider that “the promoter of this matter … is the leading manufacturer of bicycles in the United States”. Gallinger continued: “if Congress does act favorably … the gentleman who has sent out the petitions … may be influenced in some way to take into account the propriety of reducing the exorbitant prices that he asks for his bicycles, in the interests of the small boys of the country” (Gallinger, December 20, 1893).
Sen. Hoar’s eloquent response warrants quotation (even if it doesn’t necessarily respond to Sen. Gallinger’s concerns):
The bicycle is the poor man’s chariot. Its invention and perfection within the last twenty or twenty-five years have made it possible for poor men to live at a distance from their places of work instead of living in the crowded and unhealthy parts of cities. Poor men who cannot afford to keep a carriage get innocent, healthy, and harmless recreation and enjoyment, and exercise from it. It comes with very ill grace from Senators who peer out of their luxurious carriage windows drawn by elegant spans of horses to sneer at the man who finds his recreation in the bicycle. (Hoar, December 20, 1893)
In the end, roads and highways were indeed built and improved across the country, but ironically it was not bicycles that would surge over them. Instead, it was automobiles that profited from the network of roads that bicycle groups had been lobbying for – “the American Automobile Association, founded in 1902, took its lead from the League of American Wheelemen”, and “numerous bicycle repair shops helped provide the foundation for a nationwide network of service stations” (Herlihy, 2004, p. 299-300). The Catalogue of the Public Documents of the Congress and of All Departments of the Government of the United States (1896-1945) illustrates the decline in the importance of bicycles from a governmental perspective: in vol. 2 of that work (for the 54th Congress, 1895-1896) there are 10 documents indexed under the term “Bicycles.” For the 56th Congress (1899-1900), there are 15 entries. By the 59th Congress (1905-1906), though, the number of entries under “Bicyles” has dropped to just 3, and for the 63rd and 64th Congresses (1913-1916) there is only a “see Motor-cyles” reference.
This bicycle bust was not permanent, however. Another boom took place in the United States in the 1970s, due both to the introduction of European 10-speed style bikes in the U.S. market and to the energy crisis that took place in the wake of the Arab oil embargo of 1973 (Herlihy, 2004, p. 363, 365). Naturally, as the attention of the American public began to focus once again on the bicycle, so did that of Congress.
The 92nd Congress contained much discussion of bicycles, due in great part to the efforts of Representative Seymour Halpern, Republican of New York. Halpern introduced Joint Resolution 1033 in the House, which would have designated May 1-7, 1972, as “National Bikecology Week” (H.J. Res. 1033, 1972). In his introduction to the resolution, Halpern stated that “corresponding with an increase in the national awareness for the need to combat pollution, the bicycle is taking its place alongside all other systems of transportation in terms of viability and efficiency.” After noting the observance of National Bikecology Week in various cities, Halpern also briefly mentioned a bicycle concern which would come up later in other legislation: “We have sidewalks and streets. Somewhere we need to find room for 3 to 6 feet for bicycle safety lanes” (Halpern, January 27, 1972). On the Senate side, the same measure was introduced by Sen. Alan Cranston, Democrat from California, as S.J. Res. 191 (1972). Both Halpern and Cranston quoted in their comments the current Secretary of Transportation, John Volpe, as saying: “As far as I’m concerned … bicycles have equal rights with automobiles on our city streets” (Halpern, January 27, 1972, and Cranston, January 28, 1972). Alas, the National Bikecology Week resolutions in both the Senate and the House never left their respective committees.
Also in the 92nd Congress, New York Democrat Edward Koch introduced in the House of Representatives the “Bicycle Transportation Act” (H.R. 9369, 1972), which would have permitted “States and localities to use highway trust fund moneys for the development of bicycle lanes and paths, the construction of bicycle shelters, and the installation of bicycle traffic control equipment” (Koch, March 20, 1972). Representative Halpern also spoke in support of the bill, noting that “support of such a system [of bicycle improvements as the bill provides] would counter some of the less desirable effects that our interstate and State superhighway systems have had, especially in urban areas” (Halpern, February 22, 1972). But like the National Bikecology Week resolutions, this bill too died in committee.
Representative Halpern did not give up his pro-bicycling efforts. On May 10, 1972, he and 35 of his colleagues took part in a “Tour du Capitol” bike ride, and later that day Halpern gave an impassioned pro-bicycle speech on the House floor which is still strikingly relevant even read today in 2008, 36 years later:
It is estimated that 60 percent of our automobile trips in the United States are for distances less than 5 miles. For thousands upon thousands, there should be the possibility of substituting the bicycle for the automobile in many of these shorter trips.
The buildup of exhaust emissions increases the pollution of the atmosphere and impairs our health each day. Reduction of the congestion of traffic and also of the improvement of our own lives by having cleaner air are two important advantages in addition to a more flexible transportation system which bicycles offer. … It is in our national interest to promote a transportation system that places less strain on our environment, while focusing public attention on the individual and community benefits that can be derived from bicycling. (Halpern, May 10, 1972)
Despite the failed attempts at bicycle legislation in 1972, one success was the passing of P.L. 93-87 (Highway Construction and Safety Programs, authorization) during the 93rd Congress in 1973 (debate over which, as S. 3939, had taken place during the 92nd Congress). In 1972, Senator Edward Brooke (Republican of Massachusetts) spoke on the Senate floor in support of the bicycle provisions in the bill: “To me, the most important development in bicycling is contained in S. 3939 … This exciting new dimension in our highway program offers new hope that we shall not be wedded to old modes of transportation when new alternatives are available.” He later concludes: “I pledge my own commitment to an accelerated national bicycle program, and urge that we proceed ‘four-speed’ ahead” (Brooke, September 19, 1972). Title I of P.L. 93-87, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973, contained some assistance for bicycle transportation: section 217 allowed for use of federal highway project money to be used for construction of “separate or preferential bicycle lanes or paths, bicycle traffic control devices, shelters and parking facilities to serve bicycles and person using bicycles, and pedestrian walkways” (P.L. 93-87, 1973). The law also included, in Title II, the Highway Safety Act of 1973, a call for an investigation and study of pedestrian and bicycle safety.
However, the bicyle boom of the 1970s ultimately proved to be just that: a boom, not a birth. In 1974, the oil-crisis came to an end, and bicycle sales fell again – “the boom of the 1970s proved to be something of a letdown” (Herlihy, 2004, p. 368). Yet, “the second boom helped to reestablish cycling as a healthy and rewarding adult activity. Americans would no longer consider the bicycle a mere child’s toy” (Herlihy, p. 368). Neither had the all the speeches in Congress been in vain.
In 1980, H.J. Res. 414, calling for a National Bicycling Day, passed in both the House and the Senate, and was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on March 28, 1980 (P.L. 96-218, 1980). In 1992, during the 102nd Congress, there was a lot of discussion over legislation to promote use of bicycle helmets (S. 2952 and S. 3096, 1992). And there has been renewed interest in bicycles from the 107th Congress to the present. In 1996, Congressional members formed a bipartisan bicycle caucus: you can bet that if they were still serving, Congressmen Hoar and Halpern would be members. In 2005, Representative Earl Blumenauer (Democrat of Oregon) urged his fellow Representatives to “join us for a ride at 2 P.M on Friday with the members of the Bicycle Caucus and Bicycle Summit around Washington D.C.” – not so different from the “Tour du Capitol” that took place 33 years earlier (Blumenauer, March 15, 2005). On July 26, 2005, in celebration of Lance Armstrong’s victory in the Tour de France, Representative Randy Neugebauer (Republican of Texas) read on the House floor a poem written by a U.S. Capitol tour guide, entitled “A Real Fine Tour de Force of Life” (Neugebauer). At the present moment, in the 110th Congress, there is proposed legislation to change the tax code to allow employers to offer transportation fringe benefits to employees who commute by bicycle (S. 858, H.R. 1498, 2007; H.R. 5351, 2008).
These new efforts are not insubstantial, and it seems inevitable that bicycle legislation will only increase in the coming years. Despite the clear cycles of boom and bust for bicycling in America and for its recognition in Congress, a slow, constant trend of increasing respect for bicycles is also apparent. In 1893, bicycles were mentioned in passing in relation to economic interests of a constituent. In 1973, bicycles received advocation from a few passionate Congress Members and began to get some inclusion into transportation legislation. Now, in the beginning of the 21st century, bicycles are more than ever a serious topic of discussion. It has been about 120 years since bicycles first captured the attention of the American public, and for much of that time bicycling has had an uphill struggle for respectability and acknowledgement by the federal government. Perhaps bicycling is nearing the summit of that climb, though. Perhaps it will soon be time for the institution of American bicycling, and the U.S. Congress, to shift into a higher gear and begin picking up speed.
Blumenauer, E. (March 15, 2005). National Bike Summit. Cong. Rec.: H1425.
Brooke, E. (September 19, 1972). Bicycle: a viable means of transportation. Cong. Rec. 118, p. 31248.
Catalogue of the public documents of the congress and of all departments of the government of the United States. (1896-1945). Washington, DC: GPO.
Cranston, A. (January 28, 1972). National Bikecology Week. Cong. Rec. 118, p. 1640.
Gallinger, J. (December 20, 1893). Proposed department of roads. Cong. Rec. 26, p. 427.
Halpern, S. (January 27, 1972). National Bikecology Week, May 1-7, 1972. Cong. Rec. 118, p. 1544.
Halpern, S. (February 22, 1972). Support of using moneys from the Highway Trust Fund for nonmotorized transportation support systems: the bicycle. Cong. Rec. 118, p. 5067.
Halpern, S. (May 10, 1972). The bicycle. Cong. Rec. 118, p. 16650-16651.
Herlihy, D.V. (2004). Bicycle: the history. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
H.J. Res. 1033, 92nd Cong. (1972). Bicycle Transportation Act.
Hoar, G. (April 3, 1893). Cong. Rec. 25, p. 67.
Hoar, G. (December 20, 1893). Proposed department of roads. Cong. Rec. 26, p. 427.
H.R. 1428, 110th Cong. (2007). To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to extend the transportation fringe benefit to bicycle commuters.
H.R. 5351, 110th Cong. (2008). Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2008
H.R. 9369, 92nd Cong. (1972). National Bikecology Week.
Koch, E. (March 20, 1972). Director of Bicycle Institute of America testifies before House Public Works Subcommittee in support of H.R. 9369. Cong. Rec. 118, p. 9109.
Neugebauer, R. (July 26, 2005). Tribute to Lance Armstrong – extension of remarks. Cong. Rec.: E1627.
P.L. 93-87 (1973). Highway construction and safety programs, authorization. 87 Stat. 250.
P.L. 96-218 (1980). National Bicycling Day. 94 Stat. 127.
Pope, A.A. (1893). Senate mis. doc. no. 33, 53rd Cong. special session. Serial set 3142-2.
S. 858, 110th Cong. (2007). To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to extend the transportation fringe benefit to bicycle commuters.
S. 2952, 102nd Cong. (1992). Children’s bicycle helmet safety act of 1992.
S. 3096, 102nd Cong. (1992). To establish a grant program under the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the purpose of promoting the use of bicycle helmets by children under the age of 16.
S. 3939, 92nd Cong. (1973). Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1972.
S.J. Res. 191, 92nd Cong. (1972). National Bikecology Week.
U.S. Patent No. 059,915. (1866). Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.