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Cycling in the City: Exploring a Contentious Past (and Present) in New York

Host Intro

New York City is at a crisis point with its infrastructure. Some people see bicycles as one possible solution. Others see them as a nuisance. This tension isn’t new — an exhibit at the City Museum of New York reminds us it’s almost as old as the city itself. Hannah Critchfield has more.

CRITCHFIELD 1 Exactly 200 years ago, the first bike came to New York City.

It was called the velocipede, it didn’t have pedals, it didn’t have breaks, you had to go down a hill just to ride it. And right away, it freaked people out.

It was banned from the streets within



And that begins a very long history of restricting, limiting, curbing, marginalizing some bicycles.


That’s Evan Friss, he’s co-curator of Cycling in the City: A 200-Year History, a new  exhibit at the City Museum of New York.

The show follows the history of the tension of the bicycle’s place and its purpose in New York City.

Friss says that a lot of this contention comes from waring ideas about what the bike should be. Is it for leisure, or labor?


And there’s this constant tension between, uh, can it be both a vehicle that’s privileged for its utilitarian value and also be embraced for its social and recreational value?


Today, biking is wildly popular in New York City. On an average morning, 3,000 bikers cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. The number of daily cycling trips in the city is three times what it was fifteen years ago.

But as the exhibition makes clear, the tension over bikes continues.


The growth of cycling kind of violates people’s expectations of how people are supposed to move through space, even if the cyclists aren’t causing harm.


That’s Do Lee, an environmental psychologist who researches working cyclists in the city.

These ideas are old, but the exhibit shows that the modern day conflict around bikes in the city came out of a very specific event in the 1980s.

It all starts when New York Mayor Ed Koch takes a trip…to China.


He visits China, he sees bicycling and he decides New York to be a modern city is going to use bicycles.


That’s Don Albrecht, Curator of Architecture and Design at the museum.

Mayor Koch began encouraging cycling, and established bike lanes. He imagined a cleaner, quieter New York City, free of gridlock. But then came the bike messengers – around 5,000 of them.


And they’re very different than most of the other cyclists. Three quarters of them are probably not white. Um, either African American or Latino. They’re young. Uh, and of course they become stereotyped as aggressive riders who are reckless.


Amid outcries of their danger, in 1987 Koch cracked down, proposing an outright ban on bike riding during the day in Midtown Manhattan.


The bicycle messengers fight back.

They protest down the city streets and they win.

And that’s a key moment when the bicycle shifts from being a mode of recreation to a mode of work and commuting and transportation. CRITCHFIELD 7

The bike ban was repealed. Curators say the current debates about bikes in the city all started at that moment in the 80s.

Next to the bike messenger display, a video plays. It’s about food delivery cyclists, the majority of them Chinese immigrants, who have spent the last few months fighting for the city to legalize the bikes they use.



And a lot of the language against the delivery people and e-bikes is reminiscent of debates against the bike messengers in the 1980s.


Friss says it’s worth examining this history, because it tells us about why people feel they way they do about bicycles today. FRISS 5

How we think of it then shapes where we think it, the law and how we regulate it and whether we promote it or not.


Cycling in the City: A 200-Year History is open now through October 6th.

Hannah Critchfield, Columbia Radio News.


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