Pedal-ins and car burials: what happened to America’s forgotten 1970s cycle boom?
‘Bicycle madness’ once saw US bike sales outstrip cars, and spawned ambitious plans for 100,000 miles of cycle paths. Then the music stopped
By Carlton Reid
Jun 16 2017
“The bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history,” gushed Time magazine in 1970 at the start of America’s five-year love affair with the bike. “Some 64 million fellow travellers are taking regularly to bikes these days, more than ever before,” the report continued, “and more than ever [they are] convinced that two wheels are better than four.”
US bicycle sales, which had been rolling along at 6 million a year, shot up to 9 million in 1971, 14 million in 1972 and 15.3 million the following year, according to a Bank of America report. While most pre-boom bikes had been sold for children, suddenly 60% were destined for adults.
Highly placed politicians – a few of whom were cyclists – told planners to get on and build miles and miles of urban bikeways. “Both national and local governments have recognised the phenomenal growth of bicycling,” reported Time, “and the Department of the Interior has plans for nearly 100,000 miles of bicycle paths to be constructed in the next 10 years.”
In 1973, 252 bicycle-oriented bills were introduced in 42 states. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of the same year provided $120m for bikeways over three years.
“Bikes are back,” claimed National Geographic writer Noel Grove in the magazine’s May 1973 edition. “Glutted roadways, ecological concern, the quest for healthful recreation, and the sophistication of geared machines have all contributed to a flood of cycling activity,” he explained, adding that “legislators are beginning to think bikeway as well as highway”. He concluded that “with bikeway construction and ecological concern marching hand in hand, America’s bicycling boom could harbinger a whole new era in transportation”. What went wrong?
Ecological concern was certainly one of the drivers of the boom. During the 1967 Summer of Love, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco reeked of patchouli oil, weed and incense. With flowers in their hair, some of the area’s self-styled “freaks” protested not just against the Vietnam war but also against waste.
The automobile became a potent symbol of everything that was wrong with the “military–industrial complex”. In February 1970, 19 humanities students at the San Jose State College bought a brand new Ford Maverick and, with the blessing of their professor, buried it in a 12 ft-deep hole dug in front of the campus’ cafeteria. This crowdfunded destruction of the hated motor car made news around the world.
Chicago-based Edward Aramaic explicitly linked cycling with environmentalism when he founded the Bicycle Ecology group and organised a “pedal-in” in October 1970. This was the era of “-in” demos – which started in the 1960s with “sit-ins” protesting against racial segregation at American colleges and universities. Later, there were “teach-ins”, “love-ins” and, in 1969, the famous “bed-in” with Yoko Ono and John Lennon who espoused world peace from the presidential suite of Amsterdam’s Hilton Hotel, and who were gifted a White Bicycle by the city’s Provo anarchist group.
“Bicycle Ecology … want to ban trucks, buses and automobiles from [downtown] and replace them with bikes,” reported the Chicago Tribune. “1,500 to 2,000 enthusiastic riders of all ages … braved a stiff north wind and temperatures in the 40s to wheel down major arteries to the civic centre, where speeches extolled the bicycle as good for the individual and for the environment.”