The Bicycle: Crime Destroyer or Freedom Machine?

A NYC bicyle policeman seizing a runaway horse, from "Collier's Weekly," 23 April 1896.

From this angle, it looks like he’s riding a Fuji, or maybe a Univega. But that would be impossible, no? Why am I interested in bikes and culture? Because I think that the bicycle ushered in the modern, technical, industrial age.

Two anecdotes.

David V. Herlihy reports in his excellent Bicycle: The History (Yale UP, 2004) that “perhaps the most important specialized use of the bicycle (during the turn of the century) was for police work. In 1896, New York City assigned bicycles to five officers who patrolled Central Park. The experiment proved so successful that the squad was soon expanded, and other cities, including Chicago and Buffalo, followed suit. Theodore Roosevelt, then a New York police commissionner, recalled the ‘extraordinary proficiency’ of the cyclist officers who reigned in runaway horses and chased down speed demons known as ‘scorchers.’ One officer even managed to catch up with a carriage as it fled a crime scene. To the great surprise of its occupant, the policeman vaulted from his bicycle into the vehicle and promptly made an arrest.”

Now it would be fair to say two things in regard to this wonderful paragraph. First, the police officer must have been insane, bored, or loaded–or all three. Second, the gear ratio must have been crushingly huge…I mean they had no derailleurs, so he must have been on a honking big chainring.

Nevertheless, it seems obvious that in this case, the bicycle was a means of maintaining peace and order: it was used to help THE MAN.

But check this out.

Herlihy also says that the bicycle gave speed to youths and to women. It gave to ordinary citizens freedom, utility, and pleasure. All these things sound a bit suspect to moi. Not only did it offer exercise and adventure, it offered escape for adolescents to meet in clandestine locations out of the range of parents. Herlihy says folks could “flee the commotion of the city and take refuge in the countryside.” Yeah right! It was a way for kids to flee parental supervision and neck. Bicycles = heavy petting! It was the beginning of the destruction of civilized order. In sum, the bike was against THE MAN.

You decide.