Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John W. MillerMarch 16, 2021
Photo by I.am_nah on Unsplash

What would Jesus ride? For this pilgrim, the answer is obvious. The technological incarnation of love—for yourself, for your neighbor and for the planet—is a sleek aluminum frame, mounted by a human rider, propelled by two wheels, powered by pedals, crank and chain.

Like a Lycra-clad gearhead grunting up Alpe d’Huez, the bicycle is slowly but surely winning over American cities. Bike lanes are proliferating. Around 50 million Americans ride regularly. The percentage is lower than in many other countries, but it has been steadily increasing. 

We need to get there faster. Think on it. It is the humble bicycle that stands alone as the only tool that can simultaneously fight climate change, pollution, segregation, poverty, illiteracy, disease and the daily slaughter of 100 Americans a day in car accidents. 

The technological incarnation of love—for yourself, for your neighbor and for the planet—is a sleek aluminum frame, mounted by a human rider.

In fact, the bicycle may be the only way we eight billion humans stop burning off so many pieces of the planet that we might soon torch the whole thing. Transportation, by car, bus, plane and trains, is the biggest carbon emitter, surpassing industry, agriculture and homes. If cars were animals, they would be the second most populous big species in the world. There are more than a billion of them, roaring, belching and smoking.

A dramatic increase in cycling could save the world $24 trillion by 2050 and cut carbon dioxide emissions from urban passenger transport by 11 percent, according to a paper published in 2015 by the University of California, Davis.

Not only are bicycles clean for the world outside the body, they fortify the inside too. They are the apple-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-away of commuting. Cycling to work decreases mortality by 40 percent, according to one study in Denmark quoted by Peter Walker in his book How Cycling Can Save the World

Meanwhile, a sedentary lifestyle is killing two million people a year, according to the World Health Organization. “Study after study has shown that people who cycle regularly are less prone to obesity, diabetes, strokes, heart disease and various cancers,” writes Walker. “Cyclists don’t just get extra life years, they’re more likely to remain mobile and independent into older age.”

A bicycle in every home would expand networks, relationships and job opportunities, and bring people closer together.

Bicycles are social. A bicycle in every home would expand networks, relationships and job opportunities, and bring people closer together. In fact, when bicycles were first invented in the 19th century, gene pools expanded as people started going on dates in the next village over.

It is hard to name a societal ill that cannot be addressed by societies choosing bikes over cars en masse. And this engine of peace is already invented, perfected and mass-produced. There are an estimated two billion bicycles in the world. In 30 years, there could be as many as five billion. It can’t happen soon enough. 

Kid-Tested, Pope-Approved

Bicycles are theologically sound and simpatico with Catholic social teaching. Bicycles open you to neighbors instead of enclosing you in glass, rubber and steel. They are a way to respect the environment and conserve resources. And they have the blessing of popes. “I’m telling you, truly, it hurts me when I see a priest or a sister with a brand new car,” Pope Francis said in a 2013 speech. “Now, you’re thinking, ‘but then, Father, must we go by bike?’” Yes, he concluded, “bikes are nice.” 

In 1949 Pope Pius XII named the Madonna del Ghisallo, a medieval apparition of the Virgin Mary, as the patron saint of cyclists. There is a shrine to her, and a bicycle museum, overlooking Italy’s Lake Como. The Tour de France regularly makes a stop in Lourdes, home of the world’s most famous Catholic shrine. And the village priest riding around on a bicycle is a popular character in 20th century European fiction, featured in the Italian novels and films involving Don Camillo, the priest protagonist of the stories of Giovannino Guareschi. 

Bicycles are theologically sound and simpatico with Catholic social teaching.

As millions of people lose income because of the decline of manufacturing jobs, and millions more lose employment because of Covid-19, the cost of owning a car has become prohibitive for many. “Simply being able to opt out of the cost of car ownership or reliance on largely dismantled transit systems is a tremendous thing,” writes Elly Blue in Bikenomics, a defense of the economics of cycling. “In that cost I include not just money, but time, health, stress, and community.” 

The highest percentage of cyclists is found among people who earn less than $10,000 a year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And, as Ms. Blue points out, “because bicycles are simpler machines [than cars], a good quality one can hold its value for decades, and it isn’t uncommon to see them passed down from parent to adult child 40 years after the fact.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a mini-bicycle boom as people avoided public transit. U.S. bicycle imports soared by more than 16 percent in 2020. The main sources were Asian countries: China, Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

When the bicycle was invented in the mid-19th century, “the vision was that it would be the poor man’s horse,” David Herlihy, author of Bicycle: The History, told me. “I think it’s finally there now.” 

A Bike for Everyone

To be sure, bicycles might not be for everybody. You might not feel comfortable riding on the street. You might struggle up hills. However, the recent development of new fleets of electric bicycles should expand the number of people able and willing to ride bicycles in cities. And, of course, there are fears about safety, although less than 1,000 people a year in the United States die from bicycle accidents, compared to over 30,000 in cars.

Although America embraced cycling in the 1890s, it spent the 20th spinning steel and concrete into cars, highways and suburbs. A fitness craze in the 1970s resurrected the bike, but it wasn’t until this century that Americans once again embraced commuting by pedal and that cities began to build bike lanes, install bike share programs and enact laws that protect cyclists on the road. Led by places like Portland, Chicago and Minneapolis, U.S. cities are racing to accommodate cyclists as a way of stimulating development. Since I moved to Pittsburgh in 2011, for instance, the city has installed bike lanes or trails that can take you from downtown to almost any neighborhood in the city.

Although America embraced cycling in the 1890s, it spent the 20th spinning steel and concrete into cars, highways and suburbs.

The redevelopment of American cities for cyclists has been accompanied by a burgeoning movement, led by thousands of new programs to give bicycles to people who cannot afford them and to offer free maintenance and service.  

An awareness of the bicycle’s importance to low-income communities inspired this article. In the spring of 2017, I spent two months volunteering at the Jubilee soup kitchen in Pittsburgh. One day, a 70-year-old Black man named Rupert showed up with a nasty bruise over his eye. A bicycle accident because of faulty brakes, he explained. When another volunteer and I interviewed people who came to the kitchen for meals, we found two men (out of a half dozen or so) who had suffered life-changing accidents on bicycles. After asking around, I was stunned by how many people rode bicycles to come get their meals. 

Their reliance on the bicycle was simple economics. It costs thousands of dollars a year to maintain and operate a car, compared to hundreds for a bicycle. The accidents made me wish for a world where everybody had access to good bicycles and proper maintenance. That made me go looking for charities and nonprofits that give people bicycles. 

It costs thousands of dollars a year to maintain and operate a car, compared to hundreds for a bicycle.

In Towson, Md., I found a program sponsored by the Knights of Columbus that has won an award for crime prevention from the Maryland state government for giving thousands of free bicycles to parolees. “If you have transportation to a job, you’re less likely to commit crimes to get money,” said Carl Lenhoff, who helps run the program. It has given away over 2,500 bikes since it started in 2004.

The bicycle “is a transformative tool,” said Amy Carver, program and development manager for Trips for Kids, an organization that has given away over 200,000 bicycles a year to children in low-income communities. “We’re not a racing organization; we want every kid to be a lifelong rider.” The organization was founded in the 1980s in San Rafael, Calif., when its founder, Marilyn Price, was working at a soup kitchen and noticed how many people were cycling in to get their meals.

Expanding Horizons

A few years ago, Michael White, a basketball coach at Imani Christian Academy in Pittsburgh, invited players on the middle school basketball team he coached for a ride in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park. He had grown up in Homewood, one of the city’s main Black neighborhoods. “I always used the bike to get around,” he said. It was how he discovered far-flung parts of the city, riding his bike to play basketball.

Mr. White was surprised when a cluster of children didn’t show up because they didn’t own bicycles. He bought bikes for all the players and resolved to start giving away bicycles to more children in Pittsburgh.

But then Mr. White got some more ideas. First, he began to use bicycles to teach children about science, technology, engineering and math. Second, he formed the Ruach Bicycle Club, which invites children to ride and race BMX bicycles at a suburban race track and in the winter at a local urban indoor bike park called the Wheel Mill.

Once you start reporting on one benefit of bicycling, others you had not thought of pop out of nowhere.

Once you start reporting on one benefit of bicycling, others you had not thought of pop out of nowhere. Cycling is the only sport that is also a commuting device, a delivery truck and messenger app. It’s the only widely-available means of transportation that can cover long distances without emitting carbon. “What’s great about bicycles is that they’re healthy for kids, and they’re not even paying attention to it,” Mr. White told me. “They’re getting fit, they’re burning calories, it really touches on everything that’s needed.”

The bicycle offers “a different view of life,” said 13-year-old Ayo Emmanuel, who is part of Mr. White’s program. He enjoys riding to the local grocery store to buy “chips and snacks” and racing in suburban races Mr. White takes him to. “I like going outside the city,” Ayo told me. “I get to experience different places and different people.” Ayo, who is Black, said he has made more white friends with the bicycle.  

In 2018 the I Promise school, founded by Lebron James in Akron, Ohio, announced it would give a free bicycle to every child who enrolled. “A bicycle, for me, was the only way to get around the city,” Mr. James told Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal. “If I wanted to meet some of my friends, travel across the city, go to school, play basketball—anything—the bicycle was the way I got around.” What his bicycle meant, James added, was freedom.

What a bicycle meant to Lebron James was freedom.

Akron, a city of 200,000 in eastern Ohio, was built for and by cars. The so-called Rubber City was part of a supply chain that shipped tires to carmakers in Detroit. Lebron’s is not the only bike show in town. In 2003 a neighborhood activist named Joe Tucker started the Bike Shop, which gives away bicycles to children as long as they fix them up first. 

“Every kid in the neighborhood under age 12 wants a bicycle,” said Mr. Tucker. Last summer, the program, operated by South Street Ministries, gave away 200 bicycles. Even in Akron, bicycle culture is slowly taking root. Commuter buses now include bike racks. There are now a handful of small bike shops in the city, where there used to be none. “It’s an underrated means of transportation for low-income people,” said Mr. Tucker. “It can take you more places than the bus, and it’s cheaper.”

History Repeats Itself

We are a long way from bikes becoming ubiquitous in the United States the way they are in Denmark or the Netherlands, where there are more bicycles than people and over a quarter of trips are cycled, compared with less than 2 percent in the United States. This country is built for cars, trains and planes. 

And yet, here was a brief shining moment in our history when it seemed like America might be a country built on bicycles. After the Civil War, the development of new bicycle prototypes got people as excited for cycling as they were about baseball. In 1869, a newspaper in Cincinnati described people flocking to a demonstration of an early bicycle prototype, “all agog to fathom the mysteries of the wondrous bicycle.” In the 1860s, blacksmiths in villages made bicycles by hand. 

Here was a brief shining moment in our history when it seemed like America might be a country built on bicycles.

The development of bicycle technology inspired other inventions. In the 1890s, bicycle making became one of the biggest industries in the country. Tool companies invented the sophisticated machinery needed to mass-produce bicycles. At that time, a Black cyclist named Marshall Taylor, known as Major,  captured the imagination of the nation just as Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan would in the next century. A former bicycle mechanic named Glenn Curtis developed motorcycles, seaplanes and combat planes for use in World War I. 

Even Orville and Wilbur Wright, writes Herlihy in Bicycle, were “experienced bicycle mechanics who built the first successful airplane using the metal- and wood-working skills they had developed in the cycle trade.”

In the 1880s and 1890s, the League of American Wheelmen became one of the country’s principal lobby groups, launching the first successful campaigns for “good roads” that could accommodate new technology like bicycles and cars, both considered miracles of the future. Ingloriously, the league also banned people of color for a time. 

In 1896 The New York Times declared that “the bicycle promises a splendid extension of personal power and freedom, scarcely inferior to what wings would give.” In the early 1900s, Western Union bought 5,000 bicycles a year and resold them at a discount to messenger boys. Some were as young as 10 years old. Post offices bought fleets of bicycles to deliver the mail. For a while, it seemed as if bicycles might actually become the poor man’s horse. 

“At the end of the 19th century America had the world’s best cycle infrastructure,” writes Carlton Reid in Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring

But in the meantime, Americans were building homes farther and farther outside cities. Ford made the world’s first mass-produced cars. President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1950s-era interstate highway system dropped the hammer. The car won. Trains and bicycles got whacked.

We live in a different world now. Entire continents have converted to America’s model of postwar consumer capitalism. The world is burning, in large part because of the way we consume fuels to move around. We have another chance to change that. We have another chance to incarnate the love we claim to believe in. And given where we are, we might not have another choice. In the end, it might be all about the bike.

More from America:

The latest from america

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, bends down to greet Pope Francis with their foreheads touching, ahead of a working session on Artificial Intelligence (AI), Energy, and Africa-Mediterranean, during the G7 summit at Borgo Egnazia, southern Italy, on June 14, 2024.
Pope Francis met with President Joe Biden and several other world leaders at the Group of Seven summit.
Pope Francis, seen from behind, sits at a working session during the G7 summit in Borgo Egnazia, Italy. The session discusses AI, Energy, Africa, and the Mideast. The background features a blue screen with the G7 Italia logo, and several attendees and photographers are visible.
The pope addressed leaders at the G7's special "outreach" session dedicated to artificial intelligence.
Pope Francis met with comedians to discuss the importance of humor, specifically as a tool for unity in the face of darkness and conflict.
“Sister Act” embodies the welcoming spirit of a church willing to go out into the street.
John DoughertyJune 14, 2024