Bicycle history as transport history: The cultural turn

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Compared with railways, shipping, aviation and the automobile, the bicycle
has received little attention from transport historians. In his 2003 survey of the
field, Gijs Mom observed that the bicycle was among the themes that are ‘virtually
non-existent’ in the literature.1 This is remarkable, since few scholars would
deny that the bicycle became an important mode of transport in many European
cities during the interwar years, significantly enhancing the mobility both of
millions of workers and of middle class men and women. European cycle use
went into sharp decline during the postwar period, a pattern unchecked until
the 1970s. During the 1970s, the Netherlands started to adopt transport
policies to facilitate or stimulate cycle use, resulting in renewed growth of
cycle traffic : levels between 25 and 40 per cent of urban trips are now reported
in many Dutch cities. Similar policies have since then been adopted in other
European nations and cities. At the same time interest grew in cycling as sport
and recreational activity, particularly with the advent of the mountain bike in
the 1980s and a wave of technological innovations which followed it. Although
the cycle trade is a global phenomenon, outside of Europe—in North America,
Japan and in developing countries—cycle use has followed different patterns
and each context requires its own historical treatment. In this review article we
focus on Western Europe.
To explain differing national and local levels of bicycle use in western countries,
experts agree on the relevance of cultural factors, next to or in combination
with infrastructure and policies. As we show in this survey of European
bicycle historiography, these contemporary analyses are in line with a ‘cultural
turn’ in recent publications on the history of bicycles and bicycling. The challenge
that remains is to integrate bicycle historiography into general histories of
twentieth-century mass mobility.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMobility in history:
Subtitle of host publicationThemes in transport. T2M Yearbook 2011
EditorsG. Mom, P. Norton, G. Clarsen, G. Pirie
Place of PublicationNeuchâtel
PublisherÉditions Alphil-Presses universitaires suisses
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2010

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