Back in the late 2000s, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was the world’s coolest neighborhood. And if lifestyle blogs were to be believed, everyone in Williamsburg rode a bike. But not everyone in New York did, and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to change that. He installed hundreds of miles of bike lanes throughout the city, which had the potential to cut both pollution and traffic deaths.
In the Hasidic section of South Williamsburg, the Department of Transportation striped a white corridor down a particularly chaotic section of Bedford Avenue, home to kosher grocery stores and Hasidic apartment buildings. Locals, already wary of outsiders, were furious. To them, bikes were not symbols of hip urbanism but of unwelcome intrusion—particularly by women riders whose clothes offended the community’s religious mandate of strict modesty.
Ahead of Bloomberg’s reelection bid, the city removed the bike lane. A few nights later, the Hasidic community patrol found renegade cyclists repainting it at 3:30 a.m. The city got rid of the DIY lane, too, leaving the two sides debating for months, but the lane never reappeared. Cyclists still ride that stretch, finding their own path through tightly crammed vehicles. The Hasidim still seem to resent the cyclists. The conflict grinds on.
Substitute 1890 for 2009, or London for New York, and this episode looks the same as any other in the endless drama between cyclists and the people who live begrudgingly alongside them. From their debut in the 1800s, bicycles have been a confounding presence on the streets, their riders’ unpredictable careening infuriating carriage drivers, then car drivers, and, the whole time, pedestrians. For just as long, many cyclists have tightly held on to a sense of moral superiority about their machines. As climate collapse looms, bicycles have taken on a saintly quality, extolled as squeaky-clean instruments of penance for wealthy countries’ carbon emissions.
Or at least, that’s the story that many of us, especially in the global North, tell ourselves about bicycles. What’s missing from it could fill a book, which Jody Rosen, a New York Times Magazine contributor and lifelong cyclist, has written. Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle takes readers time-traveling and globe-trotting to build up an alternate narrative about a simple machine that becomes harder to categorize the more you learn about it. Through history and across cultures, bicycles are a human denominator. Their past and future concern us all—even if you don’t think they have anything to do with you.
The first machine resembling a bicycle emerged in 1817 from the workshop of the German inventor Baron Karl von Drais. His Laufmaschine (“running machine”) was essentially a balance bike—two wheels connected by a seat, which the rider pushed forward with their feet. It took until the turn of the century for the bicycle to evolve into what we ride today: two evenly sized wheels connected via a frame and propelled by a pedal-powered drivetrain. This iteration of the bike really took off, transforming the machine from a reviled plaything of the idle rich to a threatening equalizer of the classes and the sexes. (Susan B. Anthony said in 1896 that cycling was doing “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”)