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A half-century after the big bike boom: a retrospective

Despite some troubling data around safety and vehicle trends, good things happening are on the ground and with new technology.

Bicycles on Nicollet Mall in 1974.
Bicycles on Nicollet Mall in 1974.
Hennepin County Library

It’s not a complete exaggeration to say that, 50 years ago, probably right around this time of year, bicycling peaked in the U.S. Fueled by the OPEC oil embargo and the birth of environmentalism, Americans briefly went mad for riding efficient, two-wheeled machines. 1973 marked the beginning of the end of the short-lived great American bike boom.

By any measure, the boom was a retail bonanza. Bicycle sales tripled overnight, catching every bicycle company off-guard. Culturally, too, bicycles were everywhere. In his book on the subject, transportation historian Carlton Reid describes it this way:

“Thanks to the 45 million bicycles sold at the height of the boom, bicycle ownership was now higher than ever…. Many of the bike purchases were due to cognition: people bought bikes because others were seen buying bikes.”

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Within a few years, though, much of the bicycle frenzy came to an end. When the oil embargo disappeared, Americans returned to cars slurping down leaded gasoline. Most of those new 10-speeds returned to their garages to gather dust, and it’s a fair guess that some of them are still there.

Looking back from today, bicycling has certainly changed. As with a lot of ’70s environmentalism, it’s easy to see a missed opportunity — the famous solar panels on the White House — before backlash and retrenchment of the auto industry around ever larger cars. Pioneering bike trails in places like New York City and Washington, D.C., were created, and then removed. As Reid describes, Los Angeles never even got started implementing its ambitious ’70s-era bike plans.

After a similar boom in bicycling interest during COVID, the bike industry is experiencing difficulty. Local examples include the closing of long-time Hub Bike Co-op’s large shop in Longfellow and the discontinuation of local bike brands, like Quality Bicycle Products All-City line. But despite some troubling data around safety and vehicle trends, good things happening are on the ground and with new technology. The next 50 years might see a different fate.

‘Now there’s just so much more infrastructure’

Dorian Grilley, 65, first rode a bicycle in Minneapolis just after the boom had faded away, moving to the city to attend the University of Minnesota in 1976. Today he’s freshly retired from a lifetime of pushing for better conditions for Twin Cities’ cyclists.

“Fifty years ago, there wasn’t a bike lane to be seen anywhere,” Grilley explained, when I asked him to look back at the old days. “Back then all I could remember is the trails along Minnehaha Creek, the river, and around the lakes. A big day was to go for a ride around the lakes and back to the ‘U’. But now there’s just so much more infrastructure.”

Today Dorian Grilley can ride from his house in Mahtomedi to his old office in south Minneapolis, mostly on off-street trails like Wheelock Parkway and the Midtown Greenway. It’s a world of difference from when he first started cycling in Minneapolis as a teenager, and a testament to his years of work.

In 2008, Grilley founded the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, the state’s largest and most effective cycling advocacy organization. He recently retired after 15 years on the job, pushing for changes to state policy and law and supporting education and training programs. The big achievement this year was a change to state policy. Now, in addition to bus safety, the state’s fifth graders will learn about the safe use of bicycles, things like what to watch out for and how to stop and corner effectively.

“Even if the kids don’t grow up to be bicyclists, they’ll grow up thinking about it and thinking about people who are bicycling,” Grilley told me. “In fifth grade, they learn more. I’m hoping they learn about bike safety.”

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The number of cyclists is plateauing

It’s true that U.S. “bicycle infrastructure” didn’t exist per se in 1973, outside of a few exceptional places like Davis, California. Today, if there’s any sure sign of progress, it’s that the number of miles of bike lanes in a city like Minneapolis or St. Paul keeps growing.

The numbers of cyclists, on the other hand, are not necessarily keeping pace. In 2008, the year Grilley started with the Bicycle Alliance, Minneapolis was just earning its  “#1 bicycling city in America” moniker. The mode share back then — determined by the U.S. Census, Community Survey — was about 2%. Fast forward 15 years: Despite years of investments, and ignoring growth before the pandemic, that number is about the same.

(In Minneapolis, surveys done by the city using a more forgiving methodology show a higher number.)

“The Minneapolis bike plan in 2011 said that mode share should be 15% by now, and it’s not even close,” explained Grilley. “But it did double from not much, to twice not much. You still meet up with a lot of people here that are just afraid to ride on the road, because they don’t think it’s safe.”

Bicycles in downtown Minneapolis in 1974.
Hennepin County Library
Bicycles in downtown Minneapolis in 1974.
This matches the underwhelming national data. Outside of New York City, few U.S. cities have made great progress attracting cyclists to their streets over the last decade.  But nationally, for whatever reason, the number of people biking to work peaked in 2014. Post-COVID commuting changes decreased that number even farther.

It turns out that changing hundreds of miles of city streets is a huge challenge. As Dorian Grilley points out, the problem remains safety and/or perceptions of safety. Compared to nations with more cyclists, there are far too many cars in U.S. cities, going too quickly, with drivers often paying little attention. During COVID, traffic violence spiraled out of control, undoing years of progress and leading to spikes in crashes and fatalities.

Still room for optimism

2023 serves as a personal landmark for me, as well. Twenty years ago I bought my first real adult bicycle out of the basement shop of the One-on-One Bicycle Studio, a legendary North Loop bike shop (since moved to the Longfellow neighborhood). A maroon 1980s Centurion single-speed with shiny white bar tape, I can vividly recall riding that bike through downtown Minneapolis on that first day. It cruised like a dream, and filled me with a feeling of freedom to explore.

After riding that bike into the ground, I’ve have acquired a bunch more. In two decades, I’ve only had two close calls with drivers — both seared into my memory — but all my other crashes were self-inflicted. I’ve come out the other end in better shape than I’d otherwise be, and with a view of the city sculpted by my positive experiences.

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I wish more people had the opportunity to experience the Twin Cities in this active way. Cyclists can enjoy the smell of the spring flowers, or subtle changes in the falling leaves. There’s nothing better than biking to a café patio in the summertime or stopping on a dime when you see someone you know.

Then there’s never worrying about parking or the price of gas, or the triumphant feeling — as infamously fossil-fueled crank Joe Soucheray once extolled — of fixing something yourself with tools in your backpack. The slow steady progress in the Twin Cities, led by the city of Minneapolis, pacing the field in both traffic calming and protected bike infrastructure, is surely a sign that change is coming.

Like me, Dorian Grilley remains optimistic. Protected bike lanes like the new design on Bryant Avenue (even if it was slightly marginalized) are game changers for a much larger number of people. Raised intersections like the ones along St. Paul’s Como Avenue and a slate of other tactics critically reduce driving speeds, leading to safety benefits for everyone on the street. Few people seem to yet understand how transformative  e-bikes will be for a whole new group of people. Looking forward, there’s plenty of hope for that 15% mode share goal.

“To me, it really seems that  the equation needs to be the right politics, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be liberal politics,” Grilley said. “Kid safety is a great message. So is public health. And cost saving is a good message, to let people lead more active lives. We’re all gonna be better off for it physically and financially.”