The internet has some crazy theories about the murky invention of the bicycle. One entertaining yarn starts with a volcanic eruption halfway around the world, resulting in a mini-famine in England which forced people to eat all their transportation (horses). Was this really the impetus that created our beloved two-wheeler? What’s clear is there was no one single “bicycle” invention, but instead lots of design improvements for nearly a century before cycling found lasting popularity.
The velocipede with two wheels and a seat, similar to those trendy balance bikes for kids, was born in 1818 in France. Popular enough to get exported to England, it’s star quickly faded. Decades later, pedals were added, but the bikes were heavy and hard to steer. Then came the penny-farthing, with a giant front wheel for shock absorption and faster speed with less effort. But the balance was precarious (this is where the phrase “taking a header” comes from) and flying over the handlebars was common. Two further inventions, the chain drive and pneumatic tires, allowed for a more efficient and smoother ride on smaller wheels. Eventually we were left with the safety bicycle: the rider’s centre of gravity was lower, the seat and pedals moved behind the front wheel.
Regardless of a twisty design history, bicycles were revolutionary. Not just from an engineering standpoint, but from a social and cultural one too, for the freedom they afforded people, especially women. American civil rights leader, Susan B Anthony famously remarked in 1896 that "I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood."
She was right and not just about women: cycling is popular regardless of income level, but the lowest earners edge out the others. In the US, 40% of adult cyclists make less than $20,000. Often more mobile than cars, especially in big urban centres with congested roadways, bicycles are a fast, eco-friendly and economical mode of transportation plus a form of exercise. Due to growing urban popularity, both cycling infrastructure and bike sharing programs are on the rise in cities, especially in North America, which has some catching up to do compared to Europe.