I’ve recently been thumbing through Newcastle—The Missing Years—Images from the 1930s and 1940s, and noticing how bikes roughly equalled cars on the streets of my small working class city. The only pictures I’m showing are those already available on the web, with the book’s on-line promotion. There are more bikes when you look through the actual book. They don’t occupy center frame, and obviously were of no interest to the photographers. Nonetheless, bikes were ubiquitous. Anyone could have wheels and go where they liked.
Compare photos of my second rung city, with street shots from the same period taken in the centers of larger, more prosperous cities. The national library has many available free on the web. You see cars, and pedestrians, but virtually no bikes at all. It’s only when you move out into the working class neighbourhoods that incidental bikes start appearing in photos. So the blue collars moved around freely, while the white collars walked—though my guess is the urban sophisticate would not have been caught dead on one of those poor man’s contraptions.
Relating this to architectural history, we can see that vaticination of the car’s ultimate triumph over the bicycle can be found as far back as Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909. The wealthy young gentleman is driving his car when:
Later in that manifesto, when we read of the world being enriched by the beauty of speed, and of a car being "more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace," we know Marinetti’s tirade was sparked by two cyclists, with their sanctimonious looks, causing him to veer off the road. The Futurist Manifesto, that has been said to have anticipated avant garde sensibilities in the decades that followed, starts with a driver raging at two feeble cyclists, who had the gall to pass judgment on him. The rivalry has gone on, cars winning, thanks largely to a fossil fuel bounty.
But I can’t help thinking the white collar workers and wealthy got conned. While the car offered status, it lacked the genuine mobility of its poor relation, the bike. The bicycle can be ridden to the very place you want to be, then from place to place, while the car has always had to be parked at some distance and walked from. Old photos with bikes in, depict an unselfconscious enjoyment of life. Streets with nothing but cars and pedestrians seem like a display.