Category Archives: 1970s

How the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute was formed from a 1970s-era cycle advocacy organization


It is often assumed that the main cycle-helmet information source must have been started by a cabal of money-grubbing helmet manufacturers in cahoots with automobile interests aiming to make cycling look dangerous.[1] In fact, the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute of America was born from a cycle-advocacy organization that, from its foundation in 1972, lobbied for separated cycleways. Today, those in favor of cycleways are often opposed to cycle helmets, citing that in countries where cycling is common helmets are not.[2]

The BHSI was founded in December 1988, but its roots go back to 1974 when the then two-year old Washington Area Bicyclist Association collected bicycle helmets from nine brands, and set out to test them.[3] Randy Swart, a former State Department economist, approached the Snell Memorial Foundation to arrange a comparative test, but the helmet-testing organization declined (at the time it tested only motorsports helmets).[4] WABA’s helmet committee approached Snell again in 1979, and the outcome was WABA’s Bicycle Helmet Wearability Study which tested and rated eleven helmets. “Without one, you are always in danger,” wrote Swart in the helmet committee’s first communication, “with one, you stand a good chance of surviving even a bad crash.”[5]

In June 1980, 22-year-old Washington bicycle messenger Mary Gaffney was killed by a truck.[6] While the BHSI website acknowledges that cycle helmets offer little protection in a crash with a truck, Swart echoed the DC Coroner’s belief that Gaffney’s death “might have been prevented by a safe helmet.”[7] The WABA’s board created the Mary Gaffney Memorial Fund “which would solicit donations to be used to promote helmet use.” The Fund paid for the helmets used in a 1981 helmet comparison carried out by Swart and WABA’s Tom Balderston, a cyclist and motorcyclist. Balderston convinced Snell that the quality of cycle helmets had advanced enough for them to warrant cycle-helmet-specific tests.

Helmet manufacturers were not keen on WABA’s helmet committee efforts. “Some of the manufacturers got worried when they heard what Swart and Balderston were doing, and tried to scare them off,” claims a WABA history.[8] Swart recalls: “Skid Lid sent us a page and a half of obscure references thinking they could bury us. But Tom went to the Library of Congress and looked up everything, while I called a professor in Sweden, and we found out they were just blowing smoke.”[9]

Balderston wrote up the results of the study for Bicycling magazine but, according to the WABA history, the “publication date for the article kept slipping, possibly because some of the manufacturers threatened to sue.” Swart informed Bicycling that WABA’s lawyers wanted to see the communications from the manufacturers. The study was eventually published in 1983, and thanks to a PR push by WABA the Bicycling article “generated a great deal of interest in the media,” said Swart. “It was reviewed in *USA Today* … and on several television and radio programs.”[10]

Snell urged WABA to join the helmets committee of the American National Standards Institute. According to Swart this had “already drafted a bicycle helmet standard, but it was bottled up by members who were manufacturers of helmets that did not meet the standard.” A bicycle helmet standard was adopted in 1984, and Swart started to travel the country telling “bicycle rallies about the importance of bicycle helmets …” He figured that if he “could convince the serious bicyclists who attended these rallies, others would follow their lead.” WABA also paid for the production and dissemination of brochures promoting helmet use.[11]

In 1987, WABA president Bill Silverman embarked on a campaign to compel advertisers who used bicycling themes to show riders wearing helmets. He wrote to advertising associations, syndicated newspaper columnists, national magazines, and Fortune 500 firms such as Chrysler, Stanley Tools, Sears, and MCI.[12]

WABA’s helmet committee became the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute in 1988. Swart is still the BHSI’s lead volunteer. The BHSI’s much-visited web site – – went online in 1995, and despite its antediluvian design is still the main go-to source for cycle-helmet information or, as some opposing advocates would have it, cycle-helmet propaganda. The helmet issue is one that can divide cyclists almost like no other. Pro-helmet campaigners say the wearing of cycle helmets saves lives.[13] Opponents say the promotion of helmets makes cycling – which is statistically safe – look dangerous, and therefore less appealing, especially to would-be cyclists.

The BHSI is still part of the cycleways-lobbying Washington Area Bicyclist Association, although it is not supported by members’ subscriptions (BHSI is run on a shoestring budget funded by consumer donations). In a 2013 blog-posting WABA president Jim Titus appeared to diverge from some of BHSI’s positions.[14] In particular Titus wanted the federal government to withdraw its long-standing claim that bicycle helmets prevent 85 percent of head injuries.[15] This statistic – pointedly called “bad information” by Titus – is from a 1989 Seattle study, and is frequently wheeled out by pro-helmet campaigners.[16] Titus said:

Efforts to replicate … results during the 1990s confirmed that helmets reduce injuries, but not nearly as much as the Seattle study suggested. Yet public health advocates, government web sites, and the news media have continued to repeat the 85% factoid to the point that it has become a mantra. Bad information can cause problems … If people think that helmets stop almost all head injuries, consumers will not demand better helmets, and legislators may think it makes sense to require everyone to wear one.

In response to WABA’s petition the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Centers for Disease Control dropped the eighty-five percent claim. Swart continues to claim that the 1989 study was a “landmark” one, and despite its many critics, he believes it and another from the same researchers with a lower estimate to be “still valid” and “based on field experience.”[17]



[1] The main “anti-helmet” source is the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation.
[2] The “helmet issue” is a charged one. Many pro-helmet cycle advocates – such as those in WABA – lobby for safer helmets, but argue against compulsion.
[3] The cycle helmet brands were American Safety, MSR, Bell, Cooper, Nestor, Johnson, Protec, Safetec, and Shoei.
[4] Swart went headfirst through a taxi’s front windscreen while cycling in Washington, D.C. He was wearing a helmet at the time, and this crash convinced him that even further than helmets were necessary when cycling.
[5] The WABA Helmet Update, WABA Helmet Committee, Vol. 1, No. 1 – May, 1983.
[7] “While we would all like to believe that a helmet could save a cyclist run over squarely by the wheel of a car, truck or bus, that is not the case.”⁠
[8] WABA History (1972-1992)
[9] From WABA history plus email communication with the author, 28th September 2016.
[10] Bicycling, March 1983.
[11] WABA History (1972-1992)
[12] WABA History (1972-1992)
[13] Nobody advocates for wearing helmets while in bed, not even the sleep-walking woman who fell from a balcony. Instead of pushing for bed-helmets she advocates that people on bikes should wear helmets. “Brain injury mum’s plea over cyclists,” Glasgow Evening Times, 11th August 2014.
[15] Jim Titus provided this statement by email:

“WABA and most cycling organizations in the United States support efforts to improve helmet quality and encourage the voluntary use of helmets, and they oppose laws that require adult cyclists to wear helmets. In 2013, an influential legislator introduced a bill to require cyclists in Maryland to wear helmets, relying in part on a longstanding claim by the federal government that helmets prevent 85 percent of potential head injuries.

“As part of WABA’s efforts to persuade Maryland legislators to not enact a mandatory helmet bill, WABA board member Jim Titus petitioned two federal agencies to stop claiming that helmets prevent 85% of head injuries, under the Information Quality Act, which allows citizens to challenge the publication of bad information by government agencies.”

4th October, 2016.

[16] A case control study of the effectiveness of bicycle safety helmets.” Thompson RS, Rivara FP, Thompson DC, New England Journal of Medicine, 1989.

A debunking of this study and others can be found on
[17] and email communication with the author, 28th September 2016.

Pic via Retrogrouch.

Who was campaigning for separated cycleways in the 1970s?

Dutch people, of course, but also plenty of Brits. In fact, the British bicycle industry had a ten year long PR campaign that had separation-from-motor-traffic right at the top of its shopping list. Most folks have forgotten about this now, and it’s assumed – and too often written – that there was no real push for separated cycling infrastructure in Britain until sometime after 2006.

Below are some newspaper cuttings and extracts from a couple of mid-1970s leaflets from the British Cycling Bureau, a PR outfit paid for by the Bicycle Association of Great Britain, and which successfully plugged cycling in the mass media of the day.

What the BCB didn’t get were the separated cycleways it pushed for most of all. Why? Motor-centrism. The only successful insertion of cycling in the 1978 Transport Bill was a lonely mention of bicycle parking. I’ll be discussing this and much more at a talk for the Oxford cycle campaign tonight. I’m digging up lots of these nuggets, many of which will make it into my Bike Boom book, due out next year.

Cycling and the Environment, British Cycling Bureau, 1977

Cycling and Traffic, British Cycling Bureau, 1977

Special byways for cyclists to segregate them from motor vehicles, Daily Telegraph, 1974

National Plan For Cycling, British Cycling Bureau, mid-1970s

Today calling 1948: oi, where are our cycleways?

In 1948, motorists were promised motorways & cyclists were promised cycleways. Cyclists are still waiting.

In 1948, Britain’s Minister for Transport Alfred Barnes introduced the Special Roads Bill. This would – eventually – lead to the creation of Britain’s motorway network. But where are the cycleways promised in the 1948 plans? Apart from the New Towns – including Stevenage, with its extensive and dense network of cycleways – these ‘special roads for cyclists’ were never built. Why? The Minister for Transport said provision for cyclists was a local matter. This is exactly the same reason wheeled out today. Infrastructure for cars is “national”; infrastructure for bicycles is “local.”

The Special Roads Bill came before Parliament on 30th September 1948. Its purpose was “to provide for the construction of roads reserved for special classes of traffic; to amend the law relating to trunk roads; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid.” The Special Roads Bill became the Special Roads Act in 1949. Special roads for cars could now be constructed. The first wasn’t started until 1958 but they came thick and fast in the 1960s. It was a mature network by the end of the 1970s.

Back in 1948 the newspapers reported that the Special Roads Bill would see the building of cycleways, too. And just as cyclists would be fined for riding on motorways, pedestrians would be fined for straying on cycleways.

Introducing his Bill, Alfred Barnes said:

It will be a mistake for anyone to assume that the Bill is promoted to satisfy the selfish interests of the private motorist. It is nothing of the kind. It is often overlooked that nowadays we are all motorists, whether or not we drive a private car. Everybody travels on buses or coaches and the greater proportion of our domestic and personal needs are delivered by motor van.

But, and here’s the kicker, he believed national highway authorities should be in charge of major motoring roads, but “special roads for pedestrians and cyclists” should be provided by local highway authorities. And such “special roads” for users other than motorists were clearly deemed to be recreational, rather than everyday practical:

I should emphasise … under the powers given to them to construct a special road, highway authorities could determine that the only classes of traffic using that road should be motor vehicles. These same powers can —and, I sincerely hope, will — be used by county highway authorities for the construction of special roads for pedestrians and for cyclists — across for instance, a national park, along a river bank, across mountain, moor, or the coast line. [This] responsibility will rest upon local highway authorities, who ought to meet the cost of special roads of this type. The cost of constructing and maintaining the special types of roads for hikers or cycle paths for cyclists will not represent any very considerable capital outlay or annual cost for maintenance. At a time when the State, by this Measure, visualises the construction of these motorways at the capital cost I have mentioned, for the purpose of relieving the local authority of a good deal of the cost of other highways, it is not unreasonable to suggest that highway authorities should use these powers for the purpose I have indicated, especially as the advantages to be derived will be enjoyed largely by the residents in their own localities.

Mr. Walkden, the MP for Doncaster, stressed that if cyclists did get cycleways, they ought to be fined if they choose not to use them, despite the fact the pre-war Alness parliamentary report had found that the cycle paths constructed in the 1930s were universally poor:

I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will explain later on whether, in passing this Measure, we are giving assent to the principle that if a cyclist fails to use a roadway provided by the nation, or by a local authority with the blessing of the nation, we shall impose a punishment of up to £20….At least in one country I have visited, which has a considerable mileage of cycle tracks, it is a punishable offence for cyclists to fail to use these particular cycle tracks. Cyclists there can be dealt with severely…It is laid down specifically that we are to provide cycle tracks, but I find that in the case of a road along which I pass almost every day — the Sutton by-pass — the cyclists disregard the cycle tracks provided on either side, with the result that the ‘bus drivers use the sort of language only London ‘bus drivers can use…If we are to lay down these roads for a particular class of user, then everyone concerned should understand the law.

The Alness report had recommended Britain should build a network of cycleways but post-war austerity killed off these plans. But while there would be no building of bike paths, post-war politicians were still urged to get cyclists off the roads “for their own safety”, even though cyclists were still by far the most numerous actors on the roads, probably because cyclists were the most numerous actors on the roads. Faced with calls to take action, politicians did what they often do best: they did nothing. Cyclists, en masse, were still a force to be reckoned with. It was easy for politicians to pick a fight with the CTC or National Cyclists’ Union, these organisations were tiny compared to the rich motoring organisations, but to impose restrictions on all of the country’s 12 million cyclists would have been folly. (One of the witnesses to the Alness committee said as much: “[Cyclists] ought to be forced to use [tracks]. The only reason they escape is because there are so many of them. There is a vague idea on the part of Governments that they would lose the cyclists’ vote,” claimed Lord Newton who repeated the claim when the report was published: “[cyclists] form a very formidable body, of which all Party politicians are very much afraid. That is the sole reason why they have not been regulated up to now, and I hope sincerely that that state of things will come to an end.”)

By not banning cyclists from the road, as so many organisations demanded, politicians avoided antagonising cyclists. By building faster roads with no cycle facilities on them it was motors which did the antagonising, not politicians. 1949 was to be the peak year for cycling in Britain. In the 1950s the increasing numbers of motor cars slowly forced cyclists off many roads, and not just the arterial ones.

Motorways – roads long championed by the CTC as a means of removing fast-moving traffic from the ordinary roads of Britain – started to be built at the end of the 1950s but it was well into the 1960s before motorway-mania took hold, with many trunk roads also being built or old roads widened, straightened and made less friendly for cyclists. None of the new arterial roads had cycle paths built beside them.

Cyclists' & pedestrians' Tyne Tunnel

While cyclists were largely forgotten by town planners in the 1950s there were exceptions: new towns Stevenage, Harlow and Milton Keynes were veined with bike paths. (Stony Stratford, just north of what would become the new town of Milton Keynes, was one of the other locations where bike paths were first trialled. A one mile cycle track had been laid on the Stony Stratford to Wolverton Road in 1934-5, it’s now a footpath.) Workers who lived in Jarrow and Wallsend were provided with the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels, a wonderful piece of capital-intensive, protected infrastructure, still in use today. The tunnel was opened in 1951, sixteen years before the motor vehicle tunnel. At its peak, 20,000 cyclists and pedestrians used the tunnel each day.


As late as 1957, T. H. Longstaff, the county surveyor for Huntingdonshire, suggested cyclists should be provided with cycleways alongside the proposed Huntingdon bypass. This was eventually built in 1973 – but without provision for cyclists.

Writing in the following year, Professor Sir Colin Buchanan, one of Britain’s key town planners and traffic engineers, said:

“The meagre efforts made to separate cyclists from motor traffic have failed, tracks are inadequate, the problem of treating them at junctions and intersections is completely unsolved, and the attitude of the cyclists themselves to these admittedly unsatisfactory tracks has not been as helpful as it might have been.”

Cyclists on the A24 bike path, the 1930s arterial road north of Dorking
Cyclists on the A24 bike path, the 1930s arterial road north of Dorking. There also appears to be two cyclists on the road itself…
And here's the A24 today. The path is still there, albeit narrower.
And here’s the A24 today. The path is still there, albeit narrower.

Some bicycle advocates have suggested it was opposition of cycling organisations to the cycle path experiments of the 1930s that prevented national take-up of these paths. If only CTC and the NCU had supported the Western Avenue experiment, a Dutch-style cycle network might have later evolved, is the claim. In actual fact, cycling organisations had little to do with the failure of the bike path network. Ordinary cyclists didn’t use the paths because they weren’t very good paths, and post-war austerity meant no new paths were built, nor were existing ones improved to the standard that CTC and NCU said would be required. As well as the lack of investment from local and national Government there was also a lack of willingness to provide for anything other than motor-cars: post-war politicians and planners were deeply dismissive of cycling, blinded by the economic potential of mass motoring. Cycling, it was felt, was outmoded, not suited for the modern era, a motor era. And the great British public seemed to agree: people wanted to own and drive cars.

The highly-influential Traffic in Towns report of 1963 – the report by Professor Buchanan which town planners used to create urban motorways and pedestrian zones separated from motor traffic – mentioned cyclists only in passing, and clearly believed, desired even, that urban cycling would soon wither to nothing:

“We also considered the question of cyclists. Although in the mode of travel diagram for the year 2010 there is an allocation of movements to pedal cycles, it must be admitted that it is a moot point how many cyclists there will be in 2010…[This] does affect the kind of roads to be provided. On this point we have no doubt at all that cyclists should not be admitted to primary networks, for obvious reasons of safety and the free flow of vehicular traffic. It would make the design of these roads far too complicated to build ‘cycle tracks’ into them, nor would this be likely to provide routes convenient for cyclists in any case. It would be very expensive, and probably impracticable, to build a completely separate system of tracks for cyclists.”

Does this make you angry? It does me.

Biketown – Davis, California

Davis California 82

Last week I visited Davis, California, a small campus town famous for its high cycle usage. Flat, warm, and with oodles of cycle infrastructure, much of it more than 40 years old, Davis sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to nearby towns and cities which tend to be car-dependent. In Bike Boom I’ll discuss the reasons for the high cycling modal share in Davis (the US census says it’s 20 percent and is falling, but the census doesn’t include journeys done by students …), but here, for now, are a few photos from my research trip. The one above shows that drivers have to be very aware of cyclists even away from campus, because they’re everywhere.

I drove to Davis and then hired a bike. It was very noticeable that motorists in town drove slowly and carefully. The town has some wonderful separated cycle infrastructure – including the Davis Bike Loop – but most of those dotting around on bicycles seemed perfectly fine with mixing it with the slow, careful motorists (many of whom may also dot around on bicycles once they’re parked up). Most, that is, except this helmet-clad BMXer who rode for some distance on the sidewalk while a woman on a town bike, without a helmet, stuck to the road.

Davis California 22

Riding without a helmet seems to be the norm in Davis, as is the case in the Netherlands. Where cycling is normal and ordinary – and perceived to be safe – few choose to wear personal protective equipment. Skateboarders getting propelled don’t wear helmets, either.

Davis California 8

Davis California 11

Davis California 10

Some of the cycle infrastructure dates to the 1960s. This particular tunnel beside a busy road out of town was constructed in 1978:

Davis California 34

The Putah Creek underpass was constructed in 2000:

Davis California 48

Well-constructed cycle infrastructure isn’t just great for cyclists:

Davis California 45

In Davis, even the drive-in fast-food joints warn about the presence of cyclists:

Davis California 38

The last shot reminds me of the famous Lewis Mumford quote: “Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.”

Davis California 71

The 1970s kick-back against the Almighty Motorcar

I’m in the research phase for Bike Boom which, one day, will be as forgotten and as dusty as the books I’m buying on eBay and Abebooks. If you’ve got any suggestions of books I should dig out do let me know. 1970s bicycle advocate Robert Silverman of Montreal suggested I take a look at Autokind Vs. Mankind by Kenneth R. Schneider.

This was published in 1971 and is sub-titled An Analysis of Tyranny, a Proposal for Rebellion, a Plan for Reconstruction. It’s a hard-hitting polemic that predicted “autocracy” would have either eaten itself by 1994, or would have flattened so many cities and killed so many people motoring would have evolved into a religious cult.

The illustrations in the book were equally hard-hitting and I include three of them below. They were produced by Richard Hedman. The last one – with a limp child held up as a sacrificial lamb to the Almighty Motorcar – is particularly poignant. Double click to open the illustrations in hi-res.

By Richard Hedman, 1970
This would explain a lot …

By Richard Hedman, 1970
Autokind Vs. Mankind was produced for an American audience but this illustration would have piqued the interest of those fighting to keep cars out of medieval towns and cities.

By Richard Hedman, 1970
Notice how the people seem to be on the porky side. The offering of a limp child to the motorcar God is gut-wrenching.

Modern Moloch by James, 1923
Perhaps Hedman was familiar with a similar cartoon from the 1920s? This cartoon by “James” was from the St Louis Star, 6 Nov, 1923.


Want to see more images from Bike Boom and Roads Were Not Built For Cars? Come to one of my talks …

Carlton Reid Tour Dates

How the bicycle beats evolution and why Steve Jobs was so taken with this fact

Chart from Scientific American, 1973
Chart from Scientific American, 1973

Apple’s late leader Steve Jobs loved to liken the computer to the bicycle (“the computer … is the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds”) and there are two films of him recounting a fact he’d picked up from Scientific American. Below I’ll quote from the article Jobs was referring to – which showed that a person on a bicycle was more energy efficient than a condor in flight and many times more energy efficient than a person in an automobile – but first here are the films, clearly shot some years apart:

“I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts. And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”
Steve Jobs

The “somebody” at Scientific American was S. S. Wilson and the eleven-page article in question, on bicycle technology, was printed in the March 1973 edition of the magazine. Wilson was a lecturer in engineering at Oxford University and a fellow of St. Cross College. S. S. Wilson said: “My interest in bicycles dates back to school days. I have always owned and used a bicycle; during World War II, I several times cycled more than 100 miles in a day as a means of transport.”


Wilson was also an enthusiast of human-powered flight and, had he been alive today, he would have no doubt worked on solar-powered flight. For all of the bicycle’s efficiencies, as stated by Wilson, the bicycle is nowhere near as efficient as Solar Impulse, the aircraft currently attempting to fly around the world.

[Wilson is not the Wilson who wrote the seminal Bicycling Science of 1974, that was David Gordon Wilson. Both Wilson’s were at the very first Velocity conference, held in Bremen, Germany in 1980.)

It’s worthwhile reading what S.S. Wilson had to say about the efficiencies of cycling:

“It is worth asking why such an apparently simple device as the bicycle should have had such a major effect on the acceleration of technology. The answer surely lies in the sheer humanity of the machine. Its purpose is to make it easier for an individual to move about, and this the bicycle achieves in a way that quite outdoes natural evolution.

“When one compares the energy consumed in moving a certain distance as a function of body weight for a variety of animals and machines, one finds that an unaided walking man does fairly well (consuming about .75 calorie per gram per kilometer), but he is not as efficient as a horse, a salmon or a jet transport. With the aid of a bicycle, however, the man’s energy consumption for a given distance is reduced to about a fifth (roughly .15 calorie per gram per kilometer).

“Therefore, apart from increasing his unaided speed by a factor of three or four, the cyclist improves his efficiency rating to No. 1 among moving creatures and machines.

“For those of us in the overdeveloped world the bicycle offers a real alternative to the automobile, if we are prepared to recognize and grasp the opportunities by planning our living and working environment in such a way as to induce the use of these humane machines.

“The possible inducements are many: cycleways to reduce the danger to cyclists of automobile traffic, bicycle parking stations, facilities for the transportation of bicycles by rail and bus, and public bicycles for “park and pedal” service. Already bicycling is often the best way to get around quickly in city centers.

“If one were to give a short prescription for dealing rationally with the world’s problems of development, transportation, health and the efficient use of resources, one could do worse than the simple formula: Cycle and recycle.”

Wilson’s article was later picked up by philosopher Ivan Illich who, in his 1978 pamphlet Toward a History of Needs, wrote:

“Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.

“Bicycles let people move with greater speed without taking up significant amounts of scarce space, energy, or time. They can spend fewer hours on each mile and still travel more miles in a year. They can get the benefit of technological breakthroughs without putting undue claims on the schedules, energy, or space of others. They become masters of their own movements without blocking those of their fellows. Their new tool creates only those demands which it can also satisfy. Every increase in motorized speed creates new demands on space and time. The use of the bicycle is self-limiting. It allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance. The advantages of modern self-powered traffic are obvious, and ignored.”


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Forget Kestrel and Peugeot, carbon composite bicycles started with Carlton, in 1971

Most histories say it was Peugeot of France or Kestrel of America which made the first carbon bike, sometime in the 1980s. In fact, the first carbon-framed bicycle was made in Britain, and in 1971.

Many of today’s top bicycle makers – including companies such as Trek, Specialized, Giant and Cannondale – were founded in the early 1970s, thanks to the bicycling boom that started in 1970, and which is the subject of my proposed book, currently on Kickstarter. All make carbon-framed bicycles, all owe a debt of gratitude to Carlton. No, not me, the bicycle brand operated through the Specialist Bicycle Development Unit of Raleigh bicycles. The SBD may have been owned by Raleigh but it was operated independently by Gerald O’Donovan, a bike designer and engineer who was head of Carlton Cycles, a bespoke lightweight bike manufacturer. Raleigh had absorbed Carlton Cycles in 1960 at the behest of 1950s track star Reg Harris.

In 1970, ten years before Formula 1 would do likewise, O’Donovan started experimenting with carbon fibre. The new wonder material had been first demonstrated in 1958 by Union Carbide researcher Roger Bacon of the US but it took until 1963 before a production process was patented. This was granted to the UK’s Ministry of Defence via the National Research Development Corporation, a Government body established after the Second World War by the British Government to transfer technology from the public sector to the private. Scientists at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, Hampshire, perfected the production process of polyacrylonitrile, a material first described by Japan’s Agency of Industrial Science and Technology. The NRDC licensed the production process to three British companies, including Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce used the material in jet engine compressor blades but these proved vulnerable to damage from bird strikes, and development of the wonder material stalled.

The NRDC then sought other uses for carbon fibre and offered to help O’Donovan research the material for use on bicycles. He commissioned some tubes made from carbon composites and used aluminium lugs to bond them together. This carbon composite bicycle was displayed as a prototype machine on the Carlton Cycles booth at the Cycle and Motorcycle show in Harrogate in 1971. O’Donovan also commissioned carbon cranks and these were used by track riders, but production problems meant they disintegrated under the strains of track use.

Carlton carbon-fibre bicycle steals York-rally show, 1971

Dave Walsh of Universal Cycle Centre, a Rotherham bike shop, used to work at Raleigh’s Specialist Bicycle Development Unit. He said: “O’Donovan was a genius. He was well ahead of his time.”

O’Donovan’s experiments with carbon composites showed promising results. A report produced by the National Research Development Corporation said the Carlton bicycle was “so light it could easily be picked up with one finger,” adding that “carbon fibre reinforced plastic is twice as stiff as steel, yet weighs only one quarter as much.” This, the first ever carbon framed bicycle, was said to have had undergone extensive tests and was “soon to go into production.” However, this was not the case and the next leap forward for carbon came not from the UK but from the US.

Frank Appel, Richard Katner, Bill McCready and Jeffrey Lindskoog of the F.H. Appel Company designed a carbon fibre bicycle frame in 1975. This was produced for Graphite USA, a manufacturer of fishing rods. At roughly the same time, oil company Exxon, then a sponsor of a US road bike team, paid for the development of a carbon fibre frame bike from Graftek, a manufacturer of fishing rods and golf clubs. The Graftek G-1 had a aluminium frame wrapped in carbon fibre. The bike was used by the 1976 US Olympic team and was later sold to the public.

Jack Schmidt, who worked at Graftek in the 1970s, recalled:

“The Graftek carbon fibre tubes were an aluminium-carbon fibre hybrid. The epoxy impregnated pre-preg was cut and rolled onto the tubes in the proper fibre orientation. This Al-CF sandwich was wrapped with Tedlar tape under tension to compress the composite, then the tubes were put into an oven for curing. Both the ends of the corresponding tubes, the lugs and dropouts were coated with epoxy, then assembled in a holding fixture.”

European companies started working with composites in the early 1980s. French tube manufacturer Vitus produced carbon-wrapped alu tubes that were used on lugged bicycles by Peugeot. These bikes were used in the 1982 Tour de France. In 1986, Look built a lugged carbon frame which Greg Lemond rode to victory in Le Tour.

Also in 1986, Kestrel USA, a company founded by ex-employees from Graphite USA, produced the Kestrel 4000, a bike based on an all-carbon composite bike frame with smooth, aero lines. It’s this bike which most resembles those produced today, but it wasn’t the first.


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Women have been at the cutting edge of cycle advocacy since 1971

In Roads Were Not Built For Cars I had to sheepishly admit that the major characters in my book were all men – women played little part in the cycle advocacy movements of the 1890s. In the sequel (Bike Boom is on Kickstarter until mid-March) I can happily report there will be many women featured. In fact, women are now at the forefront of cycle advocacy; women such as Claire Prospert and Katja Leyendecker of Newcycling in Newcastle, Lizzie Reather, former chair of Leeds Cycling Campaign, Rosie Downes, campaigns manager for London Cycling Campaign, Dr. Rachel Aldred, the go-to academic on cycling, and Sally Hinchcliffe of Cycling Dumfries and the Cycling Embassy of GB.

And heading up Delivery Planning at Transport for London is Lilli Matson. She is responsible for the strategic planning and development of surface modes of transport including cycling. Formerly a member of the Government’s Commission for Integrated Transport she has also run her own transport consultancy and prior to that was in charge of transport policy at the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. Also at Transport for London is Sarah Burr, the senior strategy and planning manager for Surface Transport – she’s in charge of TfL’s Cycling Strategy and worked on the £914 million Mayor’s Cycling Vision for London.

However, in this posting I’d like to focus on five cycle advocates from North America, two well-known, three far less well-known. I’ll be fleshing out their biographies in Bike Boom but here’s some bare bones to be getting on with.

Portland, Oregon, didn’t become one of America’s top cycling cities by accident. Much of Portland’s bicycle culture grew up thanks to the inspiration, hard work and cajoling of Mia Birk. She was Portland’s Bicycle Program Manager from 1993 to 1999. She is now President of bicycle-friendly Alta Planning + Design of Portland, leading a huge team of planners and engineers.

“I fell in love with bicycling in 1990 while attending graduate school in Washington DC. Having grown up in suburban Dallas Texas, I was used to driving everywhere. Informed that there was no parking available near school, I borrowed my brother’s 10-speed Schwinn. Within a few weeks, I was in the best shape of my life. At the same time, I began researching transportation issues around the world and quickly saw that most successful cities plan well and invest in smart growth, complete streets, transit, and bicycling and walking infrastructure and incentives. I decided to focus my career on transforming communities into ones in which walking and bicycling are safe, normal, healthy and fun daily activities.”

Writers Eugene Sloan and Richard Ballantine famously plugged into the popularity of bicycling that erupted seemingly out of nowhere in 1970, and they helped cycling in the US and the UK to become even more popular. Less credit is usually given to women bicycle advocates yet figures such as Claire Morissette of Montreal were highly influential. Morissette was also influential globally, and her “cyclodrama” ideas – such as die-ins and other stunts to goad transportation officials and grab media attention, first used in Montreal in the 1970s – are still popular today.

Morissette was one of the co-founders of La Monde à Bicyclette. Bicycle access to the metro and the cycling link between Île Notre-Dame and the South Shore were campaign aims of MAB, campaign aims which were achieved. Montreal now has 600kms of cycle lanes, another achievement of Morissette and MAB.

Morissette wanted people out of cars, but also wanted fewer cars on the road, something she aimed to achieve by founding Montreal’s car-sharing program Communauto. This was formed decades before other cities went down the same route. The Claire-Morissette bike path in Montreal was named for her in 2008 – this is a protected cycle lane in the CBD.

New York may not be Amsterdam yet but it’s the poster child for how a major world city can instal people-friendly infrastructure at low cost, quickly and radically. Sadik-Khan was the commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013. A decade before her appointment she had worked on New York City’s Bicycle Master Plan. In her first year as commissioner NYC’s bike lanes tripled in length to 63 miles and in the following five years an additional 254 miles of bike lanes were painted. She was also in charge of installing a parking-protected bike lane on 9th Avenue, the first since Mayor Koch had ripped out his short-lived kerb-protected lanes in the 1980s.

Sadik-Kahn is now Chair of the Strategic Advisory Board of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

“We brought [a] quick-acting approach to our cycling program, and in six years turned cycling into a real transportation option in New York. I think it’s fair to say it used to be a fairly scary place to ride a bike, and now New York has become one of the cycling capitals in the United States.

“We protected bikers by floating parking lanes, and it’s been great. Bike volumes have spiked. Injuries to all users, pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, are all down 50 percent. And we’ve built 30 miles of these protected bike lanes, and now you’re seeing them pop up all over the country.

“Not everybody liked the new bike lanes … One Brooklyn paper called [a] bike lane that we have on Prospect Park West ‘the most contested piece of land outside of the Gaza Strip.’

[But] if you dig below the headlines, though, you’ll see that the people were far ahead of the press, far ahead of the politicians.

“Nothing gets 100 percent support in any city. You’re not looking for unanimous approval, otherwise you wouldn’t build a thing—8.4 million New Yorkers, 8.4 million points of view, and everybody considers himself a traffic engineer. It is a matter of negotiation and we do tailor our projects to meet the local needs of the communities, but there’s never going to be 100 percent buy-in.

“If you want a street that’s safer to walk on, safer to drive on, safer to live with and play on, build a bike lane. And I think that cities across the country are getting that, and I think the city of New York got it long ago. I really do think the people are ahead of the politicians when it comes to their streets.”

The American Complete Streets movement was suggested in 2003 by Barbara McCann, then working for America Bikes, a coalition of bicycle advocacy groups, including the League of American Bicyclists. Complete Streets quickly became about much more than bicycles. The National Complete Streets Coalition, founded in 2005, was led by America Bikes and roped in a number of influential and mainstream non-cycling organisations.⁠ McCann became Executive Director, before moving in January 2014 to become a Director at the US Department of Transportation.⁠

Ellen Fletcher

Born in Germany to Jewish parents and evacuated to England on Kindertransport in 1938 Ellen Fletcher emigrated to America in 1946 and settled in what would become Silicon Valley, California. In Palo Alto in 1971 she became a vocal bicycle advocate after seeing the danger her son faced when travelling to school. She died in 2013, ten years after a Palo Alto road had been named in her honour – the Bryant Street Bicycle Boulevard became the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard. Between 1977 and 1989 Fletcher was a Palo Alto City Council member, and rode to all meetings.

Ellen Fletcher's bike

“I was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1928 and was sent to England 10 years later. I don’t remember seeing anyone ride a bicycle in Berlin, but almost everyone, or so it seemed, rode a bicycle in England.

“So I started riding, too. As I grew up I enjoyed riding my bike so much I took many pleasure rides, as well as the regular rides for various errands.

“I moved to New York City in 1946 at the age of 17. The extreme crowding on public transit soon enticed me back on a bike, a rarity in the City in those days. I was the only one using the bike racks at Hunter College “uptown” in the Bronx all year round.

“Moving to the California suburbs in 1958 with a baby, I thought my biking days were over. But it wasn’t long before I was again back on the bike, at least for short trips. But those short trips expanded greatly, partly for ideological reasons during the Arab oil boycott.

“When my son entered elementary school here in Palo Alto I volunteered to be “Safety Chair” for the PTA. That got me started in bicycle advocacy. Bike lanes, under and over crossings at major obstacles, bikes on trains and buses and the Nation’s first bicycle boulevard.

“At one point when the City Council balked at adopting some bike improvement policies in its General Plan, I decided to run for a seat on the City Council myself and served on the Council for twelve years, from 1977 to 1989.”


There will be many more women cycle advocates featured in the book.

Photo credits: Richard Masoner


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Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive, ee-lee-min-ate the negative

“Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.”

From Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry, 1973.


[tw_dropcap]W[/tw_dropcap]hy am I writing Bike Boom? Listen to Jack Thurston’s The Bike Show. I may have said “stay positive, keep pushing” more than once. This is not to say Bike Boom will be happy, clappy, everything’s rosy – it will be gritty, realistic and always factual. But if planners and politicians are to “buy” in to cycling we can’t just give them messages of doom and gloom. We won’t get meaningful amounts of bicycle infrastructure by saying how dreadful cycling is, and how the modal share is pitifully low. Pity won’t bring cycleways. (Nor will optimism alone, of course, and there are times when protesting is right and proper – what’s almost certain to bring about diddly-squat is unrelenting pessimism.)

Getting new people to use bicycles for everyday, normal journeys will require more than infrastructure. It’s important to campaign for safer streets but if we demonise the use of bicycles on the unreconstructed streets of Britain and America – and everywhere else that’s not the Netherlands – we risk pushing away, for ever, the very people we could be attracting. Undoubtedly, some of the £1bn promised for cycling in London came about because of negative campaigning but it mostly came about because more people are cycling in London, despite the dangers. Dangers which are real on far too many roads, and, clearly, the fear of having to mix with distracted/speeding motorists is a huge deterrent to cycling, but not every road is like that and it’s counter-productive to claim that every single road is a death-trap.

Cycle advocates must never stop arguing for better and safer facilities for cyclists (for sure, they’re needed) but advertisers and marketers have known for a very long time that positive messages far far out-sell negative ones. In his classic 1923 book, Scientific Advertising, advertising guru Claude Hopkins, wrote:

“Show a bright side, the happy and attractive side, not the dark and uninviting side of things. Show beauty, not homeliness; health, not sickness. Don’t show the wrinkles you propose to remove, but the face as it will appear. Your customers know all about wrinkles.

“We are attracted by sunshine, beauty, happiness, health, success. Then point the way to them, not the way out of the opposite. Picture envied people, not the envious. Tell people what to do, not what to avoid.

“Compare the results of two ads, one negative, one positive. One presenting the dark side, one the bright side. One warning, the other inviting. You will be surprised. You will find that the positive ad out pulls the other four to one.”


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How much does it really cost to run a car?

More than you think, that’s how much. During the oil crisis of the mid-1970s, the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich published Energy and Equity, a polemic that demonstrated that having to work a certain number of hours each week to pay for an expensive form of transport was a calculation that can shock. This is a theme first explored in the 1850s, but was put so beautifully and intelligently by Illich. He is certainly worth quoting at length and below I do.

IvanIllichIllich also argued that apparent advances in speed were nothing of the sort, when other factors were taken into account. Fast cars weren’t as fast as they seemed because the costs to society and to the individual were far higher than ever appreciated. I was reminded of all this by a lovely conversation I had last night with Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman. He was one of the co-founders of Le Monde à Bicyclette, one of the world’s most influential cycle advocacy groups. Many of the campaign tactics used by advocacy groups today – such as die-ins, the carrying of bicycle-shaped oversize packages on trains and buses that don’t carry bicycles, and the riding of bicycles with plywood “skirts” to show the space taken up by cars – originated with “MAB”. Montreal now has 600kms of bike lanes, including a fully-separated cycleway that goes through the CBD, and bikes have access to certain bridges and are carried on public transit. How much of this was down to MAB? Almost all of it (well, that and Montreal’s relatively left-leaning culture). Toronto is famously unfriendly to cyclists – mayor Rob Ford didn’t have to try too hard to convince local politicians to enact anti-bicycle measures – and part of the reason is because it didn’t have MAB. (I’m not saying Montreal has perfect cycle infrastructure, it doesn’t and some of it is bi-directional, but it has more cycleways than most other North American cities.)

I was talking to Robert for the start of my research for Bike Boom. The crowdfunding for this went live on Kickstarter yesterday and is three-quarters of the way to my target of £6000. (Thanks to the 120 kind people who have backed it so far.)

Ivan Illich is a hero of mine and, so it turned out, he’s a hero to Robert as well. Illich died in 2002. I never got to meet him or see him talk, but Robert did. They corresponded, too. Illich was a key figure to those in the anarchist anti-car movements of the 1970s. Energy and Equity was a standard text for them. But Illich wasn’t just a cult hero to the middle class counter-culture crowd he was also mainstream enough to be supported by the bicycle industry. The PR company working for the Bicycle Association of Great Britain organised a UK speaking tour for Illich and it also paid for 1000 copies of Illich’s pamphlet which it distributed to MPs, county and city councils and other parts of the establishment.

The full text of Energy and Equity is available online but here’s an extended edited extract from this often-quoted polemic:


The model American male devotes more than 1600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 percent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 percent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of lifetime for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.

A century ago, the ball-bearing was invented. It reduced the coefficient of friction by a factor of a thousand. By applying a well-calibrated ball-bearing between two Neolithic millstones, a man could now grind in a day what took his ancestors a week. The ball-bearing also made possible the bicycle, allowing the wheel — probably the last of the great Neolithic inventions — finally to become useful for self-powered mobility.

Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. Man on his feet is thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle and most animals. For his weight, he performs more work in locomotion than rats or oxen, less than horses or sturgeon. At this rate of efficiency man settled the world and made its history.

Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.

Bicycles are not only thermodynamically efficient, they are also cheap. With his much lower salary, the Chinese acquires his durable bicycle in a fraction of the working hours an American devotes to the purchase of his obsolescent car. The cost of public utilities needed to facilitate bicycle traffic versus the price of an infrastructure tailored to high speeds is proportionately even less than the price differential of the vehicles used in the two systems. In the bicycle system, engineered roads are necessary only at certain points of dense traffic, and people who live far from the surfaced path are not thereby automatically isolated as they would be if they depended on cars or trains. The bicycle has extended man’s radius without shunting him onto roads he cannot walk. Where he cannot ride his bike, he can usually push it.

Street Space For 60 People: Car, Bus, Bicycle

The bicycle also uses little space. Eighteen bikes can be parked in the place of one car, thirty of them can move along in the space devoured by a single automobile. It takes three lanes of a given size to move 40,000 people across a bridge in one hour by using automated trains, four to move them on buses, twelve to move them in their cars, and only two lanes for them to pedal across on bicycles. Of all these vehicles, only the bicycle really allows people to go from door to door without walking. The cyclist can reach new destinations of his choice without his tool creating new locations from which he is barred.

Bicycles let people move with greater speed without taking up significant amounts of scarce space, energy, or time. They can spend fewer hours on each mile and still travel more miles in a year. They can get the benefit of technological breakthroughs without putting undue claims on the schedules, energy, or space of others. They become masters of their own movements without blocking those of their fellows. Their new tool creates only those demands which it can also satisfy. Every increase in motorized speed creates new demands on space and time. The use of the bicycle is self-limiting. It allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance. The advantages of modern self-powered traffic are obvious, and ignored. That better traffic runs faster is asserted, but never proved. Before they ask people to pay for it, those who propose acceleration should try to display the evidence for their claim.