Is the bicycle is fighting for existence ? 1878


A curious question is coming on. It is not substantially a new one, for it is as old as all invention and novelty. The bicycle has come to the front and is fighting for existence. Dimly prefigured the mythical Centaur, and then in the hobby-horse of mediaeval games; attempted in the velocipede now half a century ago and long prejudiced by the evident superiority of wings to wheels, the bicycle has now surmounted the difficulties of construction, and adapted itself to human capabilities. It augments at least three-fold the locomotive power of an ordinary man. A bicyclist can-perform a journey of a hundred miles in one day with less fatigue than he could walk thirty; fifty miles – that is, from London to Brighton – as easily as he could walk ten; and a daily journey to and fro between London and the distant suburbs with just the usual results of moderate exercise. Not only is the gain to the bicyclist himself unquestioned, but it is even feared that all mankind will soon appear on two wheels and if they do, of course womankind will follow. Scarcely an objection is heard from the rider’s point of view – that is, if rider he can be called who is himself his own steed. Sixty years ago, on the appearance of the velocipede, there was a talk of internal complaints, strains and heart affections; but there is none now. Bicyclists are become a power. They run races, with many starters, on our less frequented roads, and assemble occasionally in imposing numbers and military array at Hampton Court and other quite localities. A procession of a thousand bicyclists is something for the imagination to fasten upon. Why, indeed, should we not have bicycle regiments to steal silently and rapidly on an unsuspecting foe ten or twenty miles off?   To the ignorant beholder it sometimes looks as if the addition of physical power was dearly purchased at the cost of overstrained effort and the too continuous attention requisite.

Certainly a bicyclist must be always on the watch. But so must a horseman. So must a man who walks, we will not say about the metropolis, but in his own garden. Even to stand upright requires a constant strain on he physical and mental forces. Everybody accustomed to driving knows that the horse discovers instantly when your thoughts are wandering and takes the opportunity to dream of oats or green fields. Bicyclists are aware they run the dangers and suffer a percentage of casualties; but they have counted the cost and found it worthwhile running the risk.

From other points of view the objections are loud and numerous but have, upon the whole, a striking family resemblance to many former objections, such, for example, as those made at the introduction of the railways. The chief objection re-appears in great force. Horses, it must be admitted, do not like bicycles; but neither do they like railways and they will probably like street locomotives still less. There is no end to a horses dislikes and hardly any account to be given of them. A horse will be frightened to death – that is, to the death of his rider, or driver, or persons run over and very occasionally to his own death.  – by numerous objects and occurrences that , so far from creating the slightest alarm in other creatures, will escape their notice altogether, or be taken quite for granted and perhaps even given a slight gratification. A horse will be very much frightened at a bit of paper, whether in motion or laying flat on the ground; at a wheelbarrow by the roadside; at a hat or jacket, a stick, a wisp of hay, a few weeds, a bit of dirt or wet, a gate open that ought to be shut, or where it ought not to be at all in the horse’s opinion; at a bush, a ‘gap, , a donkey, a cow, a an old lady dressed out of fashion, or of too short stature, or of unusual figure; at  the sudden discovery that there is a van behind it or another horse at its quarters. Some horses will never cease to be alarmed at the same object, as, for example, a garden bush cut to look like a bird or a man; they will look out for it and prepare themselves for a panic every time they are coming near. They will be in a perpetual terror if they catch the sound of another carriage behind. Upon the whole, they have mastered the railway difficulty as much as could be expected and there are even faint hopes that the familiarity is passing into the blood. But even if there be some hope of horses becoming more reasonable, there is none of their drivers, whose only idea is to apply the lash and punish the poor brute for his nervous and imaginative nature. It is not the horse that is unmanageable; it is the man; and if the lady who wrote the other day complaining of the effect of a bicycle on her horses would be so good as to turn her attention to the improvement of the average British coachman and driver, she might diminish the average not only of bicycle accidents, but of street accidents generally, now running up to a thousand killed and nobody knows how many thousand wounded, every year. It might possibly involve a slight loss of time – a minute, perhaps, when the occupants of the carriage are already twenty minutes behind their time; but this is a question of life and death. The chief complaint against the bicycle is made on behalf of the deaf, the lame, infancy and old age. But theses are the victims of all street traffic. They ought not to cross a street without using their eyes well, exercising the greatest caution and condescending to ask assistance.

An almost superstitious terror seems to attach to the silence of the bicycle, stealing on its doomed victim, as a police magistrate observed, like a thief in the night; and when the same gentleman described this formidable object as half man, half horse, him seemed to suggest a being that the police, and even the legislature, might not venture to cope with. For all practicable purposes, however, noise is a much greater nuisance than silence and slowness a much greater nuisance than speed. The vehicles that make streets intolerable and that destroy life by taking away the possibility of quite by day and sleep by night are heavy vans driven at full speed to catch the trains, huge omnibuses sometimes under like urgency, tradesmen’s carts rattling past all times of the day, cabs as noisy as they can be made, and costermongers proclaiming their wares, whatever they are, at the top of their strong voices. It is theses last that are the slow mischief, for a hand-cart will retard, or entirely stop, a dozen vehicles, create stoppage after stoppage, and render the traffic intermittent and uncertain. Much the same may be said of the right claimed by passengers to stop an omnibus wherever they please, at the cost of any amount of interruption to the traffic behind. On a deliberate comparison of public gain and loss, we sacrifice, life, limb and comfort wholesale to carriers’ vans, tradesmen’s carts and omnibuses and nobody knows but a madman would attempt to make our main thoroughfares habitable, in the proper sense of that word, by rendering the street traffic less positively inimical to vitality and existence. The same must be said of bicycles. It is so great a pain to a man if he can ride to his office on his bicycle, make a trip on it, or even a tour if he has the time make calls, or simply indulge in the sense of rapid locomotion, that we are bound to give him the benefit of the general rule and put up with the chance of a few accidents. The bicyclist will have to submit to the same rules as all others enjoying some vantage over foot passengers. He will have to use bells when required, little as they will help the deaf and the lame. He will have to use his eyes. Above all, he will have to bear in mind that in every thoroughfare, at almost any hour of the day, there will be a large proportion of stupid people and a not very small proportion of people a little the worst for drink. Dram-drinkers can transact many kinds of business as well as other people, sometimes even better; but they are bad at crossing a thoroughfare. The legislature would be  very unfaithful to the courageous principles which have hitherto guided it in the treatment of discoveries and improvements if it showed any prejudice in this matter. That would be a great injustice to the men, most of them still young, who have won for themselves a great convenience and no less pleasure, at no cost whatsoever, it may be said and without drawing upon the common fund of the food of man. Society used to be divided into the equestrian and the pedestrian orders. These people have found a third rank. Their success proves, as Johnson said, what man can do. They have attained the speed of a horse, leaving the flight of an eagle, or lower bird, open to nobler, or wilder, aspirations.

  (The Times (London, England), Thursday, Sep 05, 1878; pg. 9)

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