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Buffalo Has Always Been A Bike City: A Brief History Part 1

On April 2, 2021, Erie County celebrated its bicentennial anniversary, kicking off a year of celebration. This significant milestone is an opportunity for the community to reflect on the history, stories, and legacies of the many men and women who came before us.

Author, Thea Hassan, Gobike Buffalo

Bicycling is booming in Buffalo these days. In the last decade, the city committed to 300 miles of bicycle facilities and began building the network, including a cycle track on Niagara Street. Slow Roll Buffalo formed to bring community members together every week. Colored Girls Bike Too, East Side Bike Club, and the Buffalo Bike Gang create safe spaces for people of color to ride. Reddy Bikeshare’s network provides low-cost, widespread bicycle access. GObike‘s community workshop teaches youth and adults how to be wrenchers (in addition to our advocacy, education, healthy streets initiatives, and planning work).

However, this isn’t the first time our city has seen a bicycle craze, nor will it be the first time bicycles have changed our city’s history. When the bicycle was introduced to Buffalo, it burst in, changing our physical environment, emancipating women, and brought Buffalonians together with joy and celebration.

Introduction of the Bicycle

Science museum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first “ordinary” bicycle appeared in Paris in 1867 after several hundred years of people toying around and perfecting the concept of human-powered locomotion.[1] More effective than a condor in flight, a salmon mid-swim, or a fighter jet flying, the bicycle offered the most efficient form of travel among man, animals, and machine.[2] Untethering humans from horses previously needed to travel great distances, the bicycle allowed us to become masters of our movements.[3]

There is some disagreement over who rode the first bicycle in America: Colonel Albert A. Pope from Boston, Massachusetts, first claimed the accolade after riding a bicycle at a Philadelphia trade show in 1876. Later, a Buffalonian named H.T. Appleby contended that he deserved the prominence as he was the first person at that same trade show to ride the bicycle.[4]

While the men fought over distinctions, the bicycle took Buffalo and America by storm. According to Carl. F. Burgwardt, owner and operator of the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum in Orchard Park, in 1886, five bicycle-related businesses were in Buffalo. Less than five years later, that number had ballooned to 336 businesses, with thousands of employees supporting the new mode of transportation and recreation.

Asphalt for Miles: Bicycles and the Physical Environment

Bicycles build community. And in Buffalo, quite literally so. Before the bicycle arrived, most rural roads were made of dirt. If paved with cobblestones or woodblocks, city streets were covered with horse manure and, occasionally, their carcasses.[5] Bicyclists quickly united to successfully advocate for paved roads to accommodate their races and long-distance travels. Cycling clubs rallied to form the League of American Wheelmen, who led a national campaign to pave the roads and establish the first rules of the road to govern the streets.

The Wheelmen occasionally met in Buffalo, NY, bringing together thousands of cyclists from far distances. There was a good reason for the Wheelmen to meet here: in 1890, Buffalo had 91-miles of asphalted roads with 30 more miles under construction, putting Buffalo ahead of any other city in the nation for miles paved.[8] The presence of bicyclists in Buffalo paved the way for smoother travel for all modes, thus facilitating a connection between people, businesses, and their ideas, which had never before been possible. When the automobile was later popularized, Buffalo already had the infrastructure in place to accommodate them.

Ironically, bicyclists have now been squeezed out of the very roads we helped build. In 2021, our elected leaders, urban planners, traffic engineers, and community members are recognizing this inequity, and we’re working together to redesign our streets to accommodate all modes of transportation through complete streets design and people-first transportation systems.

Bicycles, the Social Scene, and Women’s Rights

This astounding and rapid progress of repaving our roads was possible due to the power, influence, and sheer volume of bicycle clubs in Buffalo, many of whom reigned from Buffalo’s upper echelon.

The first established bicycle club in Buffalo, the Buffalo Bicycle Club, was formed just a few months after America’s first cycling club in Boston. Dozens and dozens of others followed. The Ramblers, nicknamed “The Hustlers,” won most of the local race titles. The Press Cycling Club was composed primarily of newspaper men. The Doctors’ Cycling Club came in handy when one of their clubsmen “broke themselves up.” The Buffalo Bicycle Club, the Zig Zag Club, the Iroquois Athletic Club, and the Blue Birds: bicycle clubs abounded and served as critical social meccas for Buffalonians and our ethnic neighborhoods.[4/8]

Most notably, however, was the formation of the Women’s Wheel and Athletic Club in 1888,[6] the first all-female bicycle club in the world. It formed to address public prejudice of women on bikes, “when the wheel-riding woman was apt to be looked at askance and even sneered at by conservative people and openly hooted by hoodlums.”[7] When women in pants were considered audacious, these clubswomen rode around Buffalo on tandem bicycles. Noted club captain Emma Rummel, the day she purchased her first bicycle was the day she “began to enjoy life.”[8]

The club’s members included some of Buffalo’s most prominent women: Louise Blanchard Bethune, America’s first female architect; Dr. M. Annette Rankin, the first woman to attend University at Buffalo’s dental school; Dr. Ida C. Bender, primary supervisor of Buffalo Public Schools; and many more. Though it was the first female bike club, it wasn’t the last–soon, other female bike clubs popped up like the women teachers’ bike club.[4] After achieving “wonders in making biking popular for women,” the club disbanded with a final banquet, decorated in dark green, their club color, with tiny gold bicycle pins as souvenirs for all guests.[7]

Noted Susan B. Anthony in nearby Seneca Falls:

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.

Though women on bicycles are no longer sneered at, women are indeed still hooted at, and much of our bicycle infrastructure is not comfortable or safe enough for female riders. Nationally and in Buffalo, women still represent a small percentage of ridership. Though the gap begins to narrow in cities with safer infrastructure, like Portland, women still only represent about a quarter of the total biking population. Our friends in the Netherlands and Germany have about a half and half gender split. The likely reason? Safe bicycle infrastructure.[9]

Bicycle Racing: the Social Events of the Turn of the Century

Bicycle racing in Buffalo in the l880s and 1890s was hot, the hottest spot in the nation. Types of races ranged from century (100-mile) road races to six-day professional velodrome feats to amateur and club races on Humboldt Parkway (in its complete grandeur).

Notable venues included:

  • The Buffalo Athletic Field, which hosted Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor, the first African American athlete to dominate on the international stage. The Buffalo Athletic Field was later razed to make room for a “Carnival Court,” which was then knocked down to become a Sears and later housed Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters;
  • The Broadway Auditorium, which hosted six-day bicycle races on a pinewood velodrome, hastily constructed a few times a year by 12 carpenters;
  • Humboldt Park, which was destroyed during the construction of the Kensington Expressway; and
  • The Connecticut Street Armory, which held night hours for young riders to “torture themselves for hours, doing countless laps to build their endurance and strength.”[3]

Bicycle races were akin to a Buffalo Bills game; thousands of spectators would attend, skipping school and work to catch a view. Teenage girls hung posters of bike racers on their bedroom walls. Spectators waged bets on their favored riders, and the New York Times and local newspapers reported race results. Buffalo bike racers were featured in advertisements, and local racers set world records for speed.

As anyone who’s been to a Bills game at the Orchard Park stadium or a euro cup football game in a home country knows, events such as bike racing are good for community as they bring people together. They give us a reason to root for each other, to cheer on a fellow, bring people into communion to share food, happiness, and physical spaces.

They also foster our economy. We see this in biking events today, though certainly not to the extent demonstrated in this era; social bike events like GObike’s SkyRide and Slow Roll Buffalo generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic benefit in the City of Buffalo.[10]

Additionally, with New York State completing the Empire State Trail, and GObike’s recent completion of the 80-mile Southern Tier Trail plan, planned extensions to the Shoreline Trail, and the GBNRTC’s completion of the Bicycle Niagara Master Plan, further investment into our region’s bicycle tourism opportunities is evident. Bicycle tourism equals big business: in 2014, the Erie Canal Trail alone was estimated to support more than 3,400 jobs and generate $253 million in sales. With the trail network growing and biking rates continuing to increase, this number is bound to go up.

Biking Craze Subdues… But Keeps Churning

The bicycle craze began to wane after the turn of the century and came to a complete halt during World War II. However, the influence of the bicycle continued to churn in the background, as it offered a practical, inexpensive means of transportation.

Today, we may think of the bicycle as merely a recreational activity for spandex-clad enthusiasts or a good date activity for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Perhaps we acknowledge it to be a transportation option for those who cannot afford a car or the environmental nut (like me) who wants to lower their impact (not a bad idea). But the influence of bicycles has had a profound impact on the City of Buffalo and will continue to shape our city.

During the pandemic, we observed drastic increases in biking, with bike counters recording 3,000 percent spikes in biking and local bike shops selling out of inventory before the cycling season began. Cycling allowed us to stay socially connected while remaining physically distant, offering a brief reprieve from the difficulties of 2020. Cyclists also helped fill in the gaps, evidenced by initiatives like the Queen City Couriers partnership with PUSH Buffalo to deliver food and supplies to those in need, and Reddy Bikeshare and GObike’s free access to bikes for essential workers.

GObike, along with all of our fellow bicycle enthusiasts, will continue to champion the bicycle because of its ability to heal our society, bring people together, and empower the marginalized.

Tune in to learn next week to learn more about how we got to where we are now in our next installment.

  1. Herlihy, D. V. (2004). Bicycle: The History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
  2. In a comparison of energy consumed to move an established distance as a function of body weight, per S.S. Wilson’s study in Scientific American. Reid, C. (2015, March 14). How the bicycle Beats Evolution and Why Steve Jobs Was so Taken with this Fact. Retrieved April 28, 2021
  3. Illich, I. D. (1969). Toward a History of Needs. United States: Pantheon Books
  4. Burgwardt, C.F. (2001). Buffalo’s Bicycles. Orchard Park, NY: Pedaling History Bicycle Museum
  5. Guroff, M. (2016, September 12). American Drivers Have Bicyclists to Thank for a Smooth Ride to Work.
  6. Unknown. (1894, November 18). As a Cycling City, Buffalo Occupies a Position in the Front Rank. Buffalo Courier, p. 11.
  7. Unknown. (1897, January 6). It Was Wound Up Last Night. Buffalo Courier, p. 6.
  8. The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review. (1890). United States: (n.p.).
  9. What does safe bicycle infrastructure mean? Protected bike lanes and multi-use trails. More than x percent of people report not feeling safe with only sharrows or dedicated bike lanes. See additionally Bicycling Choice and Gender Case Study.
  10. GObike used an economic benefit model developed by the Walton Family Foundation in partnership with People for Bikes to measure the total economic benefit that non-resident riders have on the local economy when they travel.
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