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Bicycle Studies

Bicycle Studies Pick Up Speed in Academia

• July 25, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(Dudarev Mikhail /Shutterstock)

At the end of the Tour de France and the start of the Olympics, we take note of the growing attraction that universities and think tanks have for the study of the bicycle.

Not so long ago, the term “cycling studies” would have been seen as puzzling in the United States—why study what were effectively perceived as toys?

But the world has changed—Britain’s queen has just congratulated Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, Los Angeles has wrapped up its third CicLAvia, New York City is launching its massive bike-share system this summer, and Portland is aiming at having 25 percent of trips by bicycle in 2030—and universities and think tanks have finally caught up with it.

More than 100 academic studies related to cycling have been published this year alone, including new research on the mathematical optimization of bike infrastructure, the health benefits of mass cycling events, and even the precise nature of the “wobble” that can strike riders at inopportune times. Lees-McRae College in North Carolina even offers a cycling minor.

In one sense, this is a return to grace for bicycles. Bikes were once at the forefront of culture and technology in the United States—the Wright brothers used their experience as bicycle manufacturers to create the Wright Flyer, after all—but after World War II, freedom came with car keys, not a kickstand. Yes, the “bike boom” put millions of people on bicycles, but for recreation, not for the more utilitarian purposes favored in other countries.

But change was in the air, even in gasoline-addled America. Recognition of the environmental costs of driving led to the signing of the Clean Air Act in 1970, which coincided with first modern boom in two-wheel transport. Ten years later, the first waves of gentrification started, bringing higher-income residents to urban centers once left for dead. In the 1990s scientific consensus on climate change was growing as cities began to realize they couldn’t build their way out of automotive congestion. Cyclists began to show their strength and numbers.

By the 2000s, the suburbs were becoming poorer, even as the first public bike-share systems—by necessity and design, in urban centers—started to appear. The idea of cities competing for talent began to take hold, and having cultural amenities and walkable, bikeable neighborhoods became essential.

Any field that brings together such a juicy range of issues yet has a relative dearth of literature, is catnip to scientists, and this was no exception. Bingo: bicycle studies.

While bikes are just machines, and simple ones at that, how they’re used, the consequences of their use, and the ways in which they’re accommodated touches on all aspects of society—health, safety, urban design, pollution, and the environment, for starters. Combine cycling with almost any of the traditional social science topics, and you’re likely to find something interesting. Immigration: “U.S. Immigrants and Bicycling: Two-wheeled in Autopia.” (Or Pacific Standard’s own take: “Bicycles and the ‘Immigrant Effect’”) Real estate: “The Value of Trail Access on Home Purchases.” Technology: “Pedestrian and Bicyclist Crashes with Hybrid Electric Vehicles.” Indeed, sometimes studies that aren’t even about cycling are about cycling: “Commuting Distance, Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Metabolic Risk.”

Best of all, the simplicity of cycling can sometimes lead to findings that are both clear and powerful. For example, in “The Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws,” the answer is right there: “In jurisdictions where cycling is safe, a helmet law is likely to have a large unintended negative health impact. In jurisdictions where cycling is relatively unsafe, helmets will do little to make it safe.” Required reading for politicians considering such measures.

The field is still relatively young, and as Paul Rosen of Harvard’s Nieman Lab points out in his review of Zack Furness’s One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, there are plenty of knowledge gaps. That’s good news— more studies are on the way.

Leighton Walter Kille
Leighton Walter Kille is a web journalist and editor at Journalist's Resource, a research curation and media project at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center. Before moving to the Kennedy School, he was an editor and writer at the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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