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New York City once had the best bike path in the world

Netherlands schmetherlands, the country with the best riding conditions for cyclists used to be America. Difficult to imagine, but in the 1890s a number of American cities could boast the world’s best bicycle-infrastructure. Part paid for by pushy, influential cyclists, the bike paths in cities such as Seattle, Portland, and even Los Angeles, were far in advance of any that could be found anywhere else in the world at the time. (The first bike path in the Netherlands was built in 1885 in Utrecht, partly at the instigation of an English cyclist, but it was more of an athletic track for high wheel riders rather than a functional bike path. The first utility cycling path in the Netherlands was built in 1896. The first bike path in Copenhagen was 1892, claims this article.

But it was New York which had the best bike path in America, and one of the first in the world. Petitioned for from 1892 and finally built in 1894, the Coney Island Cycle Path extended from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to the popular resort at Coney Island, a distance of five and a half miles. It was a later add-on to the 1870s Ocean Boulevard, a “pleasure parkway” from “the City of Churches” to the Atlantic ocean.

Opened in mid-summer, the Coney Island Cycle Path was an instant success. So successful, in fact, that the path’s crushed limestone surface had to be repaired within a month of opening, and the pressure of numbers caused the path to be widened. The year after opening, three feet were added to the original width of fourteen feet.

Those who owned stalls, rides and eateries at the Coney Island pleasure beach thrived from the increase in business brought by the cyclists following their “straight run to the sea.”

In June 1896 a return path was built on the opposite side of the boulevard. This was opened with a gala parade organised by the League of American Wheelmen’s Good Roads Association and was attended by 10,000 cyclists and upwards of 100,000 spectators.

“Attired in holiday garb and colors, the throng presented a picture pretty to look upon. That nearly every person in it was a cyclist or wanted to be was very apparent…Every public house on the boulevard was decked in flags and bunting, and many private residences were prettily decorated for the occasion…[a] juvenile rider had on a snow white Fauntleroy waist and red stockings with shoes to match. He was a cute little fellow, and somebody named him the ‘Red Spider’…The bloomer girls received much attention, as usual. One plump lassie startled the reviewing stand with her green bloomers, but she didn’t mind.”
New York Times, June 28th 1896

The Coney Island Cycle Path was “for the exclusive use of the silent steed,” reported the New York Times. As happens today, space for the bike path was, sadly, taken from pedestrians. Carriages used the crushed-stone macadamized road, and equestrians were provided with a soft, sand path. The bike route was part paid for by cyclists. The League of American Wheelmen’s Good Roads Association paid $3500 of the $50,000 necessary for the creation of the path. Monies were raised by individual contributions, by newspaper campaigns (the Brooklyn Daily Eagle stumped up $50) and by fund-raising events such as theatre productions.

An appeal in the New York Times in August 1894 spelled out the advantages of cyclists part-paying for the proposed cycle path:

“It is now within your power to have the most delightful and attractive wheelway ever provided for the exclusive use of cyclists: a smooth, clean continuous wheelway…”

The cycle path was “the first path in the world devoted exclusively to bicycles,” crowed the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “No wheelman who has ridden on it has complained, as the completed sections are so perfect that it is not possible to find fault with them.”

City authorities liked the path because it got cyclists off the road, away from pleasure carriages and horse-waggons.

According to the New York Times of Christmas Day 1894 “the path is looked upon as an improvement [because] wheelmen do not interfere with driving at all, as the large driveway is now used exclusively by the lovers of horses and carriages.”

Brooklyn’s transport commissioner “had two roads constructed on the Ocean Parkway entrance so that the bicyclists may enter or leave the Park without danger of collision with vehicles…At the Plaza entrance, he has had Flatbush Avenue asphalted, so that the bicyclists may cross the [tram] tracks safely, and this path has been carried through one of the walks in Reservoir Point Park, so as to enable the bicyclists to reach the Eastern Parkway cycle path without danger.”

But it was sometimes bicyclists who caused the danger. “Scorchers” gave cyclists a bad name.

In May 1895 the Brooklyn Bicycle Club “put itself on public record as being opposed to ‘scorching’ on the Coney Island Cycle Path, and recommended to the authorities the prompt punishment of every offender. The practice of fast riding should never have been permitted on such a liberally patronized riding ground…” The speed limit was 12mph. Scorchers were stopped by policeman on bikes and could expect stiff fines.

By and large, the Coney Island Cycle Path was for leisure rather than being a practical route, a point made by Referee magazine in November 1895:

“Did you ever hear of the Coney Island Cycle Path? Never? Then you have not been in Brooklyn this season, for no cyclist can step his foot into that sleepy town and draw a full breath before he gets this shot at him: ‘Seen our Cycle Path? No ? You should do so at once. Finest thing in the country. Just grand, sir; perfectly GRAND.’

“And the poor verdant visitor out of the distant wild and woolly makes tracks for aforesaid Path with his mind expectant on seeing a billiard table at least 100 feet wide laid with a surface that would make a western boulevard green with envy. He finds a path of a sort of half-rolled grey macadam about sixteen feet wide stretching from the lower entrance of the boulevard to the island, shaded by trees near the park and running parallel to the regular boulevard and horse paths that lead to Coney. The western man’s verdict is that it certainly is a pretty strip and a pleasant spot to while away a half-hour with a slow-riding lady companion, but he wonders why the Brooklynites take such pride in it when the roads that parallel it and branch from it on the seaward side are far superior in point of surface and scenery. But to the eye of the Brooklynite there is nothing like the Path. It is the favorite haunt of what in the west is called a boulevardier and is thronged each afternoon by crowds of these butterfly riders, who meander up and down its level stretches and call that cycling.”

How did Brooklyn’s cyclists of the 1890s get such their Cycle Path? Partly it was the financial contribution made initially by cyclists but more importantly, cycling was fashionable and chic. Bicycle riders of the 1890s were an ‘in’ group: and as Brooklyn had an estimated 80,000 cyclists it was perfectly natural to cater to the needs of a large, politicised, and active group of citizens.

And it wasn’t just by dint of numbers, some of New York’s “best people”, as Mumsey magazine put it, were seen awheel. Rich socialites, such as the Rockefeller’s and the Roosevelt’s, were members of New York’s most exclusive cycling club, the Michaux Club, named after the French bicycle innovator of the 1860s.

“To no metropolitan club is admission more eagerly sought. Its membership, limited to two hundred and fifty, has long been full, and there is already a lengthy waiting list. Entrance to its exclusive circle may be regarded as a social cachet of the most authoritative sort…The headquarters of the Michaux are at an uptown cycling academy, where it has elaborately appointed rooms…The Central Park Casino and the Claremont do not see a more goodly array of fair women and gallant men, year in and year out, than on the occasions of the Michaux [Spring] meet.”
Mumsey magazine, May 1896

With numbers and the support of high society, creating bicycle infrastructure was like pushing at an open door. Park commissioner Timothy L. Woodruff was a wheelman. It was he who led the parade of 10,000 cyclists that celebrated the opening of the return Coney Island cycle path. He was a member of the influential Skull and Bones secret society of Yale University (later members included both the Bush presidents of the US) but he made no secret of his allegiance to cycling:

“I am prepared, in my official position…, to do everything within the limits of my powers as such to care for and advance the interests of the wheelmen of Brooklyn. I am anxious to do this not that I may cater to the comforts of a certain class of citizens, not because I am actuated by personal devotion to wheeling, but because I believe the safety bicycle is the most beneficial instrumentality of this wonderful age.”

And Woodruff wasn’t a lone voice, pro-cyclist sentiment went right to the top. To be mayor in Brooklyn in the mid-1890s meant you had to be pro-bicycling. Mayor Charles Schieren said:

“When modern stables are transformed into sheds or shops with racks for the steel steed – which is the coming horse and a very economical one, because it eats no oats and does not kick or cut up the road – it is absolutely necessary to provide for this new order of things. This is a fad which has come to stay, and the cyclers rightfully demand good roads or paths for their accommodation. We must therefore plan additional facilities and build practicable roads for the exclusive use of the wheel, the same as we have provided bridle paths for equestrians in our parks…We must reconstruct our park roads and set aside a portion of the roadway for the exclusive use of bicycles, or make additional paths for them…Good streets and roads will attract many people to a city or town which has them…If the townships of this island would construct excellent macadamised roads, they would double their population in a short time. The cool summer breezes and fine, level country roads would make them a perfect paradise for cyclers…Brooklyn is now seriously considering a plan for building a system of good roads and cycling paths…which will give from twenty to thirty miles of excellent paths to the lovers of the wheel, and will prove a great attraction.”
New York Times, May 22nd, 1895

Schieren’s successor as mayor – Frederick W. Wurster – was also pro-bicycling. In March 1896, he said:

“The bicycle I look upon, to a large extent, as the pioneer of good roads. The bicycle has done more for good roads, and will do more for good roads in the future, than any other form of vehicle.”

The mayor was right that cyclists had pioneered the push for good roads but it was the next vehicle along that benefitted the most from the 1890s love affair with the bicycle. By 1897, sales of new cycles reached a peak and a steady decline set in. High society took to motorcars; most everybody else migrated to trams. Cycling, once for everyone, slowly became an athletic activity alone.

However, it wasn’t an overnight collapse. The arrival of motorcars in New York City didn’t herald the immediate decline of cycling. The first motorcars in New York arrived at a time when the Coney Island Cycle Path was at its most popular.

In 1896 the bicycle builders Charles and Frank Duryea offered for sale the first commercial automobile in the US, the Duryea Motor Wagon. One of these was bought by Henry Wells of New York.

On May 30th 1896 Wells drove his Duryea Motor Wagon into New York City to take part in a horseless carriage race organised by Cosmopolitan magazine (then called The Cosmopolitan). While racing on public roads, he crashed into Evelyn Thomas, riding a Columbia bicycle on Broadway near West 74th Street. Wells became the first motorist arrested for what would later become known as dangerous driving. Thomas was hospitalised with a fractured leg.

The Coney Island Cycle Path was poorly maintained after 1900. In 1901, Theodore Roche, president of the Democratic Union of New York, urged the authorities to bring the “cycling strips” to good repair as it would be “a disgrace to Brooklyn to allow them to fall into such a condition that it would be dangerous and unfit for wheeling.”

The paths were patched but not relaid. By 1911 the civic authorities were in thrall to what the New York Times called “the automobile men”. A protest ride of 3000 riders in September of that year cycled on the path to Coney Island “to arouse a public sentiment against the closing of the cycle path on the Ocean Parkway.”

The path was never closed. It still exists today. In part. The return path was asphalted over and became a road. The Ocean Parkway is now a multi-lane highway, with a slim bike path and a separate walking path. Both paths have to cross over a great many roads, with priority now granted to cars.

In the 1890s, the Coney Island Cycle Path was the best known of an extensive network of interlocking bike paths and roads macadamised for cyclists. Bicycle paths were created along Pelham Parkway, and along Riverside Park and Drive, and there were macadamised roads radiating outwards from downtown to what were then open fields, but which are now parts of the concrete jungle.

In his ‘Bike Snob’ book, Bike Snob NYC, who lives on Ocean Parkway, describes one macadamised road as “cycling’s erstwhile Great White Way.”

Merrick Road on Long Island was one of many improved roads frequented by cyclists, for leisure, for scorching and for getting to and from work.

BikeSnob: “In the 1890s, Merrick Road was the place to be on a a bicycle. It had a national reputation…It was so popular that people built hotels and businesses for all the cyclists who would visit from the city…Anything that creates a whole town is culturally significant.”

There were also asphalted roads. New York City had twenty miles of such roads in 1895. The New York Times of June 30th 1895 printed a map showing “the streets that are best adapted for good wheeling” with heavy dark lines representing asphalt and the broken lines representing crushed stone macadam. The newspaper said the map was of “Brooklyn’s Bicycle Streets.”

This map of the South Bronx is from 1897 (click on the + sign on Flickr to make it huge) and shows the streets of NYC when bicycles – and horse drawn carriages and trams – held sway.

1897 Map of New York City, inc South Bronx

Even in the 1920s, bike paths still existed throughout New York City and more were built during the New Deal work relief projects of the 1930s and 1940s. New York has a fine tradition of building infrastructure for cyclists, a legacy now being taken forward by NYC’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

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‘Roads Were Not Built For Cars’ will contain lots of detail on the history of roads – and bike paths. The book will be published in August 2013 via a Kickstarter campaign that ends on April 20th, and a PDF of the book will also be given away, free, on this site later in the year.

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3 thoughts on “New York City once had the best bike path in the world

  1. Alison M / Reply January 31, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    I did enjoy the West Manhattan cycleway, in 2003, I think! More cycle paths/roads, please, everywhere.

  2. Bill M / Reply March 30, 2013 at 6:21 am

    I grew up in Brooklyn, and I used to ride on the Ocean Parkway bike path as a young teenager in the 1960s. The bike path was on the West set of islands on the boulevard. The bridle path was on the East set of islands. Even though one did have to stop for traffic at the cross streets, it was by far the fastest and safest route for a cyclist from the middle of the borough to its southern end.

    • carltonreid / Reply March 30, 2013 at 10:27 am

      Much of it is still there but, yes, from Google Street View it looks like a few roads have to be crossed.

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