Christmas day 1996 marked a seminal moment in my childhood, it was the day I received my first bike. I wasn’t exactly sure how or why at the time but I knew this was going to change things for me.
Two days later I was in unchartered territory, cycling into town with my mates to waste our pocket money on sweets and football stickers, not a parent in sight. The freedom gained from owning that red, steel–framed Raleigh bike that weighed about as much as I did, was unlike anything I’d experienced.
Like a lot of kids growing up in the 90s, cycling was a way of life, from the school commute to going to your mate’s house, if you were going somewhere, the bike was the preferable mode of transport. Whilst the bicycle has no doubt played a pivotal role in shaping the formative years of kids around the UK for decades, it has also played, and continues to play, an even greater role in shaping societies around the world.
American social reformer and suffragette Susan B Anthony once said: “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”
By giving an oppressed group the capacity to broaden their horizons beyond their local neighbourhoods, as well as the fact that cycling required a more practical form of dress than most women had become accustomed, cycling was able to empower women in a way they had never been before.
The backlash against women’s rights was widespread and notable for its recognition of the key role the bicycle was now playing. In 1897, a group of male undergraduates at Cambridge University displayed their opposition to the admission of women as full members of the university by hanging a woman in effigy in the main town square. The hanging effigy was mounted on a bicycle.
In the early 20th century, figures such as Alice Hawkins used the bicycle to protest as she rode around Leicester with signs promoting the women’s rights movement and fighting for the right to vote; the protest caused outrage as it was one of the first times a woman had been seen wearing pantaloons in the city. By this point, the bicycle had become more than just a tool for the suffragette movement, it had become a powerful symbol of independence.
Fast forward to 2015 and gender equality has progressed to the point where women have no more restrictions on travel than their male counterparts. This does not mean, however, that the bicycle’s time as a force for social empowerment and change has come to an end – in many situations around the world the bicycle continues to empower and liberate people every day.
El Retiro is a mountainous region in Colombia where the vast majority of the 18,000 inhabitants live in rural isolated communities. According to the Global Fund for Children, more than 3,000 live on less than a dollar a day. School retention rates are extremely low, in part due to the distances and the terrain children are required to traverse on foot to get an education.
In 2013, the Roadrunner Corporation donated 2,000 bicycles to underprivileged children in the region and the impact has been remarkable.
UNICEF is running a similar scheme to the one in El Retiro with schoolgirls in Ghana. The bikes, that have now been provided to more than 6,000 girls have reduced the average journey to school from 2 hours to approximately 30 minutes.
Due to the traditional role played by many women in rural areas of Ghana, the pressures and expectations placed on young women have meant that for every 100 boys enrolled in secondary school there are only 80 girls.
In both of these examples, not only have school attendance and retention rates for those involved increased, but thanks to the increased exercise provided by the bikes, the health and wellbeing of the children in these areas has also improved dramatically.
Far from the remote, mountainous regions of South America, or rural north west Africa, London has experienced something of a cycling revolution itself over the last decade with the number of people choosing to commute on a bicycle increasing by nearly 150 per cent to more than 100,000 commuters every day.
With the population expected to top 10 million within the next 10 years, London has some significant issues with its transport infrastructure to be addressed. The packed rush hour tubes and buses in the capital have acted as a catalyst for the boom in cycling across the city. This trend has shown the extraordinary relevance and role the bicycle still has to play in a modern city where personal mobility is paramount.
Through the announcement of huge investment in London’s cycling infrastructure on the way, there has been an acknowledgement at the top of British politics of the very practical solution the bike offers in the 21st century.
The freedom a bicycle provides has always been individual to a person, whether it’s the empowerment achieved in the suffragette movement, the mobility (both practical and social) given to underprivileged children, or even the liberation felt by the kid growing up in suburban Surrey who could go out with his mates on a weekend.
The thrill I got as a kid riding a bike may have changed slightly, I’m no longer riding down to the nearest corner shop in an attempt to feed my voracious appetite for football stickers. However, on the occasions I am able to get out on a bike, it still provides a rush which is unlike any other mode of transportation.
In 1892 the eminent New Yorker and cycling evangelist, Dr KK Doty said of cycling: “Cyclers see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to.” It’s no wonder then that the bicycle is still as relevant and as liberating today as it ever has been.
Picture credit: Dustin Gaffke (via Flickr)