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Wheels, Scooters, and the Centuries-Old Fight for City Streets

In the shadows of a golden age A generation waits for dawn Brave carry on Bold and the strong -Jou

Urbn Developments

August 30 · Issue #19 · View online
A semi-regular roundup of all things urbanism, economic development, and good old-fashioned city building. Written by Lucas Lindsey.

In the shadows of a golden age
A generation waits for dawn
Brave carry on
Bold and the strong
-Journey, 1985
In September of 1893, the City of Phoenix found itself in a headline-fueled feud with the United States Post Office, the two having been drawn “into a conflict under curious circumstances.” Indeed, the feud grew serious enough that at one point local postman W. E. Temple was cited and compelled to “address the [city] council at considerable length"—and this on a Friday night, even.
Mr. Temple’s testimony called for mail carriers to enjoy exception to a relatively new and particularly contentious local ordinance. He caught an empathetic ear in then Mayor Cole, who was joined in agreement by at least one councilman. The council majority, on the other hand, objected. They denied the request for exception and admonished Mr. Temple, sending him on his way.
In response to the council’s embarrassing rebuff, a visiting Postoffice Inspector observed that "the delivery service here is not necessarily a permanent affair” and wondered aloud whether misrepresentations had been made in the City’s original application for postal service.[1] The implication was troubling, not least because if anybody knew how to reliably deliver on a threat surely it would be the Post Office.
Phoenix, then a young city incorporated just twelve years prior, had upset the postmen, and the postmen, if they didn’t get their request, were ready to cut off the mail.
What did Mr. Temple want on behalf of the postmen? What did he petition for in his impassioned plea to the hard-nosed City Council? What led to this battle of politics and press, this almost-suspension of parcels and post? Well, it had a little to do with wheels and sidewalks, but more to do with city streets, who uses them, and how. And, as it turns out, it’s the same battle we’re fighting almost 130-years later, a controversy as routine to the newspapers of 1893 as it is to the Twitter streams of today.
Because progress isn’t nearly as linear or inevitable as we like to think, and, while tools and technology have changed, people pretty much haven’t. We are, for better or worse, the common dominator of written history.
So cinch up those clip-ins, and get ready. Because in an effort to better understand the present, we’re pedaling our way back into the past. 🚲🛴

Headlines from the front page of The Arizona Republican on Sept. 23, 1893. Idk who wins in showdown between bureaucracies, but I do know it's not often you or me.
The Wheel in the Street Keeps on Turning
To understand how Phoenix and its postmen came to be at such odds, you need to understand the “curious circumstances” of 1893. And yet the more you come to understand those circumstances, the less curious they seem at all. Today we’d find them, if anything, curiously familiar.
As the 1890s hit, urbanites across the United States had a sudden fascination with bicycles, contraptions which thanks to a few recent feats of engineering were increasingly reliable, comfortable, and, for the well-heeled at least, attainable. Fashionable Americans, seemingly swept off the their collective feet by a spinning cloud of pedals and pneumatic tubes, could hardly get enough of the newfangled things. They took to calling them “wheels,” and they rode them between cities [2], rode them in circles at Madison Square Garden [3], rode them against horses after riding them in circles at Madison Square Garden [4], rode them in parades through downtown streets [5], and, much to the chagrin of the Honorable Phoenix City Council, occasionally rode them on sidewalks, too.[6]
All that riding set off a feverish boom in the market. US Census records indicate that “in 1890, only 27 establishments produced bicycles,” representing a modest output of “40,000 machines.” And yet something close to “1,200,000 bicycles were produced in 1986, a jump of 3000%” in just six years time.[7] That’s a lot of wheels.
For almost fifty-years, Madison Square Garden hosted the much-celebrated 6 Day Bicycle Race. This photo depicts the cycle track and its crowd in 1901. News of the "Great Wheel Race" inevitably made its way west, landing in the pages of The Arizona Republican and beyond.[8]
Set against the backdrop of the 1890s, the bicycle had clear appeal. When travel across town meant hoofing it by foot or by horse, wheels made commutes considerably easier, equipping city-dwellers in an urban revolt against what Northwestern economist Robert Gordon calls “the tyranny of slowness.”
In his epic tome, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Gordon describes the late 19th-century as a period of unprecedented transportation improvement, with commute speeds increasing by an order of magnitude over the course of a single lifetime.
“By 1904,” he writes, “the electrified express trains of the New York City subway were traveling at forty miles per hour, more than ten times more quickly than the three miles per hour of the horse omnibuses only four decades earlier.” [9]
In search of something more altogether civilized, the country was ready for a “silent steed that needed no water, no food, no attention, and no expensive stable space.”[10] The calculus was easy, especially when accounting for the public health disaster that was essentially any dense human settlement at the time. Horses had “inherent defects… as a means of propulsion.” Namely, they “dropped thousands of tons of manure and gallons of urine on city streets; died in service, leaving 7,000 horse carcasses to be carried away each year in Chicago alone; and carried diseases transmissible to humans.”[9]
Interestingly, while wheels revolutionized urban travel in their own right, they also helped pave the way for other emerging modes of transportation, such as the automobile, which would soon dominate American mode share. Early enthusiasts banned together to form The League of American Wheelmen, an association of bicycle users who “were challenged by rutted roads of gravel and dirt and faced antagonism from horsemen, wagon drivers, and pedestrians.”[11] League membership would grow to more than 100,000 by the late 1890s. Among other things, they worked to advance the Good Roads Movement, a political precursor to the highway lobby that advocated for road improvements, bicycle paths, and equal rights for bicyclists.
“The most important hindrance to the development of motor transport was the lack of paved roads…” writes Gordon. “One impetus for road building was the craze for bicycles in the 1890s, with its encouragement of individual freedom to explore.”[9]
Thus, good roads were on the horizon, with much credit due to advocacy work of America’s wheelmen. But whether or not the design of those roads would come to safely accommodate bicycles, was, unfortunately, another story entirely.
A 1897 cover from Good Roads, The League of American Wheelmen's "illustrated monthly magazine devoted to the improvement of the public roads and streets."
As exemplified by Phoenix’s postal feud, 1893 was a particularly volatile year, one of great highs and great lows. The spectacular and storied World’s Columbian Exposition opened on May 1st in Chicago to international fanfare, eventually drawing 27 million visitors over a frenzied 6-months. Its extravagant 690-acre campus, complete with some 200 buildings and designed by titans like Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, stood as a fleeting monument to human achievement and All-American might. (For further reading, I recommend The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s fictionalized but indispensable and macabre account of the historic event.)
The World’s Fair, as it was known in shorthand, recognized the bicycle’s trending popularity and included it among the program and amusements. The evening of August 10th was celebrated as Wheelmen’s Night [12], and as many of one thousand bicyclists gathered for a lantern-lit ride through the streets, complete with decorated wheels and costumes. Hardly ones to miss a promotional show of force, The League of American Wheelmen were among the revelry and marked the day with a race.
Commercial interests were well represented, too. In one example, the Overman Wheel Company advertised their wares at an exhibit within the Transportation Building, a prominent structure on the fairgrounds designed by Louis Sullivan, the so-called father of modern skyscrapers and mentor at the time to an up-and-coming young architect by the name of Frank Lloyd Wright.
"Devoted to all the devices that save the legs and arms of man from labor and fatigue," the Transportation Building made sure to show off corporations like Overman, a Massachusetts-based bicycle manufacturer that The Illustrated American called "the most attractive and artistic in this department, combining as it does simplicity, taste, and solid worth."[13]
But that same first week of May, as the curious gathered in Chicago to open World’s Fair, the panicked descended on Wall Street to sell off stocks, empty bank deposits, and erode confidence in the economy. Turmoil in international markets, the failure of prominent domestic railroads, and a European run on US Treasury gold were among the winding maze of dominos that fell early in 1893, setting off a multi-year recession that brought on double digit unemployment rates, the closure of hundreds of banks, and the eventual failure of, by some accounts, nearly 15,000 businesses nationwide.
It was a classically American-era, equally grandiose and hysterical, a paradoxical time simultaneously inflated by the optimism of its ambitious World’s Fair and depressed by the failure of its financial institutions.
Back in Phoenix, both events exerted influence in their own way, drawing frequent mentions in the newspapers.[14, 15] But a crestfallen market and the specter of bank runs didn’t stop early Phoenicians from buying bicycles. So popular were the new devices—historian Mark Pry would later look back at the 1890s and pronounce them “an affordable vehicle that gave ordinary Americans their first taste of independent mobility”[10]—that Mr. and Mrs. Seip, demonstrating what The Arizona Republican called a “remarkable singleness of thought”, each surprised the other with a bicycle for Christmas in 1892.[16] To the chagrin of strict moralists and various coalitions of get-off-my-lawn types, that same singleness of thought soon afflicted the masses, and wheels were on every corner.
In late-May of 1893, just weeks after the Columbian Exposition’s grand unveiling, The Arizona Republican reported that “there are in Phoenix, not taking in Tempe and Mesa, more than 150 bicycles costing costing from $100 to $150 each… three-fourths [of which] have been purchased within the last year.” True to its form as a civic booster, the paper proclaimed it “safe to estimate that $20,000 is now invested in wheels,” calling the sum, akin to more than $500,000 today, a sign that “prosperity is general and properly distributed.” To advertise its supposed prosperity (and combat its unrefined image as a “cowboy town”), the Republican suggested that “photographic views be taken” of a coming procession where the “wheelmen of the valley” planned to meet “in great numbers.”
“Common as is the sight of of a wheel, or a dozen wheels at a time,” read the 1893 article, “this procession of bicycles will appear grand and unique even to the residents of Phoenix.”
And how would the photographic views be used? The Republican had a timely idea. They should, naturally, “be made a part of Phoenix exhibit at the world’s fair… attract[ing] more favorable attention to the city than a view of the most pretentious half dozen civic buildings.”[17]
A veritable horde of wheels headed down Phoenix's Washington Street sometime in the 1890s.
Propaganda potential aside, the wheels and their wheelmen were the cause of much dispute around town. As was established some time ago, for every action there is one both equal and opposite. Inevitably, the bicycle’s meteoric rise to prominence wasn’t enough to render it immune from such laws of the universe, and its sudden emergence set in motion reactions in public opinion and public policy.
Almost immediately, bicycle accidents routinely made the news. Poor Mr. Seip, for instance, was later thrown from his aforementioned Christmas gift “with so great violence that his right arm was broken near the elbow,” completing the Trojan Horse-like narrative arc of a gift, once naively celebrated, whose risks were better known by the day.[18] Mr. J. F. Pierce, godblesshim, was involved in “a painful bicycle accident resulting in the compound fracture of the left leg.”[19] And Lillian Russell found it necessary to “[cancel] her engagements for a week to repair the injuries she received in falling from her wheel.” Of Russell’s tango with gravity, a local paper deadpanned its own Newtonian insight: “In accidents of this sort the damage is proportionate to the weight of the body striking the ground.”[20]
Criticism was easy and fashionable, but wheels were irresistibly useful, too. They often won over their initial critics. Good Roads Magazine, circa 1899, recounts the story of a petition that circulated Phoenix early in the decade as wheels first appeared.
Petitioners were concerned that bicycles “endanger[ed] the lives and property of our citizens, by reason of frightening horses attached to vehicles and causing said horses to become unmanageable.” To fix the matter, they lobbied the Phoenix City Council to “pass an ordinance prohibiting bicycles from being run on the principal streets of this city.” Ultimately, their heavy-handed prohibition was passed over. (Indeed, Good Roads reported smugly that the undersigned were later converted to the cause. “The petition contained the names of an even hundred men,” they wrote. “each one of whom is now a bicycle rider.”)[21]
But while the petition’s exact proposal did not immediately become law, it foreshadowed the passage of other local ordinances that would regulate and restrict bicycle use, so much so that even the Post Office would soon find itself taking up rhetorical arms.
Local editorial pages, already well-armed with the slings and arrows of pointed words, were quick to join the fray. The wheel’s innovative utility undeniable, they instead aimed their criticism at wheelmen themselves. It was wasn’t the machine that was at fault; it was the man.
“Few modern inventions have been of greater benefit than the bicycle,” opined The Arizona Republican. “It has done a deal for the health and development of the human body and the human mind. It has taken thousands of people out of close cities and shown them what sort of a country God makes. It has forced and is forcing better roads. It’s a mighty good things and its use was never extending faster than now.
"But the bicycle rider himself can give the machine a bad name that will hurt it and he can get his own name into the obituary column, and he’ll do both of those things if he doesn’t pretty soon begin to change his ways. Nobody else who moves about in the crowded streets of cities begins to be so utterly reckless as the bicyclist.”[22]
As happens, cries of indignation soon became calls for regulation. The Republican reported, amidst the wheel’s rapid capture of public imagination, that “the question of special municipal legislation for the government of bicycle riders is being discussed in this and other cities.”
In spite of “riders themselves object[ing] to legislation for their guidance, … there are excellent reasons why the subject should receive especial attention,” the paper wrote, going on to condemn the “danger attached to the presence of a considerable number of bicyclers upon the streets of any city"—bicyclers who "dart hither and thither at a speed not permitted to the drivers of horses.”[23] One can almost picture these irreverent Wheelmen of the Apocalypse zipping about upon their silent steeds, laughing maniacally as they sowed chaos and laid waste to the status quo.
Phoenix’s first legislative salvo, which pre-empted much of the decade’s surge in wheels, would prove controversial for years to come. “Some time ago an ordinance prepared by the members of the Capital City Cycle Club was submitted,” wrote the Arizona Republican in 1892. “It prohibited the passage of bicycles upon the sidewalks of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Monroe Streets between Yavapai and Apache.” [6] Just a few years in, the fight over city streets had begun, and bicyclists were already losing ground.
“As happens, cries of indignation soon became calls for regulation.
Which brings us back to that Friday night in September of 1893, with W.E. Temple standing before the Phoenix City Council.
“It was all on account of the bicycle ordinance,” recounted the newspapers. “There are two carriers for the Phoenix office, both of whom ride bicycles on their routes. They have found that by riding on sidewalks they can save a great deal of time, and some time ago applied to the council for a permit to do so on the outside streets. It was neither granted nor denied, and pending the final action of the council the carriers have been riding on the sidewalks in the course of the delivery, but at no other hours.”
Despite noting that in other cities “carriers who use wheels were permitted in the course of their duties to use all sidewalks” and appealing to common sense (an ambitious appeal, no doubt, in the context of council chambers) on the grounds “that the greater expedition with which mail can be delivered in this way is an advantage to the public,” Mr. Temple’s presentation did little to sway the elected powers that were.[1]
The city’s position was clear: Wheels had no place on a sidewalk. Instead, they’d have to find room for themselves amid the hustle and bustle of urban streets—streets designed for the more dominant transportation modes of the day. Such has been their plight ever since.
Straight from the pages of The Arizona Republican, May 3, 1895, yet the scolding feels right at home in the newsfeeds of today.
Thus, to live in the wheel-crazed cities of the 1890s was to live in a time of rapid change, a time of great social, political, and economic upheaval marked by booms and busts, especially in the American West, where fortune bankrupt as many of the bold as it favored.
By the sounds of it, it was a time much like today, when controversy surrounds yet another two-wheeled contraption that dares to improve urban mobility, a contraption that has seen rapid adoption, been associated with its fair share of injuries, and inspired renewed calls for ‘special municipal legislation.’
It is as if the curious circumstances of 1893 are repeating themselves, and the bicycle, with all its benefits and controversies, has taken on a new form in the modern day electric scooter.
Scooters Waiting Up and Down the Boulevard
The 21st Century Scooter Craze began on or around September 2017, when Bird, a soon-to-be-infamous California startup, released ten electric scooters into the wild streets of Santa Monica. The city’s ordinance didn’t directly contemplate such a move, leaving Bird in legal limbo (Santa Monica’s Mayor, for his part, seemed to think their illegality was self-evident).
And why would it? It had been awhile since the scooter was last in fashion. (The rise and fall of the Razor, named the summer’s best toy in 2000, pre-dates all things social media, smart phone, and sharing economy.) Bird’s prescient launch, which sought to bring the scooter back, echoed well-worn Silicon Valley canon—move fast, break things, ask for forgiveness before permission, etcetera and so on.
In Santa Monica, “chaos quickly ensued,” writes Inc. reporter Will Yakowicz. “Citizens piloted Birds on the sidewalk (illegally). Teens caused mayhem by ignoring traffic laws while double-riding. Pedestrians tripped over discarded scooters that clogged the walkways. There were accidents… and hundreds of tickets issued to riders. There was a protest. There was a counterprotest. Six months after the scooters appeared, Bird agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a nine-count misdemeanor criminal complaint levied by the city attorney’s office.
"In other words, everything went more or less according to plan.”[24]
Except things didn’t go according to plan. From Bird’s perspective, they went even better. Within a year of their Santa Monica launch, the company recorded 10 million total rides. And two years later, Bird now operates internationally across 100+ cities, fights for market share against a slew of major competitors, and has kickstarted the white-hot micro-mobility industry (analysts like Deloitte and McKinsey can hardly publish a white paper before it’s already out of date).
The Phoenix metro area saw their first Birds sometime in May 2018, and the company’s blog reported in July 2019 that “Bird riders have taken more than a million rides in the Phoenix region since launch.”[25] Almost 130 years later, that ‘taste of independent mobility’ is back.
Which means, inevitably, the debate between enthusiasts and critics is back, too. Despite historically fast growth by companies like Bird, the scooter’s entry into some communities has been anything but easy. Accidents are in the news. Social media satire abounds. And regulatory responses run the gamut, especially in the living policy laboratory that is the Valley, where a handful of major cities each get to address scooters in their own way. Some metro area cities, such as Glendale, have banned them outright.
Following the ban, one intrepid reporter spoke with “numerous people walking downtown [who] were glad to hear the city was making [Bird] remove the scooters.”
Said one pleased pedestrian: “The fact that I see these things all over the sidewalk and I have to walk around them everywhere, it is really annoying. They are a nuisance and I am glad the city is finally doing something about them.”[26]
After a false start in 2018, the “Phoenix City Council has approved a six-month pilot program for e-scooters… [that’s] expected to start in mid-September.”[27] The plan, which follows a now common pilot program approach, is to allow a few hundred scooters per company to explore an area restricted to and around Downtown Phoenix. (Tallahassee, my old stomping grounds under the Live Oaks, recently did the same, but on a 3-month timeline and without the buy-in of major university campuses. Twitter’s response is worth a scroll).
Phoenix's upcoming pilot program enables riders to scoot through the heart of Downtown, although imho it has a few curious carve outs, such McDowell east of Central and the other half of Grand Avenue's historic street frontage.
The roadblocks encountered by 19th-century wheels and 21st-century scooters demonstrate a law of social and political life: New entrants to a system are easy targets for critique. They lack, by virtue of their newness, an established coalition or organized base. Worse still, they are beloved by early-adopters, that mythical demographic who seems most likely to try things a new way and, to their self-immolating detriment, least likely to vote.
But the real problem with bicycles and scooters, of course, isn’t the bicycle or the scooter. It’s that the whole reactionary premise, the centuries-long public uproar, is a distraction from larger, more important, and more systemic concerns, like building streets that work for more than just the car. We question new entrants to the system without taking time to question the system they entered into—the very system that seems to have perpetuated a search for micro-mobility solutions.
Take, for instance, riding on the sidewalk—the postmen’s cardinal sin in 1893 and Denver’s prohibition just this past week. That riding bicycles and scooters on a sidewalk puts them in occasional conflict with pedestrians is a given, but that it doesn’t put them in constant conflict with multi-ton automobiles is a blessing. For the rider without access to dedicated lanes, it is a self-preserving act of undeniable logic.
The average city’s response seems to be to regulate first and ask substantive, introspective questions later. Yet how they plan to address the car’s penchant for “accidents” is anybody’s guess. (What else that happens so frequently, by the way, do we dare to call an accident?)
In response to “Gilbert taking aim at [the] scooter invasion,” Mesa Transportation Director R.J. Zeder was perhaps too insightful for his own good when he “outlined how the city’s streets were not designed to accommodate scooters.”[28]
No, they sure weren’t. And therein lies the rub.
For Godsake, Don't Stop Believin'
Imagine, instead, an alternative history. One where the League of American Wheelmen’s favored steed maintained popularity alongside the automobile. One where we spent the last hundred and thirty years investing in a system of public spaces and streets that made meaningful room for both bicycles and cars, a system more adaptable to change and more accommodating of new entrants, whatever form they take. Because yesterday it was wheels, today it’s scooters, and tomorrow, for all we know, it’ll be pogo sticks.
But since we haven’t made that kind of investment, since we’ve settled for good roads over complete streets, today’s scooters find themselves in essentially the same position as yesterday’s bicycles: riding on infrastructure built almost exclusively for somebody else, banned from sidewalks, and desperate for dedicated lanes. Except now the speeds are faster, and the stakes are higher. Where the wheelmen of yore once worried about a run-in with the horse and buggy, scooter riders worry about the automobile, which kills some 40,000 Americans every year.
Want to know what a city really backs, believes in, and wants to become? Forget the pdfs and plans—look at the budget. Excel is where we balance the future and the past.
In response to the shortcomings of their era, 19th century bicyclists rallied nationwide to lobby for street improvements and equal right to the right-of-way. What will today’s micro-mobility enthusiasts do? How will Phoenix react to new entrants? Will we continue to have the same debate on the same terms, favoring incremental regulation over substantive reform? Or will we revive the ambitious scale and revolutionary spirit of the Good Roads Movement, which dared to challenge the very constitution of streets?
“Road-making is an art form that has never been learned in the United States,” wrote Good Roads Magazine in 1899. “But the world does move, and one who has cycled for ten years finds much more good road than he did a decade ago.”
The world does move, indeed. It spins, not unlike a wheel, and we’re here, and we’re hanging on for the ride, and we’re wondering: What will we find a decade, or even a century, from now?
[1] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), September 23, 1893.
[2] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), September 12, 1895.
[3] Andrew Homan, “Six-Day Racing in America,” Peloton Magazine.
[4] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), January 22, 1895.
[5] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), November 30, 1893.
[6] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), December 24, 1892
[7] Gary Allan Tobin, “The Bicycle Boom of the 1890’S,” The Journal of Popular Culture. Spring 1974.
[8] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), March 10, 1892.
[9] Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Princeton University Press. 2016. pp 129, 130, 145.
[10] Mark E. Pry, “‘Everybody Talks Wheels:’ The 1890s Bicycle Craze in Phoenix,” The Journal of Arizona History. Spring 1990.
[11] The League of American Bicyclists, “Mission and History.” Website accessed August 2019.
[12] H.N. Higinbotham, “Report of the President to the Board of Directors of the World’s Columbian Exposition,” Rand, McNally & Co. 1898. p 259.
[13] The Illustrated American, v. 13, 1893. p 767.
[14] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), May 3, 1893.
[15] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), April 4, 1893.
[16] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), December 27, 1892.
[17] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), May 28, 1893.
[18] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), February 6, 1894.
[19] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), April 16, 1985.
[20] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), November 25, 1896.
[21] Sterling Elliot, “Elliot’s Magazine: L.A.W. Bulletin and Good Roads,” October 1899. Boston, MA. pg. 180.
[22] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), May 3, 1895
[23] Arizona Republican (Phoenix), July 3, 1895.
[24] Will Yakowicz, “14 Months, 120 Cities, $2 Billion: There’s Never Been a Company Like Bird. Is the World Ready?,” February 2019.
[25] Bird Rides, Inc. “Bird’s Impact on the Phoenix Area,” July 26, 2019.
[26] Darrell Jackson, “Scooters to be removed from Glendale,” February 11, 2019.
[27] Mark Brodie, “Dockless Electric Scooters Coming To Downtown Phoenix For Trial Run,” July 11, 2019.
[28] Cecilia Chan, “Gilbert taking aim at scooter invasion,” December 16, 2018.
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