As is common with most people, when given the space to talk about anything of my choosing, I went with something that hit closer to home. Bicycles are not a rare sight on Stanford’s campus; The “circle of death” is, still to this date, a challenge for me to navigate, which every time I come out of in one piece, I feel a sheer sense of accomplishment. Perhaps this helps explain why I felt somewhat relieved when my bike got stolen for the second time and I decided to start walking everywhere — a much safer mode of transportation. Despite my fear of bicycles on campus, I’m a huge advocate for designing cities and urban spaces that center cyclists needs and encourage a collective adaptation of a more sustainable transportation culture, much like Amsterdam.
Cycling is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, not to mention that it’s also a form of physical exercise (Pucher and Buehler 689–694). That being said, my appreciation for bicycles goes beyond their functionality and virtual lack of harm to the environment. On the one hand, ever since its invention, the bicycle has gone through multiple design iterations that were informed by varying user experiences corresponding to the different ways in which people used this invention, and the new technologies that became available with time. As a product designer myself, I can’t help but wonder about the design process of the bicycle and how it came to be and persist in the form that it takes now. Even more intriguing is the cultural shifts we’ve witnessed over the years in relation to the bicycle and what it symbolizes, especially in more conservative communities like the one I was raised in. In this paper, I hope to discuss some of the main turning points in the history of this product’s design, and the value it carries in different people’s lives.
The history of how the bicycle as we know it today came to be is a collection of timelines created by multiple inventors and designers. The beginning of this timeline remains a topic of debate due to multiple unverified claims for the invention dating all the way back to 1500 AD (“History of the bicycle”). However, the first major development in the design of the bicycle is credited to a German baron named Karl von Drais when he invented a steerable, two-wheeled contraption in 1817 (Andrews).
The design Drais came up with had two miniature carriage wheels attached in alignment to a wooden frame, a triangular steering column with an armrest fitted over the pivoting front wheel and a padded saddle (Hazael). Although this invention was revolutionary at the time, it quickly died down after because of how impractical it was to use, even though Drais was able to demonstrate how much time it can save in comparison to walking.
“Nothing of the day” — John Keats
Luckily, others European designers, like Pierre Lallement, Pierre Michaux and Ernest Michaux (Andrews), saw the potential and continued to improve upon the original design concept by prototyping pedals that were attached to the front wheel in the early 1860's. Although this allowed for a relatively more convenient user experience, given that you don’t have to kick against the street anymore to propel this new machine forward, it was still dubbed as the “boneshaker” due to how rough it was to ride it.
Naturally, the latter design flaw pushed more designers to rethink this product and how it can be used. This led to the next iteration of it which included disproportionate geometry and an oversized front wheel. This design, which was brought to life by inventors such as Eugène Meyer and James Starley in the 1870’s, helped popularize the bicycle and incorporate it into the competitive field of sports. While this odd machine did solve for bumpy issue of the ‘boneshaker’, it failed to account for safety.
The “penny-farthing”, as this version of the bicycle became known, was too dangerous for most users to ride, despite the ease that the men are displaying in the picture. The 4-foot-high saddle proposed a serious challenge to mount and operate, which forced yet another iteration of the bicycle.
The new design, introduced by Englishman John Kemp Starley — the nephew of James Starley, the inventor and father of the bicycle industry— in 1885 (Andrews), operated with equal-sized wheels, a chain drive, and an appropriately placed paddles.
This version was called the Rover safety bicycle and it basically helped establish the first basic design guideline that most modern bikes adhere to nowadays. This design pushed its embodiment so far into the mainstream that today, 136 years later, we still see it around every corner and on every college campus. While tweaks were inevitably made to this product over the past 20 years to fit the modern user’s needs and expectations, it’s interesting to see a design stand the test of time and prove itself to be a solid one.
“the bicycle promises a splendid extension of personal power and freedom, scarcely inferior to what wings would give.” — New York Times
As a designer, I gush over the design process that the bicycle had gone through over the years and its evolution path, but the little Naya within me is less interested in design technicalities and more concerned in what the bicycle has symbolized for her for the better part of her life. When I think of bikes, two vivid memories come to mind from various points in my life. The first is when I crashed into our neighbor’s parapet as a little kid and was too scared to ride a bike for a few years after that. The second is when I overcame that fear in 5th grade and decided to ask my parents for a new bike that fits me. My parent’s response was an immediate rejection of my proposal on the basis that we don’t have bike lanes in town — a claim I immediately dismissed since 3 of my brothers have bikes — and that girls can’t ride bikes. The second claim was harder for me to wrap my head around. When I asked for further clarification, they said that riding a bike will render me infertile and break my hymen, which is still a wide spread taboo in Muslim communities. I didn’t have the necessary knowledge and terminology back then to argue against that, and I ended up crying myself to sleep while listening to “Boston” by Augustana playing in the next room.
Looking back at it now, I’m convinced that my parents used that argument as a lazy excuse to get themselves out of buying me a new bike. That’s because their understanding of their claims isn’t based on scientific evidence, but rather on cultural stigma and biases surrounding womxn and their bodies. When you ride a bicycle, you’re taking full control of your body and mobility; you’re physically and literally propelling yourself forward and steering your way. This contradicts how conservative and religious values view womxn and the desire to police their bodies. That’s why for many womxn, the bicycle represents freedom and independence. It symbolizes our hunger to break free from the shackles of the patriarchy, and to propel ourselves in the direction of progress. This was poetically portrayed through the 2012 Saudi Arabian movie Wadjda.
Wadjda is the story of a bright 10-year old Wadjda who dreams of owning a green bicycle that she passes by everyday on her way to school. She wants to use that bike to race her friend Abdullah, whom she’s confident she can beat, but cycling is frowned upon for girls in her community. Her mom refuses to buy her the green bike claiming that it’s expensive, and this is where Wadjda’s various efforts to make money begin. Those efforts were constantly interrupted by other figures in her life, and largely ignored by her mom who’s too consumed with the fact that her husband is trying to get a second wife since she can’t bear kids anymore. When Wadjda finds out that her father was getting married next door one night, she suggests that her mom buy another red dress to try to win her father back like she’d once tried to before, but this time, to Wadjda’s surprise, her mom decides to use the money to buy her the green bike instead. The next day, we see Wadjda riding her green bike as fast as she could with a smile from ear to ear. (Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZEiM9vIMI4)
The idea that Wadjda was free to get a bike and fly with the wind only when her mom was able to free herself of the invisible shackles of society is so poetic for me. It helps me understand my own experience as an Arab, Muslim woman, but most importantly it comes to show how some products, like the bicycle, grow to be much bigger than their mere functionality. They start to represent desires, dreams, and unspoken intentions. Another beautiful example of that is the connection that us Palestinians have created between watermelon and the Palestinian flag. When the Israeli government banned artists and designers from using the 4 colors in the Palestinian flag — namely red, gree, black, and white —in the past, they found a way around that by employing watermelon as a symbol for the flag and our identity, and we saw this concept come back this past month given the recent circumstances.
When I was applying for schools in the US, my parents tried all sorts of ways to try to get me to stay. One that kept coming back was them offering to buy me my dream car if I choose to go to school back home instead. My answer to that offer was always “I’d rather have a shitty bike over there [on campus] than get a car over here” because I knew if I’d stayed home, I wouldn’t be free.
Andrews, Evan. “The Bicycle’s Bumpy History.” History, 2017, https://www.history.com/news/bicycle-history-invention.
Hazael, Victoria. “200 years since the father of the bicycle Baron Karl von Drais invented the ‘running machine.’” Cycling UK, 28 February 2017, https://www.cyclinguk.org/cycle/draisienne-1817-2017-200-years-cycling-innovation-design.
“History of the bicycle.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_bicycle.
Pucher, John, and Ralph Buehler. “Cycling towards a more sustainable transport future.” Taylor & Francis Online, vol. 37, no. 6, 2017, pp. 689–694, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01441647.2017.1340234#:~:text=Cycling%20causes%20virtually%20no%20environmental,environmentally%2C%20socially%20and%20economically%20sustainable.