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The Sidepath Not Taken: Bicycles, Taxes, and the Rhetoric of the Public Good in the 1890s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 August 2013

University of Wisconsin–La Crosse


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Copyright © Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1. Library and archival holdings of Sidepaths magazine, published in Rochester, New York, from 1898, are extremely rare; after several years of searching, I have located six extant issues out of a probable seventy-two.

2. “Bicycle Sidepaths,” Genesee (N.Y.) Daily News, 18 April 1900 (hereafter GDN).

3. Mionske, Bob, Bicycling & The Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist (Boulder, Colo., 2007). Neither does the topic appear in the last twelve years of Bicycling magazine, or similar publications.

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4. McCally, Karen, “Bloomers & Bicycles: Health and Fitness in Victorian Rochester,” Rochester History 69, no. 2 (2008): 127, esp. 14–17; Petty, Ross D., “Bicycling in Minneapolis in the Early Twentieth Century,” Minnesota History 62 (Fall 2010): 8495.

5. For current urban bicycle advocacy, see,,, among many. On complete streets, see McCann, Barbara A. and Rynne, Suzanne, Complete Streets: Best Policy and Implementation Practices (Chicago, 2010). Published accounts of the recent resurgence in urban cycling include Hurst, Robert, The Cyclist’s Manifesto: The Case for Riding on Two Wheels Instead of Four (Guilford, Conn., 2009); Mapes, Jeff, Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities (Eugene, 2007); Harry Wray, J., Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life (Boulder, Colo., 2008); Furness, Zack, One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility (Philadelphia, 2010).There is significant journalistic coverage of the political struggles over adding bike lanes; see the New York Times and Toronto Star.

6. Hunter, M. H., “The Problem of Classification: Public Expenditures and Revenues, American Economic Review 20 (March 1930): 4653; Samuelson, Paul A., “Aspects of Public Expenditure Theories,” Review of Economics and Statistics 40 (November 1958): 332–38; Coase, R. H., “The Lighthouse in Economics,” Journal of Law and Economics 17 (October 1974): 357–76. This language is fundamental to public-policy analysis.

7. Published bicycle history veers erratically between heavily illustrated trade books and theoretically-complex academic texts. For the former, see Dodge, Pryor, The Bicycle (New York, 1996), and Herlihy, David V., Bicycle: The History (New Haven, 2004); for the latter, see Bijker, Wiebe, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge, Mass., 1995). Works focusing on the 1890s include Norcliffe, Glen, The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869–1900 (Toronto, 2001); Harmond, Richard, “Progress and Flight: An Interpretation of the American Cycle Craze of the 1890s,” Journal of Social History 5 (Winter 1971): 235–57; Tobin, Gary Allan, “The Bicycle Boom of the 1890s: The Development of Private Transportation and the Birth of the Modern Tourist,” Journal of Popular Culture 7 (1974): 838–49.

8. Epperson, Bruce D., Peddling Bicycles to America: The Rise of an Industry (Jefferson, N.C., 2010).

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9. This became a case study in the social construction of technology debate. For a summary, see Clayton, Nick, “SCOT: Does It Answer?Technology & Culture 43 (April 2002): 351–60, and the Bijker, Pinch & Clayton response, in ibid., 361–70. Herlihy combines these approaches in Bicycle, chap. 11.

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10. Rochester & C. Turnpike-road v. Joel, 58 N.Y.S. 346, 24 May 1899.

11. Along with the Good Roads and LAW histories cited below, see Taylor, Michael, “The Bicycle Boom and the Bicycle Bloc: Cycling and Politics in the 1890s,” Indiana Magazine of History 104, no. 3 (September 2008): 213–40.

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12. Marks, Patricia, Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press (Lexington, Ky., 1990); Garvey, Ellen Gruber, “Reframing the Bicycle: Advertising-Supported Magazines and Scorching Women,” American Quarterly 47, no. 1 (1995): 66101; Mackintosh, Phillip Gordon and Norcliffe, Glen, “Men, Women, and the Bicycle: Gender and Social Geography of Cycling in the Late-Nineteenth Century,” in Cycling and Society, ed. Horton, Dave, Rosen, Paul, and Cox, Peter (Burlington, Vt., 2007), 153–77; Macy, Sue, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) (Washington, D.C., 2011).

13. Herlihy provides an estimate of three million bikes produced in 1895 in his introduction to Dodge, The Bicycle. Hounshell provides a much better-supported estimate of 1.2 million annually for that time period. Hounshell, David A., From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States (Baltimore, 1985), 191215, esp. 201.

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14. See Warner, Sam Bass Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth (Philadelphia, 1968), esp. chaps. 56; Warner, The Urban Wilderness: A History of the American City (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995), chaps. 3 and 4.

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15. The complex politics of the relationship between the LAW and Good Roads has been extensively explored. See Fein, Michael R., Paving the Way: New York Road Building and the American State, 1880–1956 (Lawrence, Kans., 2008), 3536; Fuller, Wayne E., “Good Roads and Rural Free Delivery of Mail,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 42, no. 1 (1955): 69; Philip Parker Mason, “The League of American Wheelmen and the Good-Roads Movement, 1880–1905” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1957); William C. Hilles, “The Good Roads Movement in the United States: 1880–1916” (Master’s thesis, Duke University, 1958); Campbell, Ballard, “The Good Roads Movement in Wisconsin, 1980–1911,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 49 (Summer 1966): 273–93; Wells, Christopher W., “The Changing Nature of Country Roads: Farmers, Reformers, and the Shifting Uses of Rural Space, 1880–1905,” Agricultural History 80 (Spring 2006): 148–51. For the complicated publishing history of Good Roads, see Mason, “The League of American Wheelmen,” 105–7.

16. McShane, Clay, Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City (New York, 1994), 6–7, 19, 6373; quotes from Fein, Paving the Way, 24, 26; Mason, “The League of American Wheelmen,” 84–86; possibly apocryphal Twain story from “A Very Bad Road,” Good Roads 1, no. 3 (1892): 158.

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17. Fein, Paving the Way, 28–29.

18. Fein, Paving the Way, 20–26; Fuller, “Good Roads,” 69–70; Hugill, Peter J., “Good Roads and the Automobile in the United States, 1880–1929,” Geographical Review 72, no. 3 (1982): 327–49.

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19. Quote from “Roads for Cyclists,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 24 May 1895; “Separate Roadway,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 31 October 1894; “A Colorado Cycle-Path,” LAW Bulletin and Good Roads Magazine 28, no. 12 (1898): 232 (hereafter LAW Bulletin); “Side Path Built,” Morning Oregonian (Portland), 25 September 1896. The Portland movement culminated in an attempt at a $1 municipal tax, and a failed statewide law, discussed below. “A Dollar Wheel Tax,” Morning Oregonian, 5 May 1897; quote from “Sidepath League,” North Adams (Mass.) Daily Transcript, 9 September 1897, 1; see also stories on 13 and 14 September; “Shall Wheelmen Use the Common?” Boston Daily Globe, 18 May 1898.

20. Annual Report of the City Engineer of Minneapolis (Minneapolis, 1897), 36.

21. “Cycle Paths of City,” St. Paul Globe, 8 June 1902; “The Cycle-Paths of St. Paul,” LAW Bulletin 28, no. 14 (1898): 262; quote from Annual Report, 61.

22. Annual Report, 151.

23. “The Cycle Paths of St. Paul,” LAW Bulletin and Good Roads Magazine 28 (30 September 1898): 262.

24. “Charles T. Raymond: A Brief Sketch . . .” Sidepaths 4 (February 1901): 72 (hereafter “A Brief Sketch”).

25. While it had been passed by the legislature, the 1895 bill never made it back from the legislature’s required review by the mayors of Niagara Falls and Lockport. The bill was successfully reintroduced in 1896. Journal of the Senate of the State of New York (Albany, N.Y., 1896), 322; Act of 4 March 1896, chap. 68, 1896 N.Y. Laws 90.

26. “A Brief Sketch,” 73.

27. “Side Paths,” LAW Bulletin 24, no. 2 (1896): 51.

28. “A Brief Sketch,” 73; cf. Mason, “The League of American Wheelmen,” 121. See also Armstrong, William W., The Higbie-Armstrong Good Roads Law (Being Chapter 115 Laws of 1898 of the State of New York) (Buffalo, N.Y., 1898).

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29. “A Brief Sketch,” 72–73; see below for Cattaraugus and Chautaqua county laws.

30. “A Cycling Center,” Rochester Union Advertiser, 19 October 1895, 11.

31. “An Outrage on Cyclists,” Rochester Post Express, 18 April 1896.

32. “Veto It, Governor,” Rochester Post Express, 20 April 1896.

33. Editorial, Rochester Post Express, 6 May 1896.

34. “Monroe County Sidepath Bill,” Rochester Democrat Chronicle, 29 April 1896.

35. Smith, Franklin, “An Object Lesson in Social Reform,” Appleton’s Popular Science Monthly 50 (January 1897): 306–8.

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36. Ibid., 309.

37. “Wheelmen Pleased,” Rochester Democrat Chronicle, 25 April 1896; “Sidepath Bill is Dead,” Rochester Post Express, 7 May 1896.

38. “Sidepaths for Bicycles,” Rochester Post Express, May 13, 1896; “Official Souvenir Program, LAW Good Roads Cycle Show” (9–13 March 1897), 1, in the pamphlet folder of the Rochester Public Library, Rochester, N.Y; Megargle, Percy F., “The Work of Side-Path Building,” LAW Magazine, 1 no. 8 (1901): 1517; Smith, “An Object Lesson in Social Reform,” 311.

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39. For example, Washington’s 1897 law allowed counties to “set aside and preserve part of any public highway . . . for the exclusive use of bicycles and pedestrians,” to fine trespassers and to use the proceeds for the general road fund. Act of 11 March 1897, chap. LIII §2, 1897 Wash. Sess. Laws 89; Act of 18 March 1896, chap. 62, 1896 N.J. Laws 100; “Cycling,” Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times, 22 March 1896; for Ontario, see Norcliffe, Ride to Modernity, 5 n. 35.

40. All six of these counties lay outside the urban center of New York City, and thus despite geographical distribution all can justifiably be called “upstate” according to inscrutable local custom. Act of 23 April 1897, chap. 343, 1897 N.Y. Laws 314; Act of 9 March 1898, chap. 45, 1898 N.Y. Laws 45; Noyes Greene, cf. H., The Highway Law of New York... (Albany, 1902), 233.

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41. “A Brief Sketch,” 73.

42. Act of 27 March 1899, chap. 152, 1899 N.Y. Laws 301.

43. Quote from ibid.; Greene, The Highway Law, 246; Ryan v. Preston, 10 N.Y. Ann. Cas. 5 (N.Y.S. 1901).

44. The quasi-state status of sidepath commissions, by which enthusiastic cyclists were empowered and tasked to advance their own interests without badgering existing government functionaries, seems quite similar to the types of agencies, hearing boards, and organizations created to manage, channel, or possibly defuse increased demand for public involvement in environmental matters in the 1960s and 1970s. See Longhurst, James, Citizen Environmentalists (Medford, Mass., Tufts University Press, 2010), chaps. 1 and 5.

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45. Radford, Gail, “From Municipal Socialism to Public Authorities: Institutional Factors in the Shaping of American Public Enterprise,” Journal of American History 90 (December 2003): 867.

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46. “A Brief Sketch,” 72–73.

47. Act of 27 March 1899, chap. 152, 1899 N.Y. Laws 301; Act of 24 April 1900, chap. 640, 1900 N.Y. Laws 1393.

48. Greene, The Highway Law, 335–38; for examples of these tags, see “Bicycle Path License Plate,” 1990.148.1–2, Realia Collection, Minnesota Historical Society Library, St. Paul.

49. “Get Good Roads,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 28 January 1900, 20; “A Brief Sketch,” 73.

50. “A Brief Sketch,” 73; Act of 18 February 1899, S.B. 143, 1899 Or. Laws 152; Ellis v. Frazier, 38 Ore. 46 (Or. 1901); “Cycle Path Legislation,” LAW Magazine 1, no. 10 (1901): 2; “Suit in Oregon,” Sidepaths 3, no. 23 (1900): 442. The ever-optimistic journal reported a proposed replacement in “A New Law,” Sidepaths 4, no. 3 (1901): 46.

51. Act of 6 March 1899, chap. 31, 1899 Wash. Laws 41; People v. Bruce, 23 Wash. 777 (Wash. 1901); cf. “Washington Tax Law Illegal,” Chicago Legal News 34, no. 56 (1901): 28.

52. Act of 11 April 1899, No. 35 § 2, 1899 Pa. Laws 36.

53. Westgate v. Spalding, 8 Pa. D. 490 (Pa. Com. Pl. 1899).

54. Pa. Const. Art. III, § 20; Keeler v. Westgate, 10 Pa. D. 240 (Pa. Com. Pl. 1901). Doubts about the constitutionality were not limited to Bradford County, as the “chairman of the Montgomery county sidepath commission [said that] the commissioners have about decided that the sidepath law is unworkable” and that he had “no hopes whatsoever from accomplishing any good under the present sidepath law.” “Sidepath Law Inoperative,” Bucks County (Pa.) Gazette, 10 May 1900, 2.

55. Porter v. Shields, 200 Pa. 241 (Pa. 1901); Act of 7 March 1907, No. 8 §1, 1907 Pa. Laws 10.

56. “Annual Report—Sidepath Commission by R.E. Archibald,” 21 December 1901, Record Series: Highway Papers–Sidepath Commission, Warren County Archives, Lake George, N.Y.; cf. Sidepaths 3, no. 24 (1900): 456–57.

57. Sidepaths 4, no. 2 (1901): 30–33.

58. “Monroe County Sidepath Guide,” 1900, Pamphlet Folder, Rochester Public Library, Rochester; also at MSC 388.1209747 S568 93-19885, New York State Archives, Albany (hereafter “Monroe County Sidepath Guide”).

59. “Work on Cinder Paths,” GDN, 7 May 1897; “Project of a Sidepath,” GDN, 2 June 1898; quote from “Everybody is Willing,” GDN, 4 June 1898.

60. “Bean Puller to Be Used,” GDN, 17 May 1899.

61. Ibid.; “Work on Cinder Paths,” GDN, 7 May 1897. The resulting paths were significantly better built than the adjoining roads. Based on Monroe County’s experience, the Genesee commission used a farm implement to cut a six-foot swath in the sod and a heavy roller to compact the soil. Donated cinders from the Le Roy Salt Company were spread and rolled, with depths adjusted to compensate for differences in grade. Tile reinforcements were laid at the bottom of hills.

62. “Looks Like Business,” GDN, 4 May 1899.

63. Act of 10 April 1900, chap. 658, 1900 Md. Laws 1047; Act of 13 April 1900, H.B. 605, 94 Ohio Laws 138; Act of 4 May 1900, chap. 757, 1900 R.I. Pub Laws 58; Act of 17 June 1901, chap. 180, 1901 Conn. Pub. Acts. 147; Act of 27 May 1901, chap. 4948, 1901 Fla. Laws 83; Act of 2 April 1901, chap. 126, 1901 Minn. Laws 153.

64. “No Let Up,” Sidepaths 3, no. 23 (1900), 436; LAW Magazine 1, no. 11 (1901): 16.

65. “Sidepaths in Canada,” Sidepaths 3, no. 23 (1900), 436–37; Act of 29 March 1901, chap. 53, 1901 S.M. 235; Norcliffe, Ride to Modernity, 149–57.

66. Salt Lake City, UT Code chap. LI § 727, (1903); “Cycle Path in the Granite State,” LAW Bulletin 28, no. 22 (1898): 392; “Cycle-Paths in Ohio,” LAW Bulletin 28, no. 16 (1898): 290; “Activity in the Far West,” LAW Magazine 1, no. 6 (1900): 3.

67. “New Laws Needed,” St. Paul Globe, 11 March 1900, 10.

68. “Wrong in Principle,” St. Paul Globe, 7 April 1900, 4.

69. Bemidji Pioneer, 3 May 1900.

70. “Keeping up the Paths,” St. Paul Globe, 30 February 1901, 4.

71. “New Laws Needed,” St. Paul Globe, 11 March 1900, 10; “State Cycle License,” Minneapolis Journal (28 January 1901): 12; “Plan for Next Season,” St. Paul Globe, 28 March 1901, 5.

72. Journal Of The Senate Of The Thirty-Second Session Of The Legislature Of The State Of Minnesota (St. Paul, 1901), 658; Chapter 126 of the General Laws of Minnesota (1901), 153.

73. “Want Commissioners Named,” St. Paul Globe, 14 April 1901.

74. “Cycle Paths of City,” St. Paul Globe, 8 June 1902, 12.

75. “Cycle Path Plans,” Minneapolis Journal, 15 April 1901, 9.

76. “Cycle Paths of City,” 12.

77. Isaac Houlgate, “Guide to Minneapolis Bicycle Paths,” 1902, pamphlet in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society; quote from Hudson, Horace B., Dictionary of Minneapolis and Vicinity (Minneapolis, 1906), 12.

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78. Ryan v. Preston, 10 N.Y. Ann. Cas. 5 (N.Y.S. 1901); O’Donnell v. Preston, 74 A.D. 86 (N.Y.S. 1902).

79. “Bicycle Sidepaths,” GDN, 18 April 1900.

80. McCally, “Bloomers & Bicycles,” 14.

81. “License System Commended,” LAW Magazine 1, no. 6 (1900): 2.

82. American Newspaper Directory 32, no. 1 (1900): 756; “A Merry Christmas,” Sidepaths 3, no. 24 (December 1900): 455.

83. “Cycle Paths,” LAW Bulletin 28, no. 1 (1898): 42; “Cycle Path Legislation,” LAW Bulletin 28, no. 27 (1898): 476; “Director Dodge Interested,” LAW Magazine 1, no. 5 (1900): 2.

84. See Taylor, George Rogers, The Transportation Revolution, 1815–1860 (New York, 1977), chap. 7.

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85. “First Tag Brought a V,” GDN, 1 June 1899.

86. “Bids for Bicycle Tags,” GDN, 11 April 1900; “Three Cyclists Nabbed,” GDN, May 21, 1900.

87. “Sidepath Funds Gone,” GDN, 14 June 1900.

88. In another cost-saving measure, the paths were to be covered with gravel instead of cinders. “The latter are more expensive than gravel, to begin with, and they do not last,” said the Daily News, from which we might infer that the days of free cinder donations were over. “The wind carries them away by the cartload,” complained the newspaper, noting that “of the large quantity of cinders spread on the path between Batavia and Bushville hardly any remain.” “Preparations for Work,” GDN, 30 May 1901.

89. “Sale of Sidepath Tags Slow, “ GDN, 2 May 1901.

90. “State Sidepath Commission,” Gloversville (N.Y.) Daily Leader, 13 September 1902.

91. “Lupton Bill Disappointing,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 May 1907.

92. Compare Fig. 2, “Side Paths of Monroe County,” a map dated 1896 and attributed to Frank J. Amsden, with “Good Roads Map” of Monroe County dated 1902. Rochester History Department, Rochester Public Library.

93. “Bicycle Sidepaths,” GDN, 18 April 1900.

94. Steve Friedman, “#1 Bike City,” Bicycling 51, no. 4 (2010): 56–62, 64, 66, 97.

95. James Longhurst, “Where Does a Bicycle Culture Come From? The Twin Cities and the Forgotten Sidepath Movement of the 1890s,” paper presented at the Minnesota Environmental History Conference, St. Paul, June 2012.

96. “Monroe County Sidepath Guide”; McCally, “Bloomers & Bicycles,” 14.

97. Jeremy Moule, “Westside Towns May Study Trail,” Rochester City Newspaper, 22 June 2011.

98. Einhorn, Robin, Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833–1872, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 2001), ix–x; Wells, Christopher W., “Fueling the Boom: Gasoline Taxes, Invisibility, and the Growth of the American Highway Infrastructure, 1919–1956,” Journal of American History 99, no. 1 (2012): 7281.

99. “The Basis of State Aid,” LAW Bulletin 28, no. 17 (1898): 346.

100. “Side Paths vs. Roads,” LAW Bulletin 24, no. 3 (1896): 95.

101. Smith, “An Object Lesson in Social Reform,” 308.

102. Fein, Paving the Way, 35, 30. Lawrence, Cf.Lipin, M., “‘Cast Aside the Automobile Enthusiast’: Class Conflict, Tax Policy, and the Preservation of Nature in Progressive-Era Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 107, no. 2 (2006): 166–95.

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103. This observation ties in with the work of many historians attempting to emphasize the often-overlooked power of governmental institutions in the nineteenth century. See Novak, William J., “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review 113, no. 3 (2008): 752–72, esp. 758–59; this theme is present in the work of many historians and social scientists, including those labeled “new institutionalists.” This focus on defining public goods and the expansion of state power is beginning to shape the work of urban environmental historians; see Rawson, Michael, Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston (Cambridge, Mass., 2010).

104. Radford, “Municipal Socialism,” 888.

105. This seems similar in form to the policy choice of a combined sewerage system over the option of two separate paths for rainwater and human waste. See Tarr, Joel, “The Separate vs. Combined Sewer Problem: A Case Study in Urban Technology Design Choice,” Journal of Urban History 5 (May 1979): 308–39; republished in Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink (Akron, 1996), 131, 153–55; Melosi, Martin V., The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore, 2000), 325–28.

106. Where Clay McShane has argued that “the decision . . . to adopt asphalt and brick pavements played vital roles in the emergence of the auto,” I offer the flip side to the auto’s success: the decision to create a combined system of paved roads eventually hindered the bicycle’s viability as a transportation option. McShane, Down the Asphalt Path, xii.