The city of Atlanta is a major transportation hub with Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (often called the world‘s busiest) and major interstate highways that connect here and troll motorists with some of the worst traffic in the nation. We have MARTA, the Atlanta Streetcar, and cars galore. But with Atlanta’s increasing density and personal ambitions to reduce carbon footprints, cycling is becoming a preferred mode of transportation for many Atlantans. Although new paths and bike sharing programs are popping up all over the city, cycling in Atlanta is not a recent trend. Cyclists have been crisscrossing the metro area since the late 19thcentury.
The modern bicycle’s early ancestor, the Draisienne, was developed in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais of Sauerbrun in Germany. The Draisienne was basically a front wheel capable of being steered, with a padded saddle and armrest. Baron von Drais took his invention to Paris, where is acquired the name velocipede. Pedals were added to the front axle of the velocipede in 1863 in Paris. The velocipede’s popularity spread across the Atlantic Ocean after the Civil War and Americans went mad for this new form of transportation. The term “bicycle” came into use in 1869. But the craze was over almost as soon as it began. Bicycles were heavy, the seat cushions were not comfortable, and riding a bicycle took a lot of strength and coordination.
Modifications and new cycles soon brought the bicycle back into popularity. Bicycle clubs formed all over the nation, including the Atlanta Bicycle Club, which was founded in 1888. Cyclists, sometimes called “wheelmen,” staged races to nearby towns, like Marietta, Stone Mountain, and Fairburn. These wheelmen often returned home by moonlight. One such member was Oakland resident Henry Durand. Durand ran a popular restaurant at Atlanta’s Union passenger station and was a member of the Homosassa Fishing Club, an exclusive social and recreational club. Durand is buried in Oakland’s Original Six Acres in his family lot.
Long-distance riding and racing were usually done by men, but women were soon seen cycling around town. Some initially balked at women on bicycles and a pastor from First Baptist Church even launched a crusade against female riders, but women on wheels soon became a familiar sight. The bicycle craze is credited with helping to pave the way for female suffrage and women’s rights. Bicycling required a shift away from restrictive Victorian fashion and ushered in the era of exposed ankles. Women who rode bikes had a new level of transportation independence. With women riding for greater freedom, the bicycle became an emblem of women’s rights.
The bicycle also played a significant role in protesting segregation during the era of Jim Crow. Atlanta’s streetcars were segregated by city ordinance after 1890, which prompted black Atlantans to boycott the trolleys. Citizens began riding bicycles rather than sit in the back of a segregated streetcar. Oakland resident Peyton Allen took part in the boycott, which was ultimately unsuccessful as the cyclists were unable to reverse the legislated segregation.
With the growing availability of the automobile, the car overtook Atlanta’s streets and cyclists were pushed off the road. But today, Atlanta is becoming a cycle-friendly city. Groups like the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition plan bike-centric social events around the city, such as Streets Alive, and advocate for more infrastructure to support two-wheel transportation. Cyclists can ride safely on PATH bike trails and the Beltline. Atlanta natives and city visitors can discover local history and neighborhood hot spots during tours led by Bicycle Tours of Atlanta and Civil Bikes. If you want to take part but don’t own a set of wheels, borrow a bike with Relay Bike Share.
You can learn about the significance of bicycles and more transportation history during Sunday’s From Terminus to Terminals: People Who Put Atlanta in Motion special topic tour at 6:30. No reservations are required and tickets can be purchased at the Visitors Center and Museum Shop.