Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

Let's Restore Bicycling to its Glory Days in Buffalo

By Cynthia Van Ness, © 2003

Originally published in the Buffalo News, June 26, 2003, p. B14

Every day, thousands of automobiles clog the streets and roads of Erie County, impeding the safe, efficient flow of pedestrians, cyclists and buses. When dealing with this public safety hazard, law enforcement has refrained from using violence.

Yet dangerous concentrations of cars, euphemistically called "rush hour" or "traffic jams," have been occurring at least twice a day for almost a century, and the death toll has been astronomical. Should the Buffalo police reach for their nightsticks whenever motor vehicles back up at the Thruway on-ramp?

Of course not. Funny how your perception of who overconsumes finite road space and causes hazards depends on your sense of entitlement.

In light of the recent attack on Critical Mass, it is worth remembering a little local history. Buffalo's first rush hour, according to some accounts, was in the 1880s when thousands of cyclists clogged Ellicott's radial streets going to and from work. Men and women could afford a mechanical means of transportation for the first time in American history, and they bought and used bicycles by the millions. Critical Mass has legitimate and honorable local precedent.

A century ago, Buffalo's bicycle industry employed thousands in the design, manufacture, distribution, sale and outfitting of bikes. Unfortunately, for idle Buffalo factories and workers, cycling in North America has been marginalized as mere recreation or exercise.

Similarly, Americans no longer walk as transportation, as exemplified by people driving to the mall to stride in circles or driving to the health club to use the treadmill. However, I am heartened that bicycles are essential for conveying people and goods on almost every other continent.

Buffalo was once considered a "wheel man's paradise." The reason we had more paved roads in 1901 than any other city in the world was due to lobbying by vocal, organized cyclists, the ancestors of today's Critical Mass riders. These roads later eased the introduction of the automobile.

As Pierce-Arrow enthusiasts know, bicycle makers such as George Pierce were among the first to experiment with motorized vehicles. We would not have the automobile if we didn't first have the bicycle.

Eventually, the police will appreciate that more bicycles and fewer cars makes their job easier. Automobiles are instruments of crime and harm in ways that bicycles simply cannot equal. No one has figured out how to load up a bicycle with a ton of fertilizer to blow up a building. I have yet to hear of a Mafia getaway bike or a pedal-by shooting. It's hard to kidnap a child or steal a stereo on two wheels. And officers will face fewer gruesome traffic fatalities.

The Buffalo Police Department itself maintains a bicycle squad, an excellent way to patrol parks and large public events. To paraphrase H.G. Wells, whenever I see a cop on a bike, I have hope for the human race.

After officials dismiss the trumped-up charges against the Buffalo nine, I hereby invite our bikers in blue to join the Critical Mass.

Updated 18 March 2010