University courses on bicycles and bicycle culture

I was thrilled to read in Inside Higher Ed this morning that the humble bicycle is beginning to get its share of proper scholarly attention in the university.  According to this piece by Allie Grasgreen:

In the past, nearly all research and teaching on biking – most of which is incorporated into broader transportation courses – has focused on engineering and planning. But, even as more classes of that nature are taking an exclusively bike- and pedestrian-focused approach, a growing number of scholars, many of whom are younger and more plugged in to biking culture, are looking at bicycling through a sociological or anthropological lens.

A quick search of books at under the keyword phrase “bicycle culture” reveals an interesting range of recently-published work on the topic, from design studies and gender studies to technology studies and urban studies, including:

As a cyclist myself, as well as an academic historian and geographer, such attention to this amazing little bit of sustainable, personal transport warms my heart. My own first book, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology, and Geography, 1850-1950, was inspired by my own volunteer labor in fixing up old bicycles that I found in thrift stores, alleys, and urban streambeds during my time as a graduate student at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Anyway, the reason I wanted to post on this topic was that I finally feel that I was ahead of the academic curve.  Again, while a graduate student at Hopkins I proposed a three-credit advanced course in the history and geography of technology that would take the bicycle as its topic and lens: “The Social Construction of the Bicycle.”  Here is the syllabus I put together more than a decade ago:

The Social Construction of the Bicycle
Instructor: Greg Downey

What can we learn from a detailed examination of an “everyday” object?  This course is a comparative historical study of the bicycle as a cultural artifact having technological, social, economic, and environmental implications.  We will use perspectives from the history of technology, gender studies, and human geography to understand how different kinds of bicycles have been created and used across the globe over the last century, and how the activity of bicycling itself has been “socially constructed” by different groups in different ways.


Class will meet for one three-hour lecture/discussion session per week.  Each week, two students will present that week’s readings to the class.  Students will complete a short writing assignment critiquing the readings each week, and will write a final essay exam at the end of the course.

Assignments and Grading

Students will be graded on overall class participation (25%), on their weekly written essays (25%), on their leading of one discussion section (25%), and on a final essay exam (25%).  Students wishing extra credit may turn in a critical analysis of the optional reading (no less than 8 pages long) before the end of finals week for a maximum of one-half grade’s boost (eg., from a C to a B-).

Hands-On Activities

There will be at least one optional bike ride scheduled during the course of the semester, and one session of bike demolition to get a hands-on idea of how a bicycle is designed and manufactured.


There will be several texts available for purchase in the bookstore.  One reading is optional and may be used for the extra-credit assignment.  Other readings will be photocopied and handed out week by week.


During the course of the class we will view several films on bicycle culture around the world, including both short documentaries and feature films.

Texts to purchase

J. Crown and G. Coleman, No Hands: The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, An American Institution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996).  A business press report on the history of one of the world’s most famous bicycle companies, revealing the global nature of bicycle production.

M. Lowe, The Bicycle: Vehicle for a Small Planet, WorldWatch paper 90 (Washington D.C.: WorldWatch Institute, 1989); M. Lowe, Alternatives to the Automobile: Transport for Livable Cities, WorldWatch paper 98 (Washington D.C.: WorldWatch Institute, 1990).  These short and concise “WorldWatch papers” present an argument for sustainable development using bike transport.

D. Mozer, Transportation, Bicycles, and Development in Africa (1989).  Argues for bicycles as a form of “appropriate technology.”

D.B. Perry, Bike Cult: The Ultimate Guide to Human-Powered Vehicles (1995).  A thick, meaty book, with enough information, trivia, pictures, and bibliographic references to support this eclectic course.

R. Smith, Merry Wheels and Spokes of Steel: A Social History of the Bicycle (1995).  Still the only secondary history on the subject.

F.E. Willard, How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an Influential 19th Century Woman (Fair Oaks Publishing, 1895; 1991).  At age 53, Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, decided to learn to ride a bicycle.

Optional text

Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space (1983).  Kern’s extended essay on form and function, speed and energy, and the effect on the psyche of modernization at the turn of the century provides an interesting framework for analyzing the history of the bicycle and other transportation technologies.

Other Selected Readings

W. Bijker, T. Hughes, and T. Pinch, eds., The Social Construction of Technological Systems (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 17-50.

J. Forester, Effective Cycling (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 490-504.

J. Starrs, ed., The Literary Cyclist (New York: Breakaway Books, 1997), 103-108.

E.G. Garvey, The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s, 106-134.

D. Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932 (Baltimore: JHU Press, 1984), 189-215.

W.F. Grew, The Cycle Industry: It’s Origin, History, and Latest Developments (London: Pitman & Sons, 1921).

World Bank Industry and Energy Department, Paper #50, “International Competition in the Bicycle Industry: Keeping Pace with Technological Change” (1990).

Nicholas Oddy, The Gendered Object (St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 60-69.

Patricia Marks, Bicycles, Bangs and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press (Lexington KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 174-203.

R.C. Geist, Bicycle People (Washington D.C.: Acropolis Books, 1978), 61-75.

I.J. Barwell et al., Rural Transport in Developing Countries (1985).


Return of the Scorcher (The Video Project, 1992, 28 minutes).  Bicycle culture around the world, especially in the US, Netherlands, and China.

Bicycle: The Cycling Video (York Films, 1991, two hours).  A BBC documentary on bicycle culture broken down into six 20-minute episodes.

Bike Culture Quarterly “Encycleopedia” demonstration video (Open Road Ltd., 1997, 35 minutes).  A showcase of innovative cycles, mainly from Europe, including folding bikes, recumbents, tandems, and other unique combinations.

Ace of Cycling (1980) and Big City Bike Messengers (National Geographic Explorer, 1987). Bike Messenger documentaries.

The Bicycle Kingdom (China Today, 1984, 18 minutes).  Bicycles as transportation in mainland China.

The Bicycle Thief (1948).  Classic B/W Italian film about the social and economic consequences of losing one’s only chance at a job, a bicycle.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?  Sadly, in my current dual-department role between Journalism & Mass Communication on one hand and Library & Information Studies on the other, there is little call for me to teach such a course.  So I offer it up to the academics of tomorrow … er, today.