Democracy Dies in Darkness

Wonkblog | Analysis

Quiz: Are these writers complaining about modern-day scooters, or 19th-century velocipedes?

September 8, 2018 at 10:03 AM

Left. Frances Benjamin Johnston poses with a bicycle in the 1890s. (Frances Benjamin Johnston via the Library of Congress) Right, a commuter rides a scooter on 15th St. NW in Washington. (Robert Miller/The Washington Post)

Suddenly, it seemed like they were everywhere.

Two-wheeled menaces blazing down city streets and sidewalks, piloted by thrill-seekers with little evident concern for their own safety or that of others.

At first they were dismissed as a passing fad, a toy for young men with more money than common sense. But their popularity grew rapidly, urged on in part by business interests hoping to cash in on the craze.

The public was fascinated at first, but soon people grew wary. The new vehicles seemed dangerous. Accidents were inevitable. Mayors and city councils frantically passed legislation, banning the machines from sidewalks, and in some cases entire cities.

Some critics grew hostile, urging responsible citizens to vandalize, even destroy the machines in the interest of public safety. The future of the nascent industry was in doubt.

I'm speaking, of course, about 19th-century bicycles, not 21st-century electric scooters.

When the bicycle (and its predecessor, the velocipede) was introduced to cities in Europe and the United States in the 1800s, it unsettled the realms of public and private transportation in a way similar to what electric scooters are doing today. Cities weren't equipped, either in infrastructure or policy, to handle them. Conflicted publics alternately cheered on innovation, and fretted over concerns of safety and practicality.

The reaction to the introduction of bicycles was in many ways strikingly similar to how cities are grappling with the rise of electric scooters today. To illustrate this we've created a 10-question quiz, below. Each question consists of a quote. Your job is to figure out whether it was written about bicycles in the 1800s, or about scooters today.

The historic quotes come from David Herlihy's book “Bicycle: The History.” The contemporary quotes come from newspaper articles written this year.

Good luck, and ride safely.


Christopher Ingraham writes about all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

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