In 1900, Los Angeles Had a Bike Highway — and the US Was a World Leader in Bike Lanes

Categories: Mobility

Los Angeles' partially-completed California Cycleway, in 1900.

I love to read stories about the history of things, stories like this, somehow we think that what is happening now days is groundbreaking and that we are innovating. It turns out that more often than not we are just going back to the basics of the past and rehashing old ways of doing things but spinning them in our present context.

Copenhagen is one of the world's best cities for biking, with more than 200 miles of bike lanes and two of just a handful of bike superhighways built worldwide. Meanwhile, of the top 20 most bike-friendly cities in the world, only one is in the US — while 17 are in Europe.

But what most people don't realize is that way back in 1900, Los Angeles began construction on the world's first bike highway. During this bike-crazed era, cities across the US built the earliest precursors to today's protected bike lanes — and the country as a whole was briefly at the forefront of global bicycle infrastructure. 

At the time, the bicycle was largely a leisure toy for the rich, and as part of the Good Roads Movement, these riders campaigned heavily to pave existing roads. In some places, they also pushed for bike-specific paths and routes.

Soon afterward, though, the automobile replaced the bike as their recreational vehicle of choice — and it eventually became the country's main mode of transportation. Almost as quickly as they were built, most of these bike routes and paths were converted into roads, dismantled, or allowed to fall into decay.

The Hotchkiss Bicycle Railroad was a two-mile rail designed for specialized bikes.

New Jersey's Bicycle Railroad

Before the modern bicycle (technically called the safety bicycle) came along, New Jersey inventor Arthur Hotchkiss came up with a very different kind of idea for making bike commuting practical: the bike railroad. His 1892 invention was essentially a fixed metal track that riders could pedal specialized bikes along. 

He soon convinced inventor and manufacturer Hezekiah Smith to finance and built a prototype — a two-mile rail stretching from the latter's HB Smith Machine Company in Smithville, New Jersey to Mt. Holly, the home of many of the company's employees. Smith and Hotchkiss spent $10,000 on the track and charged workers two dollars for monthly passes, which allowed them to get to work in roughly six minutes.

One of the bikes used on the Hotchkiss Railroad.

The specialized bikes themselves were fascinating. Riders sat on a low seat just above the rail and pumped a lever, rather than pedaled, to push the bike along. The rail was a single track, so travelers coming from opposite directions had to avoid a collision by sorting out who'd get off.

The track was an interesting novelty, but it never really took off. Most cyclists opted for the increasingly comfortable safety bicycles that were soon hitting the market, and though a few similar tracks were built in the UK, the idea died off within a few years. The New Jersey Bicycle Railroad fell into disrepair and was eventually dismantled.

  Page Turn