A Brief History of Commuting

Perhaps the most obvious category of utility cycling is transportation, and the most obvious category of transportation is commuting. Commuting refers to the practice of traveling between one’s place of residence and one’s place of work (be that a regular job site, a mobile job site, classes, etc.) on a regular basis. The general practice of commuting does not inherently refer to any specific mode of transportation, thus here at Utility Cycling.org, we will obviously focus on bicycle commuting. However, there are numerous issues with which all commuters must deal on a regular basis. The main element that distinguishes between different types of commuters is the mode choice (ie. bicycle, car, bus, train, ferry, foot, etc. or any combination thereof), but in general, most commuters all have to deal with similar issues such as congestion, foul weather, construction, time constraints, road conditions, and more.

To that end, we think that it’s important to learn a bit more about commuting in order to understand how the bicycle fits into the great scheme of commuting, living, and working within the United States and beyond.

In the urban planning literature, four main types of commutes have been defined:

  • Central City to Central City
  • Central City to Suburbs (the reverse commute)
  • Suburbs to Suburbs
  • Suburbs to Central City (the so-called “traditional commute”)

It is interesting to note, that all four of these categories (save, perhaps the Central City to Central City category, as in most cases we can assume that such a commute stays within one Central City, though not always), sound as though they inherently cover a significant distance. In the United States, this has a great deal to do with the history of the urban design, the suburbs, and the automobile.

Cities in the United States were originally built around a city center, in which most business activities took place, save some of the nastier manufacturing and industry-type work. Most people lived close to their place of work. This type of city was referred to as the “walking city.” However, with the introduction of the trolley car, which was a relatively cheap and efficient mode of transportation, cities began to expand along rail lines, and people (usually the rich) began to move out away from the city center, and thus, began the pattern of long(er) commutes, suburban living, and sprawl. With time, the automobile made moving out from the city center more and more feasible, and the suburbs continued to expand at a rapid-fire pace. Additionally, federal legislation that made buying a home easier, also encouraged the growth of the suburbs and the expansion of the American city. Today, the suburbs are a way of life for many people throughout the world.

Though often overlooked, the bicycle played a very important, and oftentimes ironic, role in the history of transportation, and consequently, commuting, in the United States. In the book, Bicycling and the Law, author Bob Mionske tells the story of the first reported automobile (at the time – May 30, 1886 – known as a horseless carriage) accident. Bicycles were quite commonplace at the time of the accident, as anyone who was anyone had a bicycle, and they were quite prevalent on the streets of big cities. The accident, which involved the operator of the horseless carriage losing control of his vehicle, is ironic because the vehicle struck a cyclist. The first reported automobile accident was also the first reported incident of a automobile hitting a cyclist. But have you noticed? The bicycles were there first! Of course, this incident was merely the first in a long, long list in the battle between the bicycle and the automobile. Bicycles/ cyclists were eventually brought into the legal system, defined by the law, and given rights, which were shortly thereafter, applied to automobiles/ motorists as well. To add to the irony, two groups of cyclists – The League of American Wheelmen and Columbia Bicycles – began to advocate heavily for paving improvements on roads, which were mostly dirt, so that by the time automobiles were commonplace, many roads in the US were already paved thanks to the cyclists!

Of course, the bicycle is not solely responsible for the vast network of roadways we see today in the US, but it is interesting to note that the bicycle played an important role in their beginning. Nowadays, people spend anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours commuting each day. However, recent research has shown that the length of one’s commute may negate the potential positive aspects of living in the suburbs. For most, the bicycle is only a feasible mode choice in circumstances in which a rider can make it to work and back home again in a reasonable amount of time. But the length of a commute that can be considered reasonable is something that has to be determined on an individual basis. Some people are willing to spend more time commuting via alternative options than others, but for many, the bicycle is often immediately disregarded as a feasible option, not because it isn’t actually feasible, but because there are numerous factors at work – ranging from the culture of fear, to gender issues, to safety concerns, to infrastructure challenges, to the effect of the automobile, and so much more – which make bicycle commuting seem impossible or unrealistic. So one of our goals here at Utility Cycling.org is to help break down some of those barriers, be they mental, physical, or a bit of both, which limit the possibility of utility cycling practices (including commuting) in order to make it a
feasible option for more people.

So why not start by breaking down the barriers to bicycling commuting? Perhaps you are already a bicycle commuter or maybe you are thinking about giving it a try. So up next, we would like to elaborate further on bicycle commuting in order to show that it can be a feasible, fun, efficient, and economic mode choice for your next commute. Bicycle commuting is made up of a number of different elements, and it is those elements to which we shall turn our attention in the next post.

Post navigation