How Bikes Liberated Vancouver

Granville Street looking north from about Dunsmuir Street, ca. 1900. City of Vancouver Archives, Str P361

You Should Know is a long-running Scout series that aims to dig deep into the many fascinating (and occasionally forgotten) things about Vancouver every thoughtful citizen and curious visitor should know.

At the turn of the last century, long before cars dominated our city streets, bicycles were a common and popular mode of transportation. They were so popular, in fact, that a bona fide “bicycle craze” hit Vancouver hard in the 1890s (and other cities around the world). The combination of the new safety frame and the invention of the pneumatic tire in the early 1890s transformed the earlier “bone-shaker” machines into the smooth ride we’d recognize today, allowing people to commute by bike on less than ideal roads safely and effectively in relative physical comfort. By 1900 there was hardly a family in the city that didn’t own at least one “wheel” as men, women, and citizens of all ages were caught up in “cycling’s first golden moment”.

Bicycles were especially popular in early Vancouver because of the scattered nature of the young city’s neighbourhoods. The streetcar service was far from complete, most people couldn’t afford to keep buggies, and it was expensive to hire a hackney carriage. What’s more, bikes were fun!

“How handy, willing, and uncomplaining is this useful iron horse, which costs nothing but oil, and asks only that it may not be punctured, and is never fatigued by length of travel… it will carry you round the world or it will glide just down the road to the letterbox to post a letter. It will take you to the evening party, around Stanley Park, and wait any length of time for you without catching cold or without getting drunk. Hackmen are not always sober, and horses have been known to go suddenly lame, but your faithful bike is like old dog Tray.” – The Province, April 19, 1901

These “silent steeds” became so popular as a mode of transportation that bike racks were installed in the vestibules of office buildings and hotels as well as at public buildings like City Hall and the C.P.R. Depot to accommodate the bikes of staff and visitors alike.

Group of men and women with bicycles in park, ca. 189-. Vancouver Archives, SGN 1723.

Initially, Vancouver’s Victorian-era reactionaries thought it was very “unladylike” for women to ride a bicycle, but the craze soon became so fashionable that there was “barely a young lady in the city who hadn’t had her own machine”. The independence gained from self-propulsion would have been liberating for women.

Bicycle riding also allowed young men and women to mix socially without the traditional restrictive conventions of social interactions of that period. It was also seen as a class-less mode of transportation and entertainment, where “the highest and the lowest ride –“the duke and the street sweeper, the duchess and the dressmaker, the bishop and the Bohemian”- feeling the “equality of humanity when mounted.”

Two young ladies with bicycles ca. 1900. City of Vancouver Archives, 2011-092.0279

Naturally, proper attire was needed to participate in this new activity. Soon local retailers were selling tweed bicycle suits for men and tweed or serge bicycle skirts for women. The bicycle suit proved to be so popular that some men were forgoing the “nice black suit for Sundays” and showing up for church in their cycling clothes.

Of course, not all people who rode bikes used special attire to do so; some simply used clips around their ankles to prevent their trousers from impeding their ride.

The local economy also benefited from the bicycle craze as cycling-related businesses began to appear across Vancouver. In 1895, C.O. Wells opened the Bicycle Academy and Repair Store in the Dunn block on Granville Street at Pender. Wells not only sold, rented and repaired bicycles but also taught novice bicycle riders how to roll. The school reportedly covered several empty city lots and was surrounded by a high fence to keep out the curious. Learners could keep their dignity intact as they wobbled their way through the learning curve of riding a bicycle.

What was the owner to do if they should find their “silent steed” in need of repair? Enter the bicycle livery. Like a horse livery, it was a place where you could rent a bicycle (perfect for visitors or fair weather riders) and where bicycles were repaired and sold. There were several dotted around the city. Bicycle dealers became prominent people in the community as new models of bicycles were awaited as eagerly as new models of electronic devices are today.

By 1899 at least three cycling-centric groups had formed in the city: the Burrard Bicycle Club, the Vancouver Bicycle Club, and the Terminal City Cycling Club. These groups organized and held club rides or runs, participated in cycling races at Brockton Point in Stanley Park, and advocated for better cycling infrastructure such as city-wide bike paths.

The Vancouver Bicycle Club in front of the observation point (‘summer house’) at Prospect Point in 1895. City of Vancouver Archives, St Pk P174

In 1900 the Good Roads Association joined these wheel clubs in the promotion of bicycle paths around the city, which were to be paid for by a bicycle tax. Starting in 1901, local riders were paying $1 per year “into the city treasury a tax for the privilege of wheeling along the corporation thoroughfares” under the assumption that the city would use that money for bicycle paths.

By 1902 the Good Roads Association estimated that there were about 4000 “wheels” in the city and – according to city stats from 1904 – there were 156 miles of roads (4 miles paved, 54 miles macadamized, 98 miles graded) and 9 miles of bicycle paths. These paths were located in well-frequented areas like Stanley Park, leading to Greer’s Beach in Kitsilano and along busy city streets such as Granville, Seymour, Powell, Westminster (now Main St.) and Powell. Bike paths were often alongside the routes of the BCER streetcars. At one early point, the paths were even laid between the streetcar rails, but that plan was soon shelved.

Looking west on Hastings Street from Cambie Street, ca. 1898. City of Vancouver, Str P18.

It wasn’t long until there were even policemen on bicycles. The first bike cop was Sergeant Vicker Wallace Haywood in 1892. According to a Daily World newspaper account in June of that year, Haywood had been seen practicing riding on out of the way streets and was expected in a few days to make his midnight round of the beats on his “racing pneumatic tired safety” bicycle. The Daily World thought “there [was] a great future ahead for policemen on bicycles”. They suggested that the Vancouver Police Committee should consider purchasing a couple of bicycles for police use.

Of course not everyone was enamoured with the bicycle. Irate citizens began writing letters to the newspapers complaining of the “new craze for speed” and that “streets were no longer safe for pedestrians” as cyclists whizzed down the plank sidewalks at incredible (never before seen) speeds. Stories of bicycle riders who were not only “reckless as to their own safety, but were indifferent to the safety of pedestrians” also started appearing in the local newspapers. On July 13, 1896, Vancouver City Council passed Bylaw no. 258 to regulate the use of bicycles in the city. Still, accidents happened, and the first cyclist fatality in the city (as far as my research can determine) was on September 24, 1900 when Miss Rachel Shannon, 50, was crossing the street and was fatally hit by cyclist Edward E. Blackmore as he travelled along Hastings Street at a speed of about 6 miles per hour. The Coroner’s Jury inquest deemed it an accidental death and Blackmore was not charged.

Members of the Japanese community in mourning sashes ride bicycles to the memorial service for King Edward VII, May 20, 1910

When the automobile first appeared in Vancouver, beginning in 1899 with the Stanley Steamer and then in 1904 with the first gasoline-powered cars, these new-fangled “horseless carriages” were initially greeted with a mixture of amusement and scorn. However, it wasn’t long after the city’s first gas station appeared on the scene in 1907 that the automobile really began to take hold and the bloom fell off the bicycle’s rose. The city’s first bicycle craze was officially over. Their popularity has waxed and waned over the 20th century, but it never again reached the intensity of “cycling’s first golden moment”. It wasn’t until recently that this city saw bikes “take the lane” again, both literally and figuratively.


There are 4 comments

  1. Excellent piece, good work. While out of the time scope there was the China Creek Velodrome (cycling oval), built in the 1950s for the British Commonwealth & Empire Games and used for spectator sport for several decades. Demolished in the 1980s, now the site of VCC’s Broadway Campus.

    Search online, lots of info & photos.

  2. Thanks! Yes, the China Creek Velodrome was a significant part of Vancouver’s cycling history… but it all started 60 years before that! 125 years of cycling in this city.

  3. The next big change is the e.Scooters.
    More protected lanes and special bridges ( like in Burnaby) are needed.

  4. I love this story so much! I hope there will be more stories about cycling in the future. I’m not from Vancouver but this story connects with my work promoting bicycles, helping create bicycle mobility policy, and using bicycles for disaster response here in the Philippines. More power to Scout! Also, my organization is called Bike Scouts!

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