Bicycles matter
By Joe George; photo by kc kratt

Spree writer Joe George routinely challenges his bike’s cargo capacity.

As an avid cyclist and someone interested in history, I sometimes wonder what our city must have been like before the car. I was thinking about this recently as I pedaled down car-clogged Allen Street, which (according to the Allentown Association website) began as a mere cow path.

Like many homes in Buffalo, the one in which I reside is an old one. I’ve done a little research on the house and have come across a couple of early pictures, but my favorite captures the image of the second owner of the house standing in front of it in 1886. What makes this my favorite is that in the photo he is leaning against his “ordinary,” or tall-wheeled bicycle. Sometimes I look at the photo and wonder what it must’ve been like to tool around town on that bike, on the same streets that I do now. Did he have the same feeling of freedom that I do when I’m on a bike? I’d like to think so.

Buffalo has a great history with the bicycle. The famed Pierce Arrow car company built bicycles before they did cars, but they were just one of many. Carl Burgwadt notes in his book Buffalo’s Bicycles, Reflections on Buffalo’s Colossal and Overlooked Bicycle Heritage that in 1900 the city directory listed seventy-nine bicycle manufacturers and 136 dealers. Today’s phone directory yields a mere handful of bicycle dealers.

Many of the rules, regulations, road signs, and infrastructure of our streets came about because of the bicycle. At the turn of the twentieth century it had become such a popular form of transportation—not just in Buffalo but nationally—that rules had to be established. The League of American Wheelmen (LAW) lobbied for them and produced our first road maps.

Eventually, of course, America’s love of the automobile overtook the nation, causing many problems we’re just now trying to alleviate, including the marginalization of bicycles. Cities are finally making attempts to reverse the automobile-is-the-only-way mindset. Renamed the League for American Bicyclists (LAB) in 1994, the organization is still steadfast in its mission: defending the rights and equality of bicyclists through advocacy and education. They also offer four designations for bicycle-friendly cities: platinum, gold, silver, and bronze. Given LAB’s stringent guidelines, most cities fall into the bronze category. Only two are currently listed as platinum: Davis, California, and Portland, Oregon. Sadly, Buffalo does not qualify for the list at all—yet.

I recently spoke about Buffalo and biking with Justin Booth, director of Green Options Buffalo and founder of Buffalo Blue Bicycle and Recycle-a-Bicycle. Booth also spearheaded the operation behind the blue bicycle racks that are multiplying throughout the city, and as we sat in Spot Coffee on Delaware recently there were two of these bikes racks within view, both with bikes locked to them on a frigid winter’s morning. Many Buffalonians ride through even the coldest temperatures of the year.

As we talked, Booth’s dedication to bicycle and pedestrian advocacy was easily apparent, and his enthusiasm was contagious. “Right now we have 177 bike racks in place,” he told me, “but by next year I hope that number will be over 400.” The racks are free to city businesses, and there have been so many applicants that BBB cannot keep up with them. This, too, was a sign of things heading in the right direction: people wanting to make their businesses bicycle friendly.

Green Options Buffalo promotes many education efforts in local schools, helping encourage a healthy and green lifestyle. I asked Booth how he thought we could change the mindset of the average car-driving adult. He thought for a minute and admitted this is difficult, then added, “I don’t think we’re going to change everybody, but if we start with the schools, they are the next generation.” Before we parted I asked him where he sees Buffalo in five years. Admitting that it is a slow process, he still predicts that five years from now, if we’re not already a LAB Bronze city, we will have taken steps toward becoming one.

Personally, I’m convinced that most everyone would benefit from riding a bike now and again, and that it’s easier for most people than they think. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. If you work it into your daily routine, grabbing your helmet before walking out the door becomes as common as reaching for your car keys. Biking is also not just for the young, perfectly fit, spandex crowd. I’m in my late forties and suffer from creaky knees and reoccurring back problems. Weather conditions do dictate a certain dress sensibility, but basically when I ride I wear whatever I plan on wearing at my destination. I am not entirely car-free—I still own a small late-model pickup truck—but I am what Katie Alvord refers to in her book Divorce Your Car as “car-lite,” meaning I use my motorized vehicle as little as possible.

Buffalo, as we know, is not a large city; this ensures that most of my day-to-day trips are within a two-mile radius. It’s also a relatively flat city. These two things combined means it is very easy to get around by bicycle (indeed, sometimes it’s actually quicker than driving). And with the prevalence of bicycle-mounted racks, trailers, and cargo bikes (built to carry things), a two-wheeler can transport most things a motor vehicle can. One of my bikes is designed as a “work bike,” and I have been able to carry even the oddest items on it: everything from a week’s worth of groceries to full-length two-by-fours from the hardware store. This bike in particular has really changed my understanding of what a bicycle can do.

It’s surprising how much enthusiasm adults have about their bicycles. I can see the pride in the eyes of the man in the photo from 1886, and I see it in the eyes of cyclists that I meet today. A few weeks before writing this article I was walking down Elmwood Avenue in the evening; it was already past dark and cold. About a block ahead I saw two silhouettes pull out of a driveway onto Elmwood. They were riding “tall bikes,” or two bikes whose middle structures are welded on top of each other, making the result twice as tall as a normal bike. For whatever reason there were no cars on this stretch of the road, and the bicyclists pedaled past me silently with the grace of giraffes. I called out to them and asked if I could take photos of them for my blog. Without hesitation they agreed, introducing themselves as Jason and Chris.

It turns out that the two “hi-riders,” as they referred to themselves, built the bikes themselves. They also do charity rides for local hospitals and asked if I wanted to ride with them in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Their eyes gleamed as they spoke about the bikes in the cold night air.

I’m a utilitarian/cargo cyclist, meaning I don’t tour or race; I use my bikes as everyday transportation and to carry things. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t consciously ride for my health, to save money on gasoline, or even to save the planet. These are just by-products. I ride because I enjoy it, and to me there is a pure sense of accomplishment on a bike. There’s something about using my own energy for propulsion, that I am both the engine and the cargo, which really excites me.

As they pedaled away—silently and elegantly—I thought about how from a distance, they looked to me as if they could have been riding ordinaries just like our predecessors.

Bicycling is undergoing a surge in popularity it hasn’t seen in generations. What goes around really does come around, I suppose. And this renewed popularity couldn’t be happening at a better time. It’s something we truly need. Cyclists in other countries have been using bikes as a viable form of transport for many years; now it’s time for us.

Bicycle Fixation

Bicycle Universe

Bike Commuters

Bike Hugger

Bike for Peace

Buffalo Bicycle Museum

Buffalo Blue Bicycle

Commute by Bike
Healthy Transportation Network

Green Options Buffalo

League of American Bicyclists

Two Mile Challenge

World Bike

World Car Free Network

Yuba Mundo Cargo Bike

Joe George is a longtime professional chef and frequent contributor to food publications and websites. He has been known to grow corn in his front yard and rides bicycles wherever he can. To read about his sometime inept attempts at urban simplicity, visit his blog at


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