Bicycles have returned to American streets

Bicycles are back – I hope we never lose them again 

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Just a few years ago you would virtually never see anyone – child or adult – on a bicycle.

I would go for weeks, all over Pierce County, without seeing anyone on a bike.

Now I see them everywhere.

For several years I was the only one I knew who regularly used a bicycle for routine chores.

And then I started seeing bike groups going around Point Defiance or to Vashon Island. And then cargo bikes and bikes with various attachments for kids and more and more bike racks – and unlike a few years ago, these were actually used.

I lived and worked in Beijing, China for almost all of 1999.

Back then, the Beijing streets were filled with thousands of bike riders.

I lived near one of the busiest streets of China’s capital city, but it was busy with people and bikes – and very few cars.

It was stunning to see a major highway packed with people and bikes filled with everything from passengers to produce (1*) – but nearly silent.

I bought a bike and used it constantly – usually at least two or three hours a day.

My Chinese students asked me if poor people in America rode bikes.

In 1999 I was stunned by the question. In America, from about the mid 1990s to about 2010, virtually no one rode bikes. The few who did had high end leisure bikes.

Bikes were for fun – no one back then used a bike for transportation – or any practical purpose. Even children didn’t use bikes. A whole generation, if not more, rarely if ever rode bikes.

Photo by Morf Morford
Photo by Morf Morford

I told my Chinese students that poor people didn’t ride bikes – they drove cars.

As they gasped in disbelief, I attempted to explain – “They drive used cars” – it made even less sense to them. Across China, at that time, there were no “used cars” – but you might see, out in the country, variations on truck/mule/bicycle contraptions.

They couldn’t believe what I was telling them about everyday life in America. Looking back on it, it does seem crazy.

In China, at least at that time, wealthy and politically powerful people drove cars, middle class people rode bikes or the bus, and poor people walked.

Whatever the means, the streets were packed.

Fast forward twenty years and China has the most ambitious, efficient and fast high speed rail system in the world, and across America you see hundreds of people on bicycles in any given neighborhood.  (2*)

Americans still primarily use their bikes for fun – not for basic transportation.

Most bikes in America are vastly more specialized – and expensive than bikes in other places.

If you go to Europe or Asia and notice the bike riders, you will something else that is very strange.

It is mostly adults, not children, on bikes, and you will almost never see a bike rider in Asia or Europe with a bike helmet.

Here in America, bike helmets are considered essential – and are even legally required in some municipalities, including Tacoma. Check your city here:

But on the streets of Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Berlin – or even Shanghai – you won’t see a helmet – unless it’s on an American tourist.

Helmets or not, I’m glad to see people reclaiming the freedom and mobility of bicycling.

There are few things as liberating as moving long distances under your own power.

I have news for you – the rain won’t kill you.

And bicycling in the snow can be fun. Not ice though.

It has taken many years, and many hands to bring bicycles back to the streets of Tacoma. But I do have the sense that they are here to stay.

Some local bike evangelists are – 

2nd Cycle ( 2nd Cycle is a Community Bike Shop which supports, educates, and advocates for cyclists, new and experienced, in the Hilltop and surrounding Tacoma community. They provide community workspace, bicycle maintenance classes, literature, repair service, as well as new and used bicycle components while maintaining accessibility by providing affordable pricing.

Photo by Morf Morford
Photo by Morf Morford

If you want to join a bike club and go on organized rides, you could start with the Tacoma Washington Bicycle Club (

When it comes to events, on September 7th you can experience Tacoma’s newest park with music, food and, since most of Ruston Way will be closed to cars, you can see a selection of Tacoma’s craziest bikes. Details here –

In the spring (usually late April or mid-May) put the Bike Swap on your calendar- You can find bicycle advice, parts and even service for all levels of bike riders.

And just about any time of year, don’t miss the Foothills Trail- It’s a paved 21 mile trail suitable for all levels of walkers, bikers and roamers of all kinds. You can begin in any of several points. A full map is available here –

One of my favorite places is the Swan Creek Trail system: From beginner biker to advanced suicidal, you can find it here.

And for walking and general meandering through nature, you can’t beat the 340 acres of Fort Steilacoom Park (

To see all the bike trails in and around Pierce County, check out more maps here –

No matter what you do, get out there and take advantage of the great spaces and opportunities we have here.


(1*)    One time I saw a guy on a bicycle towing a bike trailer with a squarish frame of boards with a tarp filled with water packed with live fish on his way to a market. Just a typical sight in China.

(2*)    Including a proposed Mag Lev line that will travel at 372 MPH –