Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bike Safety 101: Bicycle Today, Automobile Tomorrow

I don't think any movie title could sum up American attitudes towards the role of bicycles better than Sid Davis's 1969 bike safety film, Bicycle Today, Automobile Tomorrow. Though not nearly as scolding in its tone as Davis's The Bicycle Clown of 1958, it still reflects plenty on the ultra-conformist mindset of its creator (who was probably far more comfortable with his world in 1958 than he was in 1969), while underscoring the idea that a bicycle is nothing more than a stepping stone to automobile ownership.

In the opening sequence of the film, we see a helicopter preparing for takeoff, while a motorcycle officer pulls up to the scene with a kid on a bicycle following close behind. The boy and the officer wave to the pilot and watch him lift off. The actual point of the scene isn't particularly clear (after all, the film's title is Bicycle Today, Automobile Tomorrow -- not Helicopter), until the mono-tonal narrator asks rhetorically, "What do the helicopter pilot, the motorcycle rider, and the bicycle rider have in common?" Though it sounds like the setup of a bad joke and we almost expect an equally bad punch line, the narrator quickly tells us, "The answer is quite simple. They have two main responsibilities. First, they must make sure their machines are in perfect mechanical condition at all times." Oddly enough, that was not the answer I was waiting for. Then again, the same could be said of almost anything involving equipment that can impact our health or safety. Try it. Automobile driver. Scuba diver. Sky diver. Power boater. Surgeon. Lathe operator. Miner. . .

Regardless of the opening message, the next scene of the film gives the most incomplete history of the bicycle ever set down in film, ultimately rendering it as even more irrelevant than the opening sequence:

"The bicycle is about 150 years old today. Its ancestor, the hobby horse, was propelled by kicking the ground with both feet." 
That's it. That's the end of the history lesson. First there was a thing called a hobby horse. Now you have a bike. That's all you need to know, because when you turn 16, you'll get your driver's license and never look back again.

The next sequence takes us back to that statement about making sure our equipment is in good mechanical condition. The film shows the boy going over his bike, making adjustments and performing basic maintenance. It's mostly pretty basic stuff. Make sure your saddle is adjusted correctly and tightened. Make sure handlebars are positioned well and tightened securely. Horn or bell should be audible from at least 100 feet. A headlight is needed for night-time riding, and should be visible from at least 500 feet in the dark. "Remember, a well-kept bicycle is a safe bicycle."

"One of the most important things to check is your brake, whether it is a hand-brake or a coaster brake. Always make sure it is properly adjusted." 
"Your chain is your power transmission. Keep it clean by washing it with kerosene. Oil the links frequently. And keep it at the right tension. Not too tight. Just enough to keep it from jumping off the sprockets. A slipping chain can easily cause injury to the rider."
"Be sure all the spokes of the wheel are tight. And replace broken ones at once. Missing or loose spokes can cause damage to the rim and be dangerous." There's no mention about keeping spoke tension even, so I'd expect lots of well-meaning kids to end up with out-of-true, out-of-round wheels after watching this film. 
Well, that pretty well covers the first thing the helicopter pilot, the motorcycle rider, and the bicycle rider have in common -- safety and maintenance. What's the second thing?

"The second thing common to the motorcycle rider and the bicycle rider is that they should know the rules and traffic laws that must be followed before riding on the streets." Notice that the helicopter from the opening scene was so irrelevant to the rest of the film that even the director already forgot about it. Of course, helicopters don't operate on the streets -- which is yet another reason why the first scene was irrelevant. I'm almost convinced that Davis just had some footage of a helicopter taking off and figured it would be a waste not to use it.

From here, we see the kid on the bike following the motorcycle officer all over town like some kind of hero-worshiper or puppy. First, to watch the police motorcycle brigades practice riding in formation. Once again, basically irrelevant -- but Davis never missed an opportunity to showcase the police looking their best.

Next comes a litany of safety advice for riding. When it comes to riding on the streets and sharing them with car traffic, I have some mixed feelings about the advice given in the film. Some of the advice reflects the time period when the film was made and therefore seems less-than-ideal today. Some of the advice would be unnecessarily tedious in practice -- and some would probably make a person more likely to get hurt or even killed.
Before going into a review of the basic hand-signals used in traffic (all done with the left hand -- car-style -- though that was common advice back then), a group of kids are shown "properly" riding to the far right side of the road, ducking all the way to the curb edge between parked cars then coming back out into the traffic lane to get around the cars. Bad idea. 
"If it is necessary to make a left turn at a busy intersection, get off your bike and wait for a green light. Look to the left, and to the right, and to the rear, before walking your bicycle across the street, and wait there to cross to the left side." OK advice for young kids, I suppose, but awfully tedious.
"If there are cars parked on the street on which you are riding, always watch for car doors being opened, or automobiles pulling out into traffic." Good advice, for sure -- but notice that there is no mention about riding a little further to the left, keeping out of the "door zone" altogether. Of course, the idea that bicycles should "take the lane" for their safety was still a few years off at this point. Bikes belong as far to the right as possible -- out of the way of the car drivers. 
"Cross street-car tracks with caution, and at an angle so as not to catch your wheels in the ruts." A good bit of advice, so no complaints from me here.
"This is where the police department keeps the bicycles that are lost. But there's an easy way for you to keep your bicycle from ending up here should it ever be lost or stolen.  You can license and register your bicycle, just like the licensing of an automobile."
"A license is cheap insurance, and helps the police to find and return lost or stolen bicycles." Yeah, sure -- just keep believing in that.
"When you leave your bicycle parked anywhere, be sure you have a lock on it." We then see probably the lightest duty chain and combination lock possible -- wrapped through the back wheel and rear triangle, but not actually locked to anything. Was it naivete, or just a happier, simpler time? 
And here we have it -- the money shot. If you ask me, the whole film builds up to this heavily symbolic moment as a bicycle is crushed under the wheels of a car. "Always park your bicycle in a safe place. Never leave it in a driveway, or you may not be able to enjoy your bicycle for long!" That's right. Driveways are only for cars -- and one can't expect drivers to actually look where they're going when backing up. 

In the end, as the motorcycle officer leads the kid to the end of their tour, Davis summarizes the points of his film, and it's here where his typical judgmental tone comes forward:
"The good bike rider is easy to recognize. He makes sure his bicycle is always in perfect mechanical condition. He learns how to ride and knows all the bicycle rules and traffic laws before riding on the streets. He rides on the right side of the street and doesn't speed, or stunt, or take foolish chances. He shows extra care in traffic, especially at busy intersections. He is considerate of pedestrians. And he always locks his bicycle. Keep in mind what you have learned here with the motorcycle officer about bicycles. Try to reflect credit on yourself, your parents, your school, and your community. Remember, the bicycle rider of today is the automobile driver of tomorrow."
That's right kids -- how you ride your bike is a reflection on your parents, school, and community. Hell, why stop there? Why not add God, Country, Democracy, and Capitalism while we're at it?

For a Sid Davis film, this one is not as dark, nor quite as overbearing as the films he is so well-known for. Nobody gets killed, maimed, or permanently disabled for being a "wise guy." But the message is pretty clear that riding a bike is really just a trial run at eventual automobile ownership, and the undercurrent of conformity is still there, especially in the film's closing words.

You can watch Bicycle Today, Automobile Tomorrow right here. Enjoy!


  1. Bike today, automobile tomorrow may finally be coming to an end. Apparently, young adults previously a significant part of the car buying public, are not buying so many any more. They'd rather buy the latest electronics, I-phones, tablets, I-watch, whatever the latest is called. Combined with a slight beginning trend among the young to abandon suburbia for inner city living, we may be seeing the beginning of a more livable world.
    I am 20th century man. Motor vehicles were not just transportation for me but sport. I've owned a lot of cool motorcycles and some interesting, if inexpensive, automobiles. My ideal future includes greatly reduced dependence on the automobile for transportation; walking, cycling and public transit. The motto for the future should be; "bikes for transport, cars for sport". Driving will be a lot more fun, as it was in my youth 50 years ago, when there were fewer cars on the road. Plus walking and cycling will be safer and more enjoyable.

    1. I hope you're right. Thank you for the comments!