The ever-prescient Mark Twain


“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”
Mark Twain, “Taming the Bicycle,” an essay written in the early 1880s and published 1917

Mark Twain has long been one of my heroes for a variety of reasons: his humanity, his irreverent sense of humor, his huge contributions to American literature and the fact that he is a Midwesterner who grew up on the Mississippi River — as I did.
Now, thanks to blogger Knute “Skip” Berger in Seattle, I have another reason to admire Mark Twain: he was an early advocate of bicycles as mass transit by way of municipal bike-sharing programs, such as the one inaugurated in Denver in April.
Berger wrote on Wednesday in the blog Crosscut.com (“News of the Great Nearby”) that he came across Twain’s views on urban cycling while doing research on the author’s visit to the Pacific Northwest in 1895.
“Twain came to Portland to give a lecture while on his world tour,” Berger wrote. “Afterward, he headed for Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, and other Northwest cities before taking a steamer to Hawaii to continue his globe-girdling journey.
“Apparently, things haven’t changed much. His conversation with the Oregonian’s reporter turned almost immediately to public transportation (Twain arrived and departed by train and the interview took place on the bus). Twain expounded on his idea of how to turn Portland into a European-style bike town. Why not, Twain suggested, a public monopoly supplying bikes to the people to fund road improvements? Yes, Twain advocated public investment in bike transport.”
Here’s the clip from the Aug. 9, 1895, edition of The Sunday Oregonian:
“Portland seems to be a pretty nice town,” drawled the author of Tom Sawyer, as the ‘bus rolled down Sixth Street, “and this is a pretty nice, smooth street. Now Portland ought to lay itself out a little and macadamize all its streets just like this. Then it ought to own all the bicycles and rent ’em out and so pay for the streets. Pretty good scheme, eh? I suppose people would complain about the monopoly, but then we have the monopolies always with us. Now, in European cities, you know, the government runs a whole lot of things, and, it strikes me, runs ’em pretty well. Here folks seem to be alarmed about governmental monopolies. But I don’t see why. Here cities give away for nothing franchises for car lines, electric plants and things like that. Their generosity is often astounding. The American people take the yoke of private monopoly with philosophical indifference, and I don’t see why they should mind a little government monopoly.”
Well, bless your heart, Mr. Twain!

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Filed under Americana, History, Journeys, Literary musings, Travels, Urban cycling

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