Man with a bicycle, making his way through a wildflower meadow in the Bernese Oberland. In the background is the Niesen, around 1933.
Man with a bicycle, making his way through a wildflower meadow in the Bernese Oberland. In the background is the Niesen, around 1933. Swiss National Museum

When the bicycle was the public’s darling

Cycling is booming, thanks to coronavirus and e-bikes. But the height of the cycling craze was in the early decades of the 20th century. Back then, the bicycle ruled the streets, and in fact in 1913 the view in the Federal Parliament was that: “The world today would not be able to manage without the bicycle.”

Guido Balmer

Guido Balmer

Guido Balmer is the communications officer for the department of regional planning, environment, mobility and infrastruture of the canton of Fribourg and a freelance communications professional.

In the beginning, in the first half of the 19th century, the bicycle was a fancy plaything and a strange piece of sporting equipment primarily for aristocrats and the emerging middle classes who had the time for a hobby – and the spare cash. In the mid-19th century, when a bicycle could be bought in sewing machine and hardware stores in Switzerland, it would set you back 300 to 500 francs. That was almost the equivalent of the annual rent for a three-room apartment. Around 1910, the cheapest Swiss-made bike cost 82 francs. For this reason, and as the technology continued to become simpler and better, the bicycle became attractive to broader segments of the population. The number of bicycles in Switzerland increased rapidly. In 1900, there were around 50,000 bicycles in the 14 largest cities in Switzerland. In the first official statistics for the whole of Switzerland, dating from 1918, this figure had shot up to 342,000 – meaning one in twelve of us had a bicycle. By 1936 it was one in four, and by the time World War II started it was one in three.
Sewing machines and bicycles were sold in Hermann Moos’ shop in the old Seidenhof in Zurich, around 1905.
Sewing machines and bicycles were sold in Hermann Moos’ shop in the old Seidenhof in Zurich, around 1905. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Extensively used in day-to-day life

Bicycles made society more mobile. For instance, they made it possible to separate living space and workplace, and the cities started to have outlying suburbs that were still easily accessible. For decades, until well after World War II, bicycle-riding commuters were a feature of the streetscape everywhere. In some places there were problems providing enough parking spaces. In Zurich, for example, the main concourse of the central railway station was used for bicycle parking. Traffic counts also show how extensively the bicycle was used in everyday life. According to figures from Basel, the bicycle increased its share in traffic movements from 20 per cent to around 73 per cent between 1901 and 1923. Bikes still held this share, of almost three quarters, in 1935. Within just a few decades, the bicycle had succeeded in becoming the first means of individual mass transport.
Bicycle parking on the main concourse of Zurich railway station, around 1944.
Bicycle parking on the main concourse of Zurich railway station, around 1944. SBB Historic

Enormous social radiance

In the rather sparse literature on the history of the bicycle, the triumphant rise of the pedal cycle went hand in hand with what is described as hype with enormous social cachet. There was a proliferation of cycling schools, bicycle journals, bicycle races, cycling fashion, novels revolving around bicycles, and cycling clubs and associations. The Swiss Touring Club, for example, was founded in Geneva in 1896 as an association for cycling enthusiasts. The army also discovered the bicycle. The contraption was deemed to have “advantages for movement in terms of efficiency and low cost that cannot be achieved by any other means of transport”, according to the new troops order of 1910. And: “Its use is so widespread that nothing is easier than finding the appropriate people for it.”
Penny-farthing parade on the Bundesgasse in Bern around 1880. At that time there were quite a number of cycling schools and bicycle clubs in Bern.
Penny-farthing parade on the Bundesgasse in Bern around 1880. At that time there were quite a number of cycling schools and bicycle clubs in Bern. Swiss National Museum
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The bicycle as work equipment: a milkman around 1944.
The bicycle as work equipment: a milkman around 1944. Swiss National Museum / ASL
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Stella bicycle factory in Bassecourt (canton of Jura), around 1941.
Stella bicycle factory in Bassecourt (canton of Jura), around 1941. Swiss National Museum / ASL
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Two men on a tandem, around 1912.
Two men on a tandem, around 1912. Swiss National Museum
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The battle for legislative regulation

With the flourishing bicycle scene and the advent of motor vehicles, the pressing need arose for legislation governing road use. By 1910 there were around 7,000 motor vehicles on Switzerland’s roads, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of bicycles, and the Federal Council presented a proposal for a constitutional article to govern automobile and bicycle traffic; the proposal was finally accepted by the people and the cantons in 1921.
In 1946, rush-hour traffic on the Kornhausbrücke in Bern is dominated by bicycles.
In 1946, rush-hour traffic on the Kornhausbrücke in Bern is dominated by bicycles. Swiss National Library
So it took eleven years for this constitutional article to be brought in. The reason for this was that the Council of States had refused on a total of three occasions to carry out the detailed consultation on the draft bill, due to federalist reservations. It wasn’t until 1921 that the Council finally endorsed the proposal. Scepticism towards the bicycle wasn’t the reason for the long struggle; quite the contrary, as the vote of the spokesman for the relevant commission in the Council of States in 1913 shows: “The bicycle, against which there were originally strong reservations and significant reluctance when it first appeared, has little by little become, as it were, the public’s darling. The misgivings, meanwhile, have faded away. This may be due in large part to the fact that the apparatus serves a very broad group of the people and has gained such economic importance that there can be no question of dispensing with it. The world today would not be able to manage without the bicycle.”

Cycle associations capable of launching referendums

The fact that, after the constitutional article was adopted, it was another eleven years before an implementing law, the “Federal Law on Automobile and Bicycle Traffic”, came into force, was due to the significant clout that the bicycle and its advocacy groups had. It was the Swiss cyclists’ association (Schweizerische Radfahrerbund, the SRB) and the workers’ cyclists’ Association (Arbeiter-Radfahrerbund, the ARB) that launched the referendum against the law. The main points of contention were the proposed number plate for bicycles, which required the payment of a fee, and the civil liability law, which many felt went too far. In an alliance with motor vehicle associations, in 1927 the bicycle associations won the referendum vote and overturned the law. A recast of the law which expressly exempted cyclists from “carrying a numbered licence plate”, finally came into force in 1932.

Promoting cycling is now a constitutional mandate

The purpose of the law was to establish rules for the use of the roads. At the time, no one thought of promoting or encouraging bicycle use. One reason for this was that the bicycle was at the peak of its societal impact. It didn’t need promoting. This idea only emerged in the 1970s, when the car was the measure of all things and the oil crisis led people to a new environmental awareness. Today, promoting bicycle use is at the forefront of cycling policy. Since 2018, it has been a constitutional mandate. At that time, the voters approved a corresponding federal decree with 73.6 percent. And in the spring session of 2022, the Federal Parliament passed the Bicycle Paths Act, which implements the constitutional article.
Austrian-Swiss photographic pioneer Johann Barbieri on his bicycle, 1880. "If you hadn’t climbed on it"… 
Austrian-Swiss photographic pioneer Johann Barbieri on his bicycle, 1880. "If you hadn’t climbed on it"… ETH Library Zurich
..."you wouldn’t have fallen off it".
..."you wouldn’t have fallen off it". ETH Library Zurich

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).