San Diego’s Wheelmen

A recent front-page article in the San Diego Union-Tribune highlighted San Diego’s difficulties in accommodating a new form of personal transportation. In February 2018 hundreds of electric scooters appeared on downtown streets. A rider could activate a scooter using a smart-phone app, ride it to work or a restaurant, and leave it on the street where it could be activated by another rider. The city initially welcomed this ‘micro-mobility’ option as a way to get people out of their cars and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but as the numbers grew so did what the U-T called a ‘wild west’ scooter environment, primarily speeding and riding on sidewalks, annoying and endangering pedestrians. The city eventually responded by passing regulations that included a requirement that scooters have a ‘no sidewalk’ warning sticker and the smart-phone apps have a warning about the city prohibition against riding on sidewalks. The scooters were also supposed to include ‘geofencing’ technology that automatically limits speeds in certain areas. The U-T reported that since the regulations were put into effect in July nearly 500 tickets have been written for scooter violations, most for riding on sidewalks.

This sudden surge of two-wheeled vehicles on city streets, and sidewalks, recalls an earlier era when the streets and sidewalks were invaded by ‘wheelmen’, riders of ‘wheels’, or bicycles. Advertisements for bicycles had appeared in the San Diego Union as early as 1884 and in 1891 an item in the Union’s Local Intelligence column noted that about twenty wheelmen were out on a tour last evening, gliding swiftly and silently along the streets. By 1893 there were three businesses listed under Bicycles in the San Diego city directory and enough bicycles were on the streets that the Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance regulating their use. Ordinance 227 made it unlawful to ride a bicycle on any public sidewalks or to ride after dark without a lantern or light attached to the front of the bicycle. Also in 1893, a Wheelmen’s Club was started in San Diego with plans for at least 70 wheelmen to decorate their wheels and participate in a lantern parade on the evening of Memorial Day.

The growing number of bicycles on the streets also prompted other policy changes by city officials. In the 1890s the streets were unpaved and were also traveled by horse-drawn conveyances and pedestrians. During the dry season the horse-drawn traffic stirred up dust which the city attempted to control by sprinkling the streets with water from the bay. While wet streets were of little concern to horses and buggies or wagons they were not ideal for bicycles and in 1895 the street superintendent ordered the street sprinklers to leave dry the centers of D Street (now Broadway) from Fourth Street to the bay as well as Fourth Street from A to Ivy and Fifth Street from A to the bay for the accommodation of wheelmen.

However, bicycles could also be ridden faster than pedestrians or other vehicles on the streets in the 1890s, and were perceived by some to be dangerous. A column in the Union in 1895 noted that an ordinance being proposed for San Francisco would limit the speed of wheelmen to six miles an hour at intersections and from riding ‘immoderately, carelessly or negligently’, and with a strict prohibition of ‘scorching’. The Union suggested that some features of this ordinance, particularly the prohibition on scorching, might be adopted with advantage in San Diego and that a rule requiring wheelmen to slow down to six miles an hour at crossings would also meet general approval. However, no speed limits on bicycles were adopted in San Diego. Instead the existing bicycle ordinance was amended in 1896 by dropping the requirement for a light or lantern after dark while retaining the prohibition against riding on sidewalks.

Scorching continued to be a subject of concern, however, and in an 1897 article about the ‘Scorching Nuisance’ the Union insisted that it was high time San Diego had an ordinance against scorching, especially as it was practiced in the crowded business streets. The evil had become an actual menace to pedestrians; within the past day or two several so-called ‘accidents’ had occurred through the recklessness of wheelmen, who had no more right to traverse the streets at high rates of speed than had teamsters or occupants of any kind of vehicles drawn by horses. In some respects, the scorching wheelman was actually more dangerous than a runaway team or rapidly driven wagon, which gave warning by the noise they made, while the bicycle rider commonly gave no sign of his approach.

There is a class of wheelmen who seem to take pride in riding at high rate of speed through crowded streets, trusting to their skill to avoid breaking their own bones or imperiling the lives of pedestrians. If the foolish wheelmen themselves were the only sufferers, the general public would not care much. But it is the unfortunate pedestrian that usually gets the bruises. This evil has reached such proportions that it is time severe measures were taken to put an end to it.

The Union article added that wheelmen as a rule were not given to scorching on the streets but were outspoken in condemnation of this foolhardy practice and it would confer a favor on the entire community if they would exert their influence toward passage of a proper ordinance on the subject and seeing that it was properly enforced.

Although the city never passed a proper ordinance on the subject of scorching, bicycle riding continued to be governed by the 1896 ordinance prohibiting riding on sidewalks and the police occasionally conducted operations to enforce this ordinance. In 1902 the Union complained that the police were again arresting wheelmen for riding on sidewalks, this time in what were then the ‘suburbs’ (Logan Avenue) where there were scarcely any pedestrians (the Union contended that the officers went to the suburbs to pick up a few ‘innocents’ in order to scare the real offenders). In September 1903 the Union reported that the latest victim of the activity of the police looking to the suppression of the habit of riding bicycles on sidewalks was a newspaper carrier who had been under the impression that carriers were specially privileged. Unfortunately, he had been delivering in the same neighborhood where another wheelman had collided with and knocked over an old lady while riding on the sidewalk, prompting a show of force by the police.

The Wheelmen’s Club had become an important advocacy group for the rights of bicyclists and in November 1899 it held a meeting ‘to take a united stand to remedy the rank injustice to the riders of wheels who had been victimized by police officers enforcing the ordinance prohibiting bicycle riding on sidewalks’. The wheelmen did not object to the ordinance itself but, according to the Union, they had just cause for complaint against the condition of the streets which in places made it necessary to infringe on the sidewalks. If the streets were in proper condition there would be less necessity for wheelmen to take to the sidewalks for their own safety. The Union added that there were hundreds of wheelmen and they were entitled to some consideration; they were thoroughly in earnest in this matter and threatened to carry it into politics if they could get no relief. A letter to the editor a few weeks later claimed that there were about 2,000 bicycles in San Diego and most were used for business and not pleasure or exercise; ‘You see about 2 bicycles for every buggy or wagon’. This writer’s complaint was that the sidewalk ordinance applied to the whole city, most of which didn’t even have sidewalks or improved streets and very little traffic. He suggested creation of a district downtown where it would make sense to restrict riding on sidewalks and to eliminate the restrictions in other remote places, like Sorrento Valley.

While the papers tended to be sympathetic to wheelmen’s use of the sidewalks, at least when the streets were muddy, scorching was still universally condemned. A 1903 column in the Union claimed that while accidents – collisions between wheelmen and vehicles or pedestrians – were not an everyday occurrence they were still sufficiently frequent to make plain the need of an ordinance to minimize the danger. Youngsters could be seen flying through the more crowded streets just missing collision with a vehicle and the next moment giving some citizen on foot a narrow escape. There was no municipal regulation to prevent the most harebrained, reckless boys from riding through the streets at a pace that makes life and limb precarious to pedestrians. The bicycle menace should be done away with. San Diego had outgrown the times where bicycle riders could scorch through the streets. The city should have a proper bicycle ordinance forbidding high rates of speed.

The city never did pass a proper speed limit ordinance for bicycles but the sidewalk prohibition remained on the books, and was enforced, for years. In 1907 two men appeared in police court and stated that they would plead that while technically guilty they had a ‘moral right’ to ride on the walk of Sixteenth Street for the reason that the street was torn up for paving purposes. In January 1910, after the police arrested two men for riding on the sidewalks, the Evening Tribune explained that the Superintendent of Police was determined to put a stop to men, boys and young women riding bicycles on sidewalks when the streets were not muddy. The Tribune explained that there was no objection to wheelmen using the sidewalks in inclement weather, provided that they shared equally with pedestrians, but there was no excuse when the unpaved streets were not muddy, as was the condition on this occasion.

Scorching and riding on the sidewalk weren’t the only sources of accidents attributed to bicycles. The Union reported in 1903 that a horse and light buggy were standing in front of a store when it was frightened by a bicycle which had been insecurely stood up in a rack near the curb and had fallen over. Fortunately, the only occupant of the buggy, a lady, got the horse under control within a block, showing much skill and coolness. According to the Union, the same cause was responsible for another runaway on Fourth Street a little earlier, and the construction of some of the racks about town with bars placed too wide apart made it practically impossible to securely stand up a wheel in them.

No-one knows how today’s ‘wild west’ scooter situation will turn out but ‘scorching’ and the ‘bicycle menace’ in San Diego’s actual wild west days faded away after D. C. Collier purchased San Diego’s first automobile in February 1900 and ‘wheelmen’ increasingly became ‘automobilists’. Back in 1893, when the ‘wheel’ had appeared be the future of personal transportation, San Diego’s wheelmen had organized a Wheelmen’s Club to celebrate and promote their mutual interest. In the new century, with the automobile age on the horizon, it had become more of a social club, one of the fastest growing in the city. In 1903 members of the Wheelmen’s Club acknowledged the changing circumstances and voted to change their name to the Cabrillo Club.