Pedestrianism

April 25, 2014 

Did you know that in the 1870s and 1880s competitive walking was a huge spectator sport?

I recently found out about this thanks to National Public Radio and, yes, it is actually pretty interesting. A book titled “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport” was recently authored by Matthew Algeo in which he outlines the rise and fall of competitive walking. Now, we’re not talking about speed racing here, but endurance racing where competitors would walk for six days straight, sometimes upwards of 500 miles. So what caused pedestrianism’s decline?

As it turns out the decline in pedestrianism as a spectator sport was largely a result of improved bicycle design. Before the invention of the safety bicycle by Englishman John Starley which had two similarly sized wheels the most popular type of bicycle was the penny farthing. Penny farthing bicycles had a tremendously sized front wheel and a less than tremendously sized (tiny!) back wheel.

This new design improved the handling and speed at which cyclists could ride and, in a less than shocking turn of events, people would rather watch bicycles crash after days of racing than pedestrians slumping over from exhaustion. Algeo, in an interview with NPR, said, “It sort of went from a NASCAR (race) at super slow motion to a NASCAR (race) at slow motion.”

The above, of course, is a very high level overview, but Mr. Algeo dives into the most famous competitive pedestrians and topics such as gambling and performance enhancing drug scandals; primarily coca leafs and champagne. After all, it seems unlikely that such a popular sport would be without scandals.

So, what does this have to do with livable streets? History provides perspective and the next time you are out walking or biking you can reflect on the history of competitive pedestrianism and challenge yourself or stir some friendly competition with your friends.

May is National Bike Month. May 12-16 is Bike to Work Week with Bike to Work Day landing officially on May 16. If you cannot participate in Bike to Work Week or Day, never fear as you have the whole month of May to participate in other National Bike Month activities such as group rides.

Personally it is a bit far for me to bike from my home in Lee’s Summit to my office in downtown Kansas City, but I am always ready to share the road with cyclists. Lastly, as Lee’s Summit is an officially recognized Bike Friendly and Walk Friendly community, you can and should take advantage of the City’s livable streets at any time of year!

Matthew Fuller is a Lee’s Summit resident and the Chair of the Education and Encouragement Subcommittee for the Livable Streets Advisory Board, a Mayor-appointed, volunteer board whose goals include working to make our community and our streets more livable, safe and accessible for all our citizens.

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