Tue | Sep 22, 2020

An ode to the bicycle

Published:Sunday | September 22, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Annually, September 22 is recognised as World Car-Free Day. As the name suggests, this is a day when motorists are encouraged to give up using their cars for one day. In October 1994, the first call for this kind of project was issued in a keynote speech by Eric Britton at the International Accessible Cities Conference held in Toledo, Spain.

Since then, events have been organised in cities and countries such as Reykjavík (Iceland), Bath (the United Kingdom), and La Rochelle (France). These events vary according to location and are aimed at giving motorists and commuters an idea of and the ability to enjoy their locality with fewer cars and their emissions. According to The Washington Post, these events “promote improvement of mass transit, cycling and walking, and the development of communities where jobs are closer to home and where shopping is within walking distance”. Studies have shown that for short trips in cities, one can reach their destination more quickly using a bicycle than using a car.

In recent years, there have been little to no calls for an attempt at a no car-day in Jamaica, even though there appears to be an ever-growing number of motor vehicles on the country’s roads. The reasons are unclear as to why no call has been made for such a day to be held in major cities throughout the island, but it is clear that the inhabitants of these spaces would greatly benefit from such a venture. Every day, thousands of people struggle to get from their homes to their places of employment and to school many having to leave very early in the morning to beat the ever-growing traffic monster and congestion, which leaves persons feeling trapped in an almost never-ending cycle of traffic-related stress.

Bicycles in Kingston

Though this is our reality today, this was not always the case in Kingston. As history tells us, the city of Kingston was established in 1692 by survivors of the Port Royal earthquake that year. Surveyor John Goffe drew up a plan for the town based on a grid bounded by North, East, West, and Harbour streets. The new grid system was designed to facilitate commerce, particularly the system of main thoroughfares, which allowed transportation between the port and plantations farther inland. At this point in history, the most popular modes of transportation were foot traffic, horses, horse-drawn buggies, and handcarts. As time progressed, bicycles became a very popular mode of transport.

An article in the Daily Gleaner dated November 25, 1869, indicates that a velocipede bicycle was imported into the island by De Cordova and Company. A velocipede is an early form of bicycle propelled by working pedals on cranks fitted to the front axle. The importation of this early bicycle is said to have started an eventual craze for bicycles for those who could afford them, as well as a local bicycle-manufacturing industry.

Phillips Bicycles

One kind of bicycle that was considered a working man’s companion was any bicycle from the company Phillips Cycles Ltd. Phillips Cycles Ltd was a British bicycle manufacturer based in Smethwick near Birmingham, England. Its history began early in the 20th century and ended in the 1980s, by which time it had become part of Raleigh Industries, itself a part of the Tube Investments group. For a number of years, the company was the second-largest bicycle producer in Britain. The company motto, which was carried on all its badges, was ‘Renowned the World Over’.


In Jamaica, these bicycles were so popular that they were imported and sold as early as 1933 by a number of companies, including L.K. Brandon of East street, Allen’s Cycle Shop in May Pen, and B.S.A. Agency Limited of 58 King Street and on Spanish Town Road. These bicycles were advertised as the ‘Faultless Phillips,’ and were made from the finest British steel. The name Phillips is a guarantee of lasting service and value for money. The true temper steel bicycle. Today, the Phillips brand is still used around the world, especially in China and the Far East. However, it has gone out of style in the West and all remains are the examples of what was as the bicycle pictured.

Ever since the first motorised vehicle rolled on to the streets in 1886, the world has had a love-hate relationship with the motor car. Today, with over one billion motor vehicles on the roads around the globe, it sometimes seems as if we cannot escape the pollution, noise, and danger that they produce. A no car day once a year, with a focus on cycling, walking, or using public transport, gives citizens a wonderful opportunity to see exactly how much motor vehicles and their pollutants affect our lives. Vehicle emissions are one of the main sources of outdoor air pollution, particularly in cities. According to the World Health Organization, ambient air pollution alone caused some 4.2 million deaths in 2016. Transport is also the fastest-growing source of fossil-fuel CO2 emissions, the largest contributor to climate change. High vehicle emissions are the result of poor fuel quality and weak vehicle regulation, around the world. As a developing country its Jamaica has decided to pattern her development, physical infrastructure, and roadways off of first-world countries, which have been designed around mobility for cars. But as we continue to grow and develop as a nation it is high time we change our school of thought and start designing cities around human mobility.


Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica.