Car drivers assume the roads were built for them, but it was cyclists who first lobbied for flat roads more than 100 years ago
A cyclist, in 1935, shelters from the rain while travelling on an asphalt road. Photograph: Getty Images
Wooden hobbyhorses evolved into velocipedes; velocipedes evolved into safety bicycles; safety bicycles evolved into automobiles.
It’s well known that the automotive industry grew from seeds planted in the fertile soil that was the late 19th century bicycle market. And to many motorists it’s back in the 19th century that bicycles belong. Cars are deemed to be modern; bicycles are Victorian.
Many motorists also assume that roads were built for them. In fact, cars are the johnny-come-latelies of highways.
The hard, flat road surfaces we take for granted are relatively new. Asphalt surfaces weren’t widespread until the 1930s. So, are motorists to thank for this smoothness?
No. The improvement of roads was first lobbied for – and paid for – bycycling organisations.
In the UK and the US, cyclists lobbied for better road surfaces for a full 30 years before motoring organisations did the same. Cyclists were ahead of their time.
When railways took off from the 1840s, the coaching trade died, leaving roads almost unused and in poor condition. Cyclists were the first vehicle operators in a generation to go on long journeys, town to town. Cyclists helped save many roads from being grubbed up.
Roads in towns were sometimes well surfaced. Poor areas were cobbled; upmarket areas were covered in granite setts (what many localities call cobbles). Pretty much every other road was left unsurfaced and would be the colour of the local stone. Many 19th century authors waxed lyrical about the varied and beautiful colours of British roads.
Cyclists’ organisations, such as Cyclists’ Touring Club in the UK and League of American Wheelmen (LAW) in the US, lobbied county surveyors and politicians to build better roads. The US Good Roads movement, set up by LAW, was highly influential. LAW once had the then US president turn up at its annual general meeting.
The CTC individual in charge of the UK version of the Good Roads movement, William Rees Jeffreys, organised asphalt trials before cars became common. He took the reins of the Roads Improvement Association (RIA) in 1890, while working for the CTC.
He later became an arch motorist and the RIA morphed into a motoring organisation. Rees Jeffreys called for motorways in Britain 50 years prior to their introduction. But he never forgot his roots. In a 1949 book, Rees Jeffreys – described by former prime minister David Lloyd George as “the greatest authority on roads in the United Kingdom and one of the greatest in the whole world” – wrote that cyclists paved the way, as it were, for motorists. Without the efforts of cyclists, he said, motorists would not have had as many roads to drive on. Lots of other authors in the early days of motoring said the same but this debt owed to cyclists by motorists is long forgotten.
The CTC created the RIA in 1885 and, in 1886, organised the first ever Roads Conference in Britain. With patronage – and cash – from aristocrats and royals, the CTC published influential pamphlets on road design and how to create better road surfaces. In some areas, county surveyors took this on board (some were CTC members) and started to improve their local roads.
Even though it was started and paid for by cyclists, the RIA stressed from its foundation that it was lobbying for better roads to be used by all, not just cyclists.
However, in 1896 everything changed. Motoring big-wigs lobbied for the Locomotives Amendment Act to be repealed. This act made a driver of a road locomotive drive very, very slowly and the vehicle had to be preceded by a man waving a red flag. When the act was jettisoned, speeds increased, automobilists demanded better road surfaces to go even faster on, and “scorchers” and “road hogs”, terms first used against cyclists, took over the roads.
By the early 1900s most British motorists had forgotten about the debt they owed to prehistoric track builders, the Romans, turnpike trusts, John McAdam, Thomas Telford and bicyclists. Before even one road had been built with motorcars in mind (this wasn’t to happen until the 1930s), motorists assumed the mantle of overlords of the road.
A satirical verse in Punch magazine of 1907 summed up this attitude from some drivers:
“The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come they go on making roads – making them up. For I break things. Roads I break and Rules of the Road. Statutory limits were made for me. I break them. I break the dull silence of the country. Sometimes I break down, and thousands flock round me, so that I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.”
At the time, the CTC had little inkling cyclists would soon be usurped. An editorial in the CTC Gazette of July 1896 admitted the “horseless carriage movement will make an irresistible advance” and asked members whether motorists should be admitted to membership. Such a move was declined by members but cyclists were later instrumental in the foundation of the Automobile Association, an organisation created to foil police speed traps.
Motoring and cycling soon developed in very different directions and by the 1950s it was clear the future was to be one of mass ownership of cars. Car mileage increased, roads were now always designed with motors in mind, and, rider by rider, cyclists – once dominant on Britain’s roads – started to disappear. In the evolutionary timeline of hobbyhorse-to-velocipide-to-bicycle-to-automobile, the riding of bicycles should have been all but extinguished by the 1970s. Town planners certainly thought that way, and declined to design for anything other than motorcars.
But there’s a problem with mass car ownership: there’s not enough space to put them all. Gridlock is the unforeseen outcome of planning solely for cars. When a city grinds to a halt, that’s money down the drain. Cities are waking up to the fact that unrestrained car use is bad for people, and bad for the local economy. Unrestrained car use leads to ugly cities.
Now, the cities that first woke up to this are the bicycle-friendly cities beloved by cycle campaigners.
Towns and cities that design for people, not machines, will be the most progressive of the next 150 years, the towns and cities where people will most want to live, work and play. Far from being a 19th century anachronism, the bicycle is fast becoming a symbol of urban modernity, and cyclists are again at the vanguard of making cities better places. Cyclists have always been ahead of their time.
• Carlton Reid is executive editor of cycling trade magazine BikeBiz and is writing a book on cyclists’ contribution to better roads. He has received writing grants from the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund and the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation