Roads Were Not Built for Cars (Part 2)

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

This post follows the first post that draws upon the book Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring, by Carlton Reid, 2015.[1]

The beauty of not knowing a particular history is that we can attach our own histories to the present. For example, if we do not know that roads were built first for pedestrians; second for carriage (stagecoaches and, later, carts and “carriages”); third for bicycles; and fourth for automobiles, we can assume that, outside of a few exceptions, roads-as-a-recognized-right-of-way came with the advent and appreciation of the automobile.

In short, ignorance allows accidents of history to acquire the status of natural law: automobiles, it seems, always have owned and always will own the roads.

Far from roads being exclusively for cars, their purpose and legal use both pre-dated cars and, even after the advent of cars, disallowed them. A long series of commitments (royal, municipal, federal, state, and private) sustained a network of roads for human- and animal-powered transportation. It was assumed, until about 1920, that roads were for everyone.

It was the bicyclists (and tricyclists) who were initially the outsiders and had to petition in various ways to be included with pedestrians and carriages. In England, when a bicycle hit a pedestrian, the court case (Taylor vs Goodwin) defined bicycles as carriages, with the result that bicycles gained legal access to roads (60).

Next it was the motorists who were the outsiders. But once—in both Britain and America—automobiles gained the status of carriage, they quickly drove pedestrians, equestrians, and bicycles to the shoulder (or worse).

The acceptance and eventual reverence of cars came in fits and starts around the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Reid, Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman, a journalist, wrote in 1909:

[A] large proportion of those who have employed motor cars in habitual violation of the speed limit, and in destruction of the amenities of the rural life of England, have done so either because their neighbours have employed motor cars, or because their neighbours have not employed motor cars; in an effort towards equality with the one, or superiority over the other. (49)

The quote is perfect in two ways:

First, one can only wonder what Masterman would think now, concerning “violation of the speed limit” and “destruction of the amenities of the rural life” if he were to see the current western obsession with much (much) faster vehicles whose path of destruction occurs on many more levels, the final one being the current threat of turning the earth brown from excess greenhouse emissions.

Second, the desire for a car was not then nor is it now solely practical or necessary. The desire is socially generated, offering the possibility of a better life, of superiority, of being above the fray of humanity. Of course now, in about 29 countries, the majority of people own vehicles (cars, vans, buses, or trucks)—so for the socially competitive nature, simply owning a car is not enough.[2] Each person owning 1.2 cars might be something (Republic of San Marino). In order to stay on top, a newer, bigger, faster, fancier car is necessary. Not everyone, of course, cares about surpassing their neighbor, but the imitative impulse harnessed by automobile marketing is quite powerful.

Disguised beneath concepts of necessity and practicality lies the relatively recent invention of the automobile. This thing that protects the driver while it endangers others, that coughs toxic gasses, and that becomes relied upon to absurd extents—this thing has neither the legal heritage nor the beneficent effect we’ve been bamboozled into accepting.

(Continue roads-were-not-built-for-cars series with Part 3)


[1] According to the author, “As much of this book is about resurrecting lost or deliberately obscured histories, there will be some who think I’ve made it all up. I’ve therefore been very careful to cite the source material for all the facts and quotes I’ve included. The copious notes would double the length of this book so I have placed them online:” (xxiii).

[2] Not all these countries are the most populous, of course. China (23%) and India (5%), for example, do not have a majority of automobile owners, although the absolute number of automobiles is great (China, 300 million; India, 55.7 million). Source:, last visited 11/21/2018.