Roads Were Not Built for Cars (Part 4)

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

This follows the third 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] This is the final post dedicated to that worthy book.

To re-cap the main drift of the book and my purpose for drawing upon it: roads were created for animals and pedestrians (think of Roman soldiers), and (skipping ahead a few thousand years), after being ignored as a result of the railroad, were resuscitated by cyclists (bicyclists and tricyclists).

Cyclists exerted incredible political force in both England and America. One American organization, the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.), structured itself with members on the national, state, and local levels. In short, L.A.W. mimicked the structure of the United States: they could get the ear of political representatives on every level. The L.A.W. Bulletin, with its peak distribution of 75,000 per month, swayed opinion in favor of improving roads for cyclists. “The magazine was sent to L.A.W. members as well as surveyors, government officials, libraries, carriage-builders and farmers’ organizations” (151).

These cyclists unwittingly handed the roads over to the automobile culture, thinking that, of course, bicycles would retain a prominent place on the roads.

Reid makes it clear that snobbery encouraged the demise of cycles. The automobile’s increasing popularity (a transition lasting roughly from 1900-1920) wasn’t merely practical: it was fashionable.

Sure, cars had practical advantages, but so did cycles (which were significantly faster than the original autos). Initially (~1890s) cycles were the prized possession of the leisure-moneyed classes. These people had time to recreate and money to purchase the cycle, making cycles a status symbol. As automobiles increased in number and the cost of cycles went down, cycles lost their status and were, by 1920, recognized as working-class vehicles. This shift in status reinforced the popularity of automobiles (being more expensive and therefore exclusive).

As Reid points out, many of the early-automobile proponents were earlier cycle advocates, and no doubt many of them played into the vehicular snobbery that eventually reduced cycles to a lower-class mode of transportation.

Soon, the roads that cyclists promoted so strongly were being presented to the public as primarily—if not exclusively—the domain of automobiles. Cycles were given paths to ride on, which sounds to modern ears like an advance, but it was really a lowering of the cycle’s status: the paths were narrow, uneven, and often interrupted. The pleasure of riding on roads was diminishing already as a result of increased automobile traffic, and the alternative—poorly designed paths—lessened the pleasure further.

As Reid admits, though, “History is rarely clean-cut” (250). The laboring masses who could afford bicycles but not automobiles were too numerous to allow the automobile proponents to altogether ban cycles from the roads. But the glory days were gone for the cyclist. Only with a resurgence in the 1960s and continuing to this day did bicycles re-gain the attention of many who could afford to drive but preferred to pedal.

These four posts have only sampled parts of Reid’s book, and anyone who wishes to see the naturalization of the unnatural dominance of automobiles over time should read his book.

The book provides multitudinous topics that I’ve ignored altogether, such as the transition from the high wheeler (called the penny farthing for the contrast in size between the front and rear wheel) to the safety bicycle (with wheels of equal size, as with most current bikes); the influence of John Loudon McAdam, the Scottish engineer who developed a road surface, macadam, that involved compacted, angular stones that drained water well and was durable (and lent its name, when tar was added, to becoming tarmac); the Nazi bias Hitler promulgated against bicycles, in part because in WWI he was forced to ride a lowly bicycle rather than a motorcycle; or the often prophetic writings of H.G. Wells and the lesser-known work of John Jacob Astor IV, A Journey in Other Worlds (1894).

If one reads the end notes (which are online), one learns that one of the header images I use on this site repeats a quote attributed to H.G. Wells for which no historical record can be found (but still, it’s a great quote!):

HGWells quote
“Everytime I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”


[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).