How Bicycles Built Britain’s Roads

Here’s an interesting little experiment I’d like you to do. Ask your friends, family, or co-workers:

“What are roads built for?”

The answer – almost unanimously – will be “for cars”. Most people will say it without hesitation. It will appear subconsciously, almost like a reflex. It doesn’t take any conscious thought to make that link between roads and cars. It’s seems kind of obvious. Roads are for cars.


A short history of the road

Women cyclists in the UK, 1898. Source: Flickr Creative Commons

The historical evidence is pretty clear on the fact that roads were not originally built for cars. As we all know, some of the oldest roads in the country were built by the Romans (who definitely didn’t have cars). For an incredibly long time, however, we had no formal road network. Any roads that existed were informal, poorly maintained, and little more than dirt tracks.

However, in 1886 – ten years before the arrival of cars – a group of cyclists named the Roads Improvement Association was instrumental in lobbying for better road surfaces and the nationalisation of the UK’s highways. It’s strange to think of cyclists as having this level of political clout, but an oft-forgotten fact of Victorian Britain is that cycling was as revolutionary then as cars were 40 years later. Bikes exploded in popularity in the UK in the 1890s and had a dramatic impact on the distances people could travel across the country, leading to drastically increased job opportunities for people in rural areas, and – perhaps most significantly – led to a degree of transport independence for women, which may have (no pun intended) paved the way for women’s suffrage in the future. In fact, the independence offered to women so scared the male establishment that they invented a fake medical condition caused by cycling called “Bicycle face” to scare women away from cycling:

“Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘bicycle face”

As Munsey’s Magazine put it 1896:

“To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world”

Cycling dominated the UK for many years, and transformed our road network. As stated in an earlier article I linked to, “cyclists raised money to help pay for the superior metalling they craved, stressing that the improvements they were willing to part-fund would be of benefit to all road users”. The historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb wrote that:

“It was the bicyclist who brought the road once more into popular use for pleasure riding; who made people aware both of the charm of the English highway and of the extraordinary local differences in the standards of road maintenance; and who caused us all to realise that the administration, even of local byways, was not a matter that concerned each locality only, but one in which the whole nation had an abiding interest.”

The UK’s old cycleways

A 1930s cycleway in Surrey. Source: Citylab

Of course, we all know what happened in the early 1930s and 1940s: the car came along, and quickly dominated the nation’s roads. Planners quickly moved to build tougher, longer, and wider roads to make way for the gradually increasing numbers of fast, heavy, and large automobiles. What’s particularly amazing is that despite this, hundreds of miles of dedicated cycleways were being constructed in the UK right up until 1940. Despite the rise of the car, cycling was still so prominent that planners acknowledged it should have a place alongside driving. Unsurprisingly, many of these old cycleways have now sadly been lost; buried, and replaced with wider roads or new property developments. Here’s a well-preserved example in Twickenham, which is still part of the modern cycling network. Notice how it seamlessly integrates into the residential streets; almost like a natural extension of the residential road network, rather than something tacked on as an afterthought. Some, however, are no longer used as cycleways. Here’s a particularly egregious example in Manchester, which now seems to mostly be a dumping ground for cars.

So, what happened?

Well, despite a brief setback caused by the Second World War, civilian car production boomed in the late 1940s to the point where Britain’s car industry was the largest in the world, exporting cars to a war-ravaged Europe en mass. This – coupled with the fast decreasing cost of owning a car – lead to cars very quickly becoming the preferred method of transportation for most people. By the time the first roads on the national motorway network started appearing in the 1950s and 60s, the mass-produced family car came to be portrayed not simply as a tool for transporting people, but as an integral part of a desirable lifestyle. “Consumers no longer asked ‘Do we need a car?’ but ‘What car shall we have?’”.

A167(M) Newcastle. Source: Craig Rodway on Flickr Creative Commons

Not only were bikes no longer part of road planning decisions, but 1960s planners did everything they could to keep non-car traffic – and pedestrians – off the roads. Barriers were erected along newly built major roads to keep people away from car traffic, as shown here on Arundel Gate in Sheffield. Planners in the 60s also had a penchant for underpasses and overpasses; another technique for segregating other kinds of transport from cars. Here’s a large bus and pedestrian underpass on Furnival Gate, also in Sheffield. Notice how in both these examples, cars can travel freely, but everyone else is segregated and forced off the road.

Roads are for cars, right?

Where we are today

Despite the damage wrought by the dominance of the car since the 1960s, we are gradually starting to come round to the idea of building infrastructure for cyclists again (mostly thanks to fast increasing levels of congestion and pollution caused almost entirely by cars, the effects of which are felt more in large urban areas where most of the population live). However, whilst there are some fantastic large-scale bike infrastructure projects in the works, e.g. Oxford Road in Manchester and “Mini-Holland” in Walthamstow, there are many half-arsed schemes appearing all over the country, some of which are genuinely puzzling or outright dangerous.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that cycling levels in the UK are very low. On the plus side, however, cycling rates are increasing in most of the major cities, but the rate by which they’re increasing is really quite low, and in some cases not enough to match the increase in private vehicle usage.

The bicycle may have helped build the roads, but the car has completely taken them over. Until we build better cycling infrastructure and disincentive car use, there’s very little hope of changing this.

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