Reclaiming the roads

Words by Carlton Reid
21st July 2022
Issue 8

Until recently, roads were shared between a messy mix of cyclists, stagecoaches, carts, horses, and pedestrians, with no dominant user. After decades of the car being supreme, we can return to equality on the street.

Culture

Road space is a special good. Some ways of using it have huge impacts on other road users. Until relatively recently, roads were shared between a messy mix of cyclists, stagecoaches, carts, horses, and pedestrians, but with no dominant user. Today the road is almost completely dominated by the car. 

Motorcars have enormous benefits for those driving them: extra speed, extra safety, and an easy way to lug possessions around. Many also love driving. But, when moving, they make roadways dangerous, loud, and polluted for other would-be users, to the point these potential users have been all but driven off. When parked, they take up valuable urban space.

Even recently things were different. In the UK, cycling had a mode share of 25 percent in 1949 – the same as in the Netherlands today – but, within just 20 years, this had withered to less than one percent, and it was widely assumed that cycling would disappear completely. Cars have now dominated roads for decades. But with the rise of new mobility technologies and an increasing understanding of the problems with single-use roads, we are beginning to see a renaissance in shared road use.

The history of roads in the UK and USA

Much of Britain’s motorway network, built in the late 1950s, is older than it looks. A great many motorway stretches were built over the top of toll roads. Known as ‘turnpikes’ for the gates that had to be opened to allow passage, these roads came to prominence during the Georgian era.

Turnpikes, likewise, followed the alignments surveyed centuries beforehand by Roman military engineers. Archaeologists have unearthed more than 20 Celtic chariot burials across the UK over the past 100 years, suggesting that the ancient Britons constructed hard roads, and neolithic pathways that were likely used for trade probably lie beneath many Roman roads. Those pathways were likely first padded down by animals. Transhumance – the seasonal movement of animals between grazing grounds – creates distinctive tracks. Natural migrations of wild horses, deer, and other herbivores all carved their own routes in the landscape. At roughly the same time, high-level trading routes were also created, above the marshes, on ridges, over hill and dale.

Main roads of England and Wales in 1650. Map created by Joe Ronan. Adapted from Satchell 2017.

These weren’t just single-track foot trails either. Do not think that the prodigious width of a road means it must be modern, and that it was therefore built wide for cars. Before the stagecoach era, a few stretches of the Great North Road were much wider than even the widest eight-lane parts of the current M1 motorway. Edward I’s Statute of Winchester of 1285 stipulated that the road from Helmsley to Pickering in Yorkshire had to be maintained to a width of 200 feet.

Not far from where I’m writing, in my hometown of Newcastle, there’s a four-lane road that links with one of the city’s double-decker motorways. Many people assume the wide, straight road was widened and straightened for the convenience of motorists. It was not – Jesmond Road has been as wide as it is since 1835.

On the other side of the Atlantic, America has 164,000 miles of high-speed highways but, according to the Federal Highway Administration, there are four million miles of slower-speed public roads, a third of which are not even capped with asphalt. Of the 164,000 miles of American highways, believed by most to have been created for motorists alone, the majority are not as novel as imagined. Many famous cross-country routes began hundreds of years ago as trading or hunting trails.

Indeed, some of the most iconic streets in the US are much older than is commonly imagined. There are numerous examples, but here are just four: Broadway in New York was originally the Wickquasgeck Trail, stamped into the brush of Mannahatta by Native American tribespeople. Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, later famous for having the world’s first concrete road surface, and housing the automobile factory constructed by Henry Ford, follows the route of the long-distance Saginaw Trail. Route 209 in New Jersey is based on the Minisink Trail of the Munsee people. And US Highway 12 began as the Great Sauk Trail, named after the Sauk people’s hunting path, originally trodden down by buffalo.

How cyclists led to improved road surfaces

So the paths and widths of many of our roads came well before the motorcar. But, strikingly enough, so did many of their modern surfaces. Modern roads lobbying actually started in the 1880s – before the advent of motoring – and Victorian cyclists were at the forefront of the clamor for nationally funded roads and improved surfaces.

British roads had fallen into disrepair after the advent of railways, including the previously well-maintained turnpikes. Nineteenth-century roads were experimentally topped with a mishmash of coverings, some more teeth-jarring than others. An 1880s British cyclist would have had to bounce, dip, glide, and swerve over roads topped with tarred wooden blocks, rubber, water-bound stone crust, or, in a few high-status areas, viscous asphalt, nowhere near as solid as today’s aggregate-studded asphalt. There were, however, some road surface treatments stiffer even than asphalt. In 1887, a British engineer developed an ‘iron pavement . . . for the construction of Cycle Ways’, but the project was not progressed as it was expensive and slippery when wet.

Another decidedly solid road covering was setts, which are quarried granite blocks, cut flat – as opposed to cobbles, which are round, bulbous river stones. Master Johnnie Dunlop’s discomfort when riding over setts in Belfast on solid-rubber bicycle tires prompted his veterinarian father to introduce pneumatic tires, tires filled with compressed air. These were first used on bicycles at the end of the 1880s and later adopted by the nascent world of motoring, enabling cars to be driven at greater speeds than those allowed by the solid tires of the very first automobiles. Before then tires had been solid rubber, metal, or even wood.

Those who pedaled were the first to be obsessed with the surface smoothness of roads. In 1886, ten years before the arrival of motorcars in Britain, a group of well-heeled individuals created the Roads Improvement Association (RIA), which eventually became the cornerstone of the ‘motor lobby’ but was founded, funded, and initially run by cyclists – from Britain’s Cyclists’ Touring Club and its road racing equivalent, the National Cyclists’ Union.

The RIA built up a body of technical literature to emphasize the ‘scientific’ methods of creating and improving roads. These books and pamphlets were sent by the hundreds of thousands to newspapers, highway surveyors, and members of highway boards, purporting to ‘show them that by the adoption of a system such as is sketched out in the pamphlet, far better roads can be obtained at an expenditure of much less money than is at present spent upon the majority of our Highways’.

In 1913, socialist historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb – cofounders, with others, of the London School of Economics (and, later in life, notorious apologists for Stalin’s USSR) – 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 realize 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 push to pave America was also fuelled by cyclists. The Good Roads Movement – modeled on Britain’s RIA – was started in 1888 by the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), a national cycling club formed in the resort town of Newport, Rhode Island, the epicenter of Gilded Age high society.

The Good Roads Movement would go on to achieve much of what it pushed for: federal funding for roads, a national plan for their construction, and the beginning of the world-reshaping American highway system. The Federal Aid Road Act was signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

Wilson had spent much time in Europe as a law professor, touring on his bicycle. The roads of France and England were far superior to the ones in America, and Wilson became an advocate of Good Roads, an interest he retained when he morphed into a motorist. By his side at the signing of the Federal Aid Road Act was Amos G. Batchelder, executive secretary of the American Automobile Association. Batchelder had first been a cycling official: He had been a member of the League of American Wheelmen and, since 1888 the LAW’s official handicapper. He was also chairman of the National Cycling Association’s racing board.

A street built for bicycles. Image by Judge Magazine, 1897

Cyclists and motorists of the late 1890s and early 1900s were not from separate tribes: They were often the exact same individuals. The ultraexclusive Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, which later added the Royal prefix to become the RAC, was founded in 1897 by cyclists. In 1904, many of its members, in their entries in a motoring annual, were still proudly displaying their love for cycling.

Ernest Shipton would have seen no irony in being a committee member of the influential Automobile Club as well as being, at the same time, the long-standing secretary of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. Henry Sturmey was a cycling journalist to his dying day, wrote a classic 1877 book on cycling, and gave his name to Sturmey-Archer bicycle gears in the early 1900s, but he also founded The Autocar, the world’s first weekly motoring magazine (which is still published, without the definite article). In the mid-1890s Sturmey was editor, at the same time, of both Cyclist and The Autocar. Shipton and Sturmey were only two of the many cycling-fixated committee members of the Automobile Club.

The first automobile manufacturers tended to be cyclists too: from the Dodge and Duryea brothers in America to the cofounders of Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin in Britain. At least 64 motor marques had bicycling beginnings.

It makes sense that cyclists were the first and staunchest evangelizers of motoring. Both modes were based around self-determined mobility, making the rider or driver free from fodder, free from timetables, free from rails, and able to stop and start wherever they like.

George E. Walsh, a regular contributor to America’s The Automobile magazine wrote, in 1902: ‘The effect of the bicycle on road improvement has been . . . phenomenal’, and he added:

Directly and indirectly the bicycle has been the means of interesting capital in road building to the extent of millions of dollars, and of spreading abroad more accurate and scientific data concerning road construction than was ever before done in so short a time. The bicycle practically paved the way for automobiling.

The economics of road use

Why does this matter? Even granting that cars took over routes that were previously shared, and that were originally improved for other road users, perhaps this is just an inevitable feature of progress in technology, and dedicating them exclusively to cars is an improvement in the same way we don’t use radio frequency bands for teletext any more.

It’s a matter of space. Even pedestrians can face congestion. Places such as the City of London or Tokyo can see festival-like crowds, where there is an extremely high density of businesses and shops relative to the walkable pavement space available. But the problem is magnified many times when the motor vehicle is brought in, since cars take up many times as much space as the driver operating them. Even a classic Mini takes up around ten times the floor area and ten times the volume of a standard human. America’s most popular SUV in 2021, the Toyota Rav4, is around double as large again, and the biggest on the market are a further double, or some 40 pedestrians’ worth of space.

Graph created by Joe Ronan. Adapted from NACTO Transit Street Design Guide.

As well as being much larger than the cargo they transport, cars are also parked most of the time. This means that to transport people by car you need to set aside an enormous amount of space purely for transport. Across the countryside, this is not a huge issue, since the next-best use of land is usually farming, and you can buy farmland for a mere tens of thousands of pounds per acre.

But in cities land can be put to a huge range of valuable uses. An acre of Mayfair might cost you £500 million. The 15 acres used for Park Lane, a six-lane dual carriageway through the center of London that accommodates about 20,000 journeys per day, might cost you £5 billion if it were used as something else.

Cars do not just take up space that other road users cannot use; they also make the space they don’t take up unpleasant for other road users. Cyclists and pedestrians risk death if they are not careful, and about 7,000 die every year in the USA. In the era when cars first flooded onto UK streets in great numbers, the 1960s, there were thousands of children killed in particular, leading to huge behavioral adjustment: children began being kept on a tighter leash, having previously been allowed to travel miles from their houses unsupervised in prewar generations.

The grandest houses of the Georgian and Victorian eras used to line the main roads of cities, as can readily be seen from Charles Booth’s 1889 ‘poverty map’ (dark red is ‘well to-do’ upper-middle class). Today houses on main roads face huge price penalties on the market, in part due to the air pollution they are exposed to, but mostly due to the endless noise they must endure if they don’t have triple-glazed windows they keep permanently closed.

Printed Map Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-1899. Sheet 9. Inner Southern District. Licensed via the LSE Library

And even if you tunnel your roads at great expense to avoid these harms, motor traffic does not dissipate; it often increases. In the 1950s, Lewis Mumford, writing in The New Yorker, said:

[Many experts believe congestion] can be solved by increasing the capacity of the existing traffic routes . . . Like the tailor’s remedy for obesity – letting out the seams of the trousers and loosening the belt – this does nothing to curb the greedy appetite that [has] caused the fat to accumulate.⁠

This concept has come to be known as ‘induced demand’ in transport, although economists would see it as a normal demand curve. When roads are free at the point of use, people use as much of them as they feel like until the other costs of driving – difficulties parking, the cost of gasoline, and traffic – overwhelm its benefits. This theory was described in detail in 1969 by JJ Leeming, a British road-traffic engineer and county surveyor, who observed that the more roads are built, the more traffic there is to fill these roads. Recent studies have found similar results. Thus tunneling is no complete solution, and it is extremely expensive.

The practical costs of car dominance

In any case, cities, towns, and villages have tended not to use tunneling, though there are notable exceptions, including the deep stories of underground parking found under many old towns in France and Spain. Instead, settlements have tended to try to accommodate the car by removing space from other uses.

The great majority of villages in England have given their high streets over to become a through road to traffic traveling at sufficient speeds that pedestrians need to be careful when crossing. Often sidewalks are literally two feet wide, so pedestrians must step into the street – again with care – to pass one another.

The gigantic swathes of 1920s and 1930s suburbs in Britain were mostly built without the expectation that their residents would drive regularly, since they were built for the working and lower-middle classes at a time when there was one car for every 20 people. But they were substantially more spread out than Victorian or Georgian suburbs. They were thus known as bicycle suburbs. Yet by now almost every single one of their front gardens has since been concreted over to be a front drive for car storage.

Cities have attempted to add and widen roads – in many cases bulldozing them through valuable neighborhoods – as well as to add bypasses and ring roads to try to divert traffic from the city center. Most city streets now have one or two sides taken up with stationary cars. In other cases neighborhoods or entire towns have been built from scratch with three quarters of their area set aside for roads and parking.

American cities have, famously, made the most extreme accommodation for the automobile. Many cities, especially across the Midwest, saw some four fifths of their centers razed to the ground for surface parking.

How drivers took over the road

Given this outcome, and given our realization of the side effects and costs of devoting so much of our city space to cars, it might seem surprising that we ever made the decision to do so. But the history is more like the allegory of the frog in the slowly boiling water: we didn’t notice until it was too late. Each individual move felt like a sensible adjustment to the circumstances, and had a strong constituency supporting it.

Due to the enormous advantages that personal transport affords, the low crime rates of the early twentieth century – meaning you could just leave your bikes in the street – the low running costs of bicycles, the huge range and speed increases they allow, plus the steady improvements roads were seeing, cycling became more and more widespread. By the mid 1930s there were between 10 and 12 million regular cyclists in Britain, out of a population of around 47 million. There were just two million motorists.

British cycling levels peaked in 1949, when 15 billion miles were ridden by cyclists, representing 37 percent of all journeys (which is higher than the cycling levels in the Netherlands today).

Yet within a few short years, a worker at the Raleigh bicycle factory would arrive at work in Nottingham not on a bicycle but in a car. New cars were out of the reach of most blue-collar workers in the 1950s but there was a roaring secondhand market and buying in installments was becoming increasingly socially acceptable. People were desperate to drive rather than cycle. To ride a bike was seen as a telltale sign of a poverty of aspiration as well as one of means. Bicycles and cloth caps were – literally and figuratively – thrown on the scrap heap.

Just as cycle use dropped, so did the social status of those who continued to pedal.

‘Cyclists are badly treated here’, complained Liverpool’s Labour MP Eric Heffer in a 1968 parliamentary debate. ‘Elsewhere in Europe the cyclist is somebody of importance’, he added. ‘But not here; in Britain the cyclist is somebody we do not care much about.’

A cycling-themed issue of the magazine Design in 1973 argued that the low status of cyclists could be changed through, well, design. ‘Bicycles have not been given the facilities they deserve and need. For all our sakes, planners must be persuaded to provide them . . . Segregated road space may be the only ultimate solution.’

Presciently, Design pointed out that cycling had benefits that were being overlooked: ‘The bicycle offers a golden chance to anticipate and encourage a traffic revolution: more cycling means greater freedom of movement for everyone.’

The magazine contrasted Britain’s dire efforts at planning for cycling with that of the Netherlands. ‘It is quite natural for the Netherlands authorities to superimpose a cycle priority system on the ancient street pattern of Utrecht’, the magazine argued.

Dutch-style changes that Design wished to see in the UK included separation of transport modes, by time and with curbs:

Cyclists in Holland have their own traffic lights, giving them a five-second advantage. Cycle tracks are a natural part of Dutch street systems for old and new developments alike . . . Many European cities automatically build facilities for [cyclists] into their urban schemes.

Dutch cities saw dramatic changes, with pedestrians and cyclists retaking both city center streets and residential ones with the woonerf (living street) movement. By contrast, little to nothing was done for cyclists in Britain. By the early 1970s cycle use in Britain fell to a little over one percent of all journeys, a staggering fall from the 1949 high.

Potential

Though it may seem like the debate is over – even if the roads were not built for cars, they mostly accommodate them now – there have been intriguing shifts toward more diverse road usage in recent years. It is true that some 83 percent of British journeys are made by car. For Americans, the fraction is somewhat larger. But this is part of a rebound from an even lower nadir.

There are a huge range of initiatives aimed at sharing road space around. Paris, for instance, is presently turning some of its most famous streets – some currently eight-lane carriageways – into pedestrianized boulevards. London and the rest of the UK are trying out low-traffic neighborhood schemes, where local areas close their streets to through traffic; many of these have been approved by votes after the fact.

Cars may seem dominant in many towns and cities right now, but that’s because choices were made to allow such dominance. Choices can be remade; minds can be changed.

Janette Sadik-Khan became New York City’s transport commissioner in 2007, and in her six years in office she was able to reduce at least some of the motorcar’s dominance, in a small but significant echo of the Dutch experience. She tamed Times Square and she installed 100 miles of protected bikeways in Manhattan and elsewhere in New York City. Her task was not an easy one, which is why her 2016 book about her time in charge is called Streetfight. But she was successful, and new bike lanes continue to be built across the city.

This shift has been supported by the development of a range of new technologies. E-bikes can give those with less capacity, or those in extremely hilly cities, the ability to cycle with ease – or allow them to turn up at work without being sweaty. They can also drag cargo, letting delivery companies use them for the last mile, or helping people take essentials around town. And containers that can fit cargo can also fit children too young to cycle. E-scooters have performed a similar role in other contexts, helping people get home from train or metro stations and so taking away the end-to-end advantage of the car.

Some people will always need enclosed personal mobility vehicles in cities, but many do not. If we remember that the roads were not built for cars, and that they were not always used for cars, then it becomes easier to imagine how they might be used for more in years to come.

 

Carlton Reid is a journalist and historian. You can follow him on Twitter here.