In Roads Were Not Built for Cars, Carlton Reid reveals the pivotal—and largely unrecognized—role that bicyclists played in the development of modern roadways. Reid introduces readers to cycling personalities, such as Henry Ford, and the cycling advocacy groups that influenced early road improvements, literally paving the way for the motor car. When the bicycle morphed from the vehicle of rich transport progressives in the 1890s to the “poor man’s transport” in the 1920s, some cyclists became ardent motorists and were all too happy to forget their cycling roots. But, Reid explains, many motor pioneers continued cycling, celebrating the shared links between transport modes that are now seen as worlds apart. In this engaging and meticulously researched book, Carlton Reid encourages us all to celebrate those links once again.
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About the Author
Carlton Reid is the executive editor of trade magazine BikeBiz.com. His travel pieces have appeared in National Geographic Traveller and The Guardian. His previous books include Adventure Mountain Biking (Crowood Press,1990); Complete Book of Cycling (contributor, Hamlyn, 1997); I-Spy Bicycles (Michelin, 1998); Discover Israel (Berlitz, 1993); Lebanon: A Travel Guide (Kindlife, 1995); Classic Mountain Bike Routes of the World (contributor, Quarto Publishing, 2000); Bike to Work Book (Front Page Creations, November 2008) and Family Cycling (Snow Books, 2009).
Read an Excerpt
Roads Were Not Built for Cars
How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring
By Carlton Reid
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2015 Carlton Reid
All rights reserved.
WHEN TWO TRIBES WERE ONE
The roads you travel so briskly lead out of dim antiquity, and you study the past chiefly because of its bearing on the living present and its promise for the future. Lieutenant General James Harbord, 1946
The improvements made to highways are normally assumed to have been started by motorists. This assumption is mistaken. The "Good Roads" movement was created in the 1880s by cyclists. Many of these cyclists were rich and influential, and would later morph into motorists and continue campaigning for Good Roads. The first motorists drove automobiles that were heavily dependent on technologies developed by the cycle industry, an industry at the cutting edge of industrial design and which pioneered manufacturing processes absorbed by the automobile industry, an industry dependent on former or existing cycle entrepreneurs and technicians.
Many country roads in the 19th century were rutted in winter, dust-bowls in the summer and churned with deep mud at most other times. Urban areas fared better, with macadam roads capped with layers of dust-bound crushed stone. Major thoroughfares in cities were often topped not with setts – don't call 'em cobbles – but with wood. In 1871, Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., "America's Main Street," was laid with hardwoods. Five years later some of the wood blocks were lifted, and a thin asphalte strip laid in their place. This was a test of a tar-and-gravel mix patented by a Civil War cavalry general who had been inspired by a Belgian scientist's mountain-sourced French bitumen. In effect, this was America's first bike path. Asphalte roads spread through the city – there were 45 miles of them by 1882. The District of Columbia's asphalte roads formed a "wheelman's paradise," said Bicycling World. A writer in 1889 asked: "How is it possible for a man or woman to get along in that city of magnificent surfaces without a cycle of some kind?"
Cyclists may have loved the pioneer blacktop, but it soon rippled and popped, and within a decade the asphalte roads had been grubbed up; the perfect road surface was still some years away. However, Gilded Age cyclists had seen the future – a future of hard, smooth roads. In the late 1880s the pushiest of these well-heeled cyclists created an influential highways improvement campaign. The Good Roads movement would go on to achieve much of what it wanted: Federal funding for roads, a national plan, and the start of the world-reshaping American highway system. The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 was signed by President Woodrow Wilson. When a law professor, Wilson had spent much time in Europe, 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 kept as he became 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. By 1916, the Good Roads movement was no longer led by bicycle riders, but by motorists. However, Batchelder had first been a cycling official. A member of the League of American Wheelmen since 1888 he had been the L.A.W.'s official handicapper, and was also chairman of the National Cycling Association's racing board. A great many other motoring officials, journalists, promoters, and manufacturers had also been heavily involved in cycling but in 1916 cycling's contribution to the improvement of America's highways was becoming obscured, partly by design.
The hiding was so successful that, by 1927, the Ford Motor Company could boldly claim that the "Ford car ... started the movement for good roads." The record was set straight in 2011 by Suzanne Fischer, curator of The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan. "It might surprise you," she said, in a video, "but it wasn't car owners that first demanded better roads – it was bicycle riders."
America's Good Roads movement was modelled on Britain's Roads Improvement Association, created by cycling organisations in 1886. "Cyclists were the class first to take a national interest in the conditions of the roads," said William Rees Jeffreys in 1949. In the early 1900s, Rees Jeffreys led the influential Roads Improvement Association via his role as a council member of the Cyclists' Touring Club, one of the two cycling organisations which had established the pioneering roads lobbying organisation.
That it was bicyclists who first pushed for improved highways is today surprising, but it was clear and obvious in the 1890s. "The bicycle has done more for good roads, and will do more for good roads in the future, than any other form of vehicle," remarked Brooklyn's Mayor in 1896. An American newspaper said in 1899 that the reason bicyclists were "such advocates of good roads is that, having to furnish the motive power by the use of their own muscles, they learn at once what a mighty difference there is in the energy required to move the same load on a smooth, hard road or an uneven and muddy one." Another newspaper, in the same year, stated that cyclists had at first been despised because many thought they were demanding "that others should, without cost to him, smooth the roads that he alone might have more pleasure." When faced with rough or muddy highways, American farmers had acquiesced: "For years the farmer drives behind his horse with many a bumpety-bump, and the horse became stalled without ever swearing about it or writing a long protest to the county paper."
Cyclists, on the other hand, didn't keep quiet: "Here were people who could swear and write, pushing their vehicles by main strength on wretched paths when a [smooth] street ... permitted them to glide along almost without effort."
Spreading the "Gospel of Good Roads," cyclists cajoled, leafleted and sued, and flexed their political muscles. The campaigning continued when these moneyed cyclists morphed into motorists. Motoring pioneers were successful at – finally! – getting roads improved because they either benefited from the earlier lobbying work of cyclists or, just as likely, had started to lobby for Good Roads when, back in the day, they were cyclists.
Cycling's role in highway history started to be obscured when cycling became proletarian and when, even though cyclists were still the overwhelming majority on the roads, most of the money spent on highways was devoted to the needs of motorists alone. Motoring was modern; motoring was thrusting; motoring, thought almost everybody, was the future.
The critical part the bicycle played in the history of roads, automobiles, technology and, indeed, of society was played down because propulsion by anything other than motors was deemed old-fashioned. Pedalling became passé. "People may be divided into those who possess cars and those who want to possess them," chided aeronautical and automotive designer Sir Dennistoun Burney in 1931. Bicycles, went the slur, were "relics from the 19th century" (as though automobiles weren't).
Historians very often claim that cyclists and motorists of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were from different classes. This book demonstrates the "two tribes" concept is incorrect: pre-1920s cyclists and motorists were often not just from the same (elevated) class, they were frequently the same individuals. Historians and social commentators started to get this wrong from the 1920s onwards, mainly because they were looking at history through a windscreen, and a narrow, grimy one at that. The early motorists celebrated their cycling backgrounds, but later, motor-myopic generations, ignored cycling's vital contribution to motoring and to highway history in general.
This isn't to say that cycling's history is a rosy one. In part, organised cycling had a rather inglorious past – elitist; metropolitan; militaristic; perfectly happy for roads to be improved via the sweat of convicts; overwhelmingly white and male; at times openly racist (L.A.W. and some other American cycling clubs once had a bar on black members); fond of "scorching" (riding fast), to the detriment of pedestrians; and with a propensity to bicker over the smallest of differences (such as amateur versus professional racing status, and the good sense or otherwise of riding on "special roads" set aside for cyclists, an issue that still divides today). Rather more gloriously, cycling eventually provided transformative economic opportunities for workers, and had a major impact on equal rights for women. From suffragettes on two wheels through to the liberated "New Woman" who could openly wear looser, "rational" clothing, to the glamorous illustrations of Gilded Age "Gibson girls," cycling played a key role in women's emancipation at the end of the 19th century, as evidenced by the oft-wheeled out quote from women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony. In 1896, she told the New York World's Nellie Bly that bicycling had "done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."
Cycling also played a pivotal part in the emancipation of the horse: owners of Victorian livery stables complained that their takings were much reduced when the "steel steed" became all the rage in the 1890s. It is perhaps ironic therefore, that cyclists were hugely responsible for popularising what would push horses – and bicycles – off the roads. Prominent officials from the CTC and the L.A.W. were pioneer motorists and helped form some of the early motoring organisations, sitting on their boards and shaping their futures. The Automobile Club de France, the world's oldest motoring organisation, was founded by, among others, a number of former racing cyclists. It was much the same in other countries. Today, in the Netherlands, the main motoring and road rescue organisation is the ANWB, popularly known as the Royal Dutch Touring Club. A more accurate translation of Algemene Nederlandse Wielrijders-bond is the General Dutch Cyclist Union. The ANWB was established in 1883 as a cycling club, before the advent of motoring.
Cycling's contribution to motoring was common knowledge before the 1920s but once cycling became "poor man's transport" the contribution was deliberately downgraded in Britain and America, and officially obliterated in Germany. The Nazi propaganda department wrote to German encyclopaedias ordering them to delete the debt motoring owed to an Austrian Jewish engineer – and, surmises one historian, the debt owed to cycling, too.
The world's first motor car was a tandem tricycle and was created by a cyclist (Carl Benz raved about his cycling days). The first heavier-than-air powered flight was made by a cyclist (Wilbur piloting, Orville Wright running alongside; the brothers funded their aviation experiments from the profits generated by their upmarket own-brand bicycles sold from their Dayton, Ohio, cycle shop).
Most early motorists learned their road craft on bicycles. The parliamentarian Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was known as one of the most ardent motorists of his generation. In 1956, his son's extensive collection of cars, housed at the family's stately pile in the New Forest, was opened to the public as the Montagu Motor Museum, later becoming the National Motor Museum. In the 1880s and 1890s Montagu père was an especially keen cyclist. An 1896 Vanity Fair profile of him said the MP "cycles with ease" and cycling was still listed as one of his interests in the 1927 edition of Who's Who. Montagu is noted for being the first person to drive a motor car into the grounds of parliament. Far less well known today is that six years earlier he had been a cycling MP. In a parliamentary debate on what became the Motor Car Act of 1903, Montagu said: "I remember coming to this House in 1893 riding a bicycle ..."
In the 1890s, cycling was seen as scientifically advanced, and the favoured travel mode of transport progressives. According to an 1896 editorial in the Detroit Tribune, "the invention of the bicycle was the greatest event of the 19th Century." The US Census of 1900 praised the bicycle thus: "Few articles created by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions." A full 16-pages of this publication were devoted to cycles and cycling, while just five pages were devoted to the nascent automobile industry.
"As a social revolutionizer it has never had an equal," said an 1896 editorial on the impact of bicycle in the New York Evening Post. "It has ... changed completely many of the most ordinary processes and methods of social life. It is the great leveller, for not till all Americans got on bicycles was the great American principle, that every man is just as good as any other man, and generally a little better, fully realized. All are on equal terms, all are happier than ever before ..."
Those who rode the revolutionary bicycle pushed for changes that benefited society as a whole. In 1900, motoring enthusiast Sir Arthur Pearson, a British newspaper owner, said: "It is the cyclists who are largely at the bottom of what has already been accomplished [in the cause of good roads]. In working for their own good, they have extended a benefit to the whole community, the magnitude of which could hardly be exaggerated."
British establishment figures like Pearson had their equivalents in America. Cycling was for society's elite. The L.A.W. was founded in 1880 in Newport, Rhode Island – the epicentre of Gilded Age upper-crust culture and location for the grand "cottages" of the fabulously wealthy. By 1898, the cycling organisation had more than 103,000 members, including socialites John Jacob Astor, "Diamond" Jim Brady, and John D. Rockefeller, three of the richest men in the world. Rockefeller – the oil baron who became the world's first billionaire – made a cycle path to the summit of his summer estate at Forest Hill in Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1888, the L.A.W. formed a National Committee for Highway Improvement, putting the issue of Good Roads at the centre of what the organisation wanted to achieve. This campaign was vigorous, spirited and well-funded (mostly by bicycle barons). Millions of Good Roads pamphlets were distributed, to farmers, national and local politicians, and surveyors, indeed to whoever would listen. The circulation of the wheelmen's groundbreaking Good Roads magazine soared, and reached out far beyond the ranks of bicyclists.
Like Rockefeller, the wheelmen had a hill to climb. There were many interests ranged against them, from the rail lobby to farmers. The railway interests were all-powerful in the 1880s. Agents and lawyers employed by the rail barons dominated the US Congress and state capitols. Conservative farmers were suspicious about the claims from bicyclists that improved roads would boost agricultural prosperity. Farmers believed the real beneficiaries of better roads – which they feared they would have to pay for – would be urban cyclists. At the time, roads were maintained by the "working out" method, under which farmers provided their own time and tools, a few times a year. This was an inefficient system, open to abuse, but, for farmers, at least it didn't involve an outlay of hard cash.
"The great majority of the farmers of the United States never saw a good road and do not know what it is," snapped an editorial in the New York Times. "A road that is a morass in Spring, a Sahara in Summer, a series of ruts and ridges frozen stuff in later Autumn, and a slough whenever there is a thaw in Winter is to them the normal means of rural communication ..."
Farmers weren't blind to the inadequacies of rural roads, but they mistrusted paying money to a centralised source, something that would be required for a road system to be improved as a whole. And farmers most certainly mistrusted the "peacocks" on their bicycles, riding out from cities and lecturing country people on what was good for them.
The rural community had long talked about the poor quality of the roads but had done little about it. "Let anyone drive over most American roads in the spring, with open eyes and wits, and see what unchecked destruction is at work," commented a writer in Country Gentleman in the Spring of 1884.
Excerpted from Roads Were Not Built for Cars by Carlton Reid. Copyright © 2015 Carlton Reid. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
When Two Tribes Were One
Mastodons to Motorways
Who Owns the Roads?
“What the Bicyclist Did for Roads”
Ripley: “the Mecca of all Good Cyclists”
Good Roads for America
America’s Forgotten Transport Network
Motoring’s Bicycling Beginnings
Without Bicycles Motoring Might Not Exist
From King of the Road to Cycle Chic
Appendix A - History of roads timeline
Appendix B - Motor marques with bicycling beginnings
Appendix C - Kickstarter supporters
Index of Names