Carlton Reid’s Roads Were Not Built for Cars is a revisionist history, reclaiming the role of bicycles in the development of roads and the cars that dominate them. When a class, a race, a gender reclaims its history it is usually in the cause of self-assertion. After reading this I was indignant when a privileged usurper tooted me for walking across the entrance of a cul-de-sac which they were turning into. Listen, these are my f***** streets too, you know.
The later Victorian age. The railway lines had cut through the country on their purpose-built tracks and profoundly changed ideas of mobility. The roads, once well maintained for mail coaches, had fallen into disuse. But in the 1870s and 1880s people started pedalling themselves at speed and with the commercialisation of the Safety bicycle in 1885 bicycling became popular with the elite, affordable for the middle-classes and then finally through second-hand sales and mass production, taken up by the clerks and the factory workers. It powered invention. In 1896 more than half of the 28,000 patents were for improvements in bicycles.
The Psycho Ladies’ Bicycle -1889. Step through for the skirt problem
Cyclists were heading from the paved streets to the countryside, on roads which unlike the railways were not then seen as conduits for fast-moving traffic. Roads were originally made for a human or horse pace and for short journeys. But a new desire had been formed – for self-propelled travel over a distance on a smooth surface.
Passage on the king’s highway is an ancient right in England. A landmark court case in 1879 established bicycles as “carriages” under law and so with the rights to use the roads in the same way as broughams and hackneys. The Cyclists’ Touring Club had one of their members (an MP) add a clause to the Local Government Act of 1888 which effectively prevented county councils from creating by-laws to prohibit cycling on the roads.
Along with lobbying for legislation cyclists campaigned for better surfaces via bodies like the Roads Improvement Association. Some roadworks the members funded themselves. They produced equipment including a ring to measure the size of stones for surfacing, kept an eye on maintenance and made themselves guardians of the highways as modern cycling advocates act as wardens for cycle paths. Eventually this work was taken over by the Road Board “the first central authority for British roads since Roman times”.
Where the cyclists went the motorists then followed and their lobby groups were often the cycling groups with “Automobile” added to the name. One of Cartlon Reid’s main themes is that this was not a case of the poor man’s transport (the bicycle) overtaken by the rich man’s vehicle (the automobile). Bicycles were at first expensive – the high-wheelers (“penny farthings”) were ridden by moneyed athletes. Aristocrats like the Marquess of Queensberry, Oscar Wilde’s enemy, were keen cyclists as was Daisy, Countess of Warwick, one of Edward VII’s mistresses. Arthur Balfour was president of the National Cyclists’ Union and Herbert Gladstone, son of W E Gladstone and one time Home Secretary vigorously pedalled, and pushed for street paving and road maintenance. In the USA the League of American Wheelmen was founded in Newport, the millionaires’ holiday village,
The League of American Wheelmen also campaigned for better roads via the Good Roads Movement, again with a combination of politics and practical demonstration. Their campaign included rolling “road shows”. “The Good Roads train.. would disgorge road builders, a traction engine, a road roller, a sprinkler and broken stone, from which an “object lesson” road would be constructed at prearranged stopping points.” Railway interests opposed them, and farmers, who were responsible for half-heartedly maintaining the rural roads, did not want to be taxed for the benefit of city-slicker cyclists, however much their own wagons jolted on the ruts and ridges. ”Eventually the farmers were won over and the politicians found there was mileage in a publicly paid for road system.” In 1916 the Federal Aid Road Act was signed by Woodrow Wilson, himself a cyclist who had been much impressed by the roads in Britain and France on cycle journeys in his youth.
By then many of the cyclists had become motorists as well. They were the rich who loved speed and self-propelled travel and the very latest gadgetry, promoted by the cycling industry’s flair for advertising. They used the maps that Messrs Bartholomew had crowd-sourced from members of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. The technology behind these early motors – the pneumatic tyres, the ball bearings, the spoked wheels, the precision engineering skills – had been created by the cycling industry.
French cycling poster, 1897
“Carl-Benz’s Patent Motorwagon, the first true automobile, was a motorised two-seater tricycle… The key components for Henry Ford’s Quadricycle – including the wire spoke wheels, bush roller chains and pneumatic tyres – were from bicycles.”
The Nazis erased the cycling origins of Benz’s Motorwagen from history and monument and at the launch of the 15 millionth Model T in 1927 the Ford company claimed that the “Ford car… started the movement for good roads.” The now plebeian bicycle became something of an embarrassing ancestor to the more powerful and more progressive seeming vehicle.
So the well-connected cyclists who had lobbied for good roads became well-connected motorists who wanted unthwarted access to these roads. And they took them over, though they numbered only in thousands, while the cyclists were in the millions because the masses had begun to ride bicycles.
The rights to the passage on the King’s highway was a liberal right which then in the spirit of Ayn Rand was taken over by the strongest and most ruthless. Even a speed limit law was seen as “unEnglish” and as the motorists were of the upper echelons, they resented being treated as criminals for breaking it. (The motoring public is still resentful that they are subject to law – witness fury at speed cameras. One of the cycling groups’ aims is to lower speeds in urban centres to 20mph.)
Carlton Reid compares this to the enclosures “when land in common use by the many was fenced in and appropriated by the few.”
And like the landowner the motorist feels himself entitled to the roads. Hold up his passage he won’t feel merely inconvenienced, but righteously outraged, spluttering like Hilaire Belloc’s JP:-
I have a right because I have, because,
Because I have, because I have a right.
Moreover, I have got the upper hand,
And mean to keep it. Do you understand?
Familiar political themes run through this book. One is of how laissez faire can become devil take (or run over) the hindmost. Another is the Revolution Devouring Its Own Children. A group or class will agitate to bring about a change that will ultimately destroy them, like Iranian leftists demonstrating for the removal of the Shah only to end up being killed by Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. The cyclists lobbied for good roads and got them, and were then pushed off them by the sheer force of a ton of metal, going at five times their speed.
However though Roads Were Not Built… is a polemic shot through with a sense of injustice for the written out and colonised – the literally marginalised literally pushed in the gutter when they had literally paved the way for the motorist – it could be enjoyed by Jeremy Clarkson. It buzzes and hums with innovation and invention. It’s crowded with energetic promoters and lobbyists, engineers and entrepreneurs and tinkerers, sportsmen and pioneers. Cycling did come as a miracle, bestowing a sense of speed and independence. “The cyclist is a man half made of flesh and half of steel that only our century of science and iron could have spawned.” wrote Charles-Louis Baudry de Saunier in The Art of Cycling (1894).
In our own equally exciting and innovative age of computing we are half flesh, half digital stream. Thus Carlton Reid’s Roads Were Not Built… was kickstarted by crowdfunding. He put his researches on his entertaining blog. You can get the book as a big dead-tree soft-back with lots of colour plates (histories of cycling always have cool pics) or as an “iPad version with 10 videos, two audio clips, a 3D spinnable object, and 580+ illustrations, many of which zoom to full-screen.“
Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce
The book ends with potted biographies of many of the motor grandees with a cycling background and their firms, my favourite being that of Lionel Martin. Eton rich. Held long-distance records on tandem and tricycle. He and his friend Robert Bamford were both members of the Bath Road Club and were souping up ordinary cars.
Their advertisement in the Bath Road News:- “If you must sell your birthright for a mess of petrol, why not purchase your car – from Bamford & Martiin Ltd, the most humorous firm in the motor trade.” These cars became Aston Martins.
“Martin was a tricyclist to his dying day. He was killed in October 1945 after being knocked from his tricycle by a motor car on a suburban road in Kingston-upon-Thames.”