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Don’t be beaten down, make your way in the world


At the end of the 19th century America had the world’s best cycle infrastructure: the elevated California Cycleway and the Coney Island Cycle Path.

I reckon way is a far more powerful and positive word than path. In America and Britain, path became low status: a path is deemed to be narrow and for walkers. The words path and pad indicate earth beaten down by feet (either human or animal). In Victorian era magazines there was much discussion about “bicycle roads”. The use of the right terminology can be important, especially in cultures which later downgraded the bicycle. In the Netherlands, a fietspad – or “bicycle path” – is not low status. Way denotes moving or traveling and comes from the same Sanscrit root (vah) as the words wagon and vehicle. Perhaps Eric Claxton, designer of the New Town of Stevenage, had the right idea when he insisted that the separated cycle infrastructure he created had to be called “cycleways”. Claxton’s grand-daughter Joanna Brown told me he was very proud of his cycleways and insisted on calling them that:

I remember as a child being pulled up for using the wrong term and being told “paths are for pedestrians, tracks are for horses, I built cycleways.”

In the UK, the official word for sidewalk is a footway. And, of course, motor-specific roads are motorways. Perhaps one way of being upbeat about bicycle infrastructure could be to stop using cycle paths, and instead insist on cycleways?

10 thoughts on “Don’t be beaten down, make your way in the world

  1. Bruce Heerssen / Reply June 24, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    I’d say that’s overly pedantic and ultimately counter productive. Yes, framing can have an impact, but results are more important. Whether we call them bike paths or cycleways, the end goal is building good bicycle infrastructure. Labels are only of secondary importance.

    • carltonreid / Reply June 24, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      But my point is that such infrastructure may not get built because it is deemed “inferior”. Part of this inferred inferiority has to do with perception, of which at least part is due to language. A “path” is clearly way down the pecking order compared to “way”.
      Using a different word isn’t a substitute for arguing for good infra. Nor do I see how it could be counter productive. However, I grant you many will see it as pedantic.

      • Bruce Heerssen / Reply June 24, 2014 at 2:14 pm

        I think we need to be careful that we are not whistling past each other. We are, after all, on the same side in this. My point is that we shouldn’t get too attached to specific terms.

        You have a valid point, of course. Labeling affects the way we think of things, and we can use that to our advantage. It can become counter productive, however, if we argue about labels instead of pressing for results. Segregated facilities for bicycles is the goal, whether you call them paths, or ways, or roads. Also, I think people will continue to call them “bike paths” instead of cycleways, despite best efforts. That word simply doesn’t have the cache here in the United States that “bike path” does, and I don’t see that changing. Perhaps a better way forward would be to elevate the social status of the term “path” so that it no longer has the perceived inferior status you mentioned. Language is flexible like that.

        But have at it: I could be wrong.

  2. Tyler Pelletier / Reply June 29, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    In 1865, when the first “horseless carriages”
    were appearing on English roads, there was a lot of concern about cars
    hitting people (they weren’t pedestrians yet) so they passed the Red Flag Locomotive act, which:

    that self-propelled vehicles, or automobiles, travel at no more than
    4mph in the countryside and no more than 2mph in cities. Furthermore,
    such vehicles must have a ‘crew’ of three people – one of which had to
    walk 60 yards in front waving a red flag (or carrying a lantern) to warn
    people that the automobile was coming.

    • carltonreid / Reply June 29, 2014 at 8:07 pm

      Treehugger not terribly historically accurate there.

      ‘Horseless carriages” were 1890s. No such thing as the Red Flag Locomotives Act – “Red Flag Act” was the Act’s nickname, and it was brought it against “road steamers” i.e. traction engines. These damaged macadamised (i.e. crushed small stone) roads and were so slow there was little risk they’d hit pedestrians. The red flag thing was amended so no longer required to wave flags – but motoring groups (led by a cycle inventor) pretended such a provision was still in existence in 1896.
      The rest of the article is interesting though, as it talks about flags and crossing roads and road rights in general.

      • Tyler Pelletier / Reply June 30, 2014 at 1:44 am

        Red flag laws were laws in the United Kingdom and the United States enacted in the late 19th century, requiring drivers of early automobiles to take certain safety precautions, including waving a red flag in front of the vehicle as a warning.

        Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and of the Vehicles That ..
        By M. G. Lay page 141

        The Red Flag Locomotive Act

        The increasing popularity of the ‘horseless carriage’ in the late 19th century meant that in highly populated metropolises such as London, where there was genuine concern that these new-fangled contraptions would cause fatal injuries, there was a definite need for new rules and regulations. Between 1861 and 1898 a number of Locomotive Acts were put into place, but that of 1865 was undoubtedly the most bizarre.

        ‘The Red Flag Act’, as The Locomotive Act 1865 became known, required that self-propelled vehicles, or automobiles, travel at no more than 4mph in the countryside and no more than 2mph in cities. Furthermore, such vehicles must have a ‘crew’ of three people – one of which had to walk 60 yards in front waving a red flag (or carrying a lantern) to warn people that the automobile was coming.

        So, basically, one could travel in an automobile so long as one travelled the precise speed one would travel by foot…

        • carltonreid / Reply June 30, 2014 at 6:49 am

          That wikipedia link contains some seriously duff information, that I debunk in the book.

        • carltonreid / Reply June 30, 2014 at 7:59 am

          The very first motor cars were relatively slow but generally always faster than walking.The 1865 (and later amended) speed limits applied to the slow and ponderous “road steamers” and it was obvious motor cars went much faster than this. It took 2-3 years before motor cars could approach bicycle speeds – for instance, on the 1896 Emancipation Run some of the later famous motoring pioneers followed the cars on their bicycles, and weren’t that far behind.

          The Lay book is excellent on most things but he gets a lot wrong on the class structure of 1890s cyclists (as do most historians, social and automotive). I discuss this at length in the book. Basically, when cycling became proletarian in the late 1920s, a lot of history was either rewritten or forgotten or deliberately obscured. Even folks who had been demonstrably keen cyclists in the 1880s and 1890s denied this when writing memoirs in the 1930s.

      • Tyler Pelletier / Reply June 30, 2014 at 1:57 am

        1896 red flag law banned celebration, london – brighton

        • carltonreid / Reply June 30, 2014 at 6:53 am

          That’s late 1920s newsreel footage of the London–Brighton re-enactment of the 1896 Emancipation Run – the voiceover was done for laughs, not serious history.

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