Roads Were Not Built For Cars

How Cyclists Were The First to Push for Good Roads and Became the Pioneers of Motoring.

Paperback cover for Roads Were Not Built For Cars

Originally published September 2014. Second edition published April 2015 by Island Press of Washington, D.C.

Four years in gestation the book took a lot longer to research, write and publish than I thought it would. This is mainly because I span off at tangents, finding new areas to explore, digging out deeper and more convincing evidence to show that cyclists had far more influence on government road policies than previously thought. Not just previously thought by the public at large, but by social history and transport academics, too. I also travelled, scouring libraries in London, Detroit, Washington D.C., among other places, unearthing primary sources to back up the book’s central thesis.


The book contains 170,000 words, is profusely illustrated and has a 21-page index. It also has an 16-page colour plate section. The digital editions contain the same words and most of the same illustrations. The iPad version also has 10 videos, two audio clips, a 3D spinnable object, and 580+ illustrations, many of which zoom to full-screen. The books are available here.

All of the text will be available, for free, online in 2015, albeit sporadically.

The book got some lovely funding on Kickstarter in April 2013. The book would have gone ahead even without Kickstarter, but crowd-funding was certainly the surest way of testing the viability of the pay versions. Before the Kickstarter campaign I wondered whether anybody would want to pay for a book about 19th Century cyclists changing the world for the better. With £17,000 raised (my target was £4000) I found out there was demand for the information.

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MOTORISTS’ FRONT OF JUDEA: What Have The Cyclists Ever Done for Us?
“All right, but apart from the pneumatic tyre, ball bearings, differential gears, roads, motoring, and aviation, what have cyclists ever done for us?”

1874RipleySurreymapKeenThe “Mecca of all good cyclists”: Ripley Road
The War of the Worlds, the Dibble sisters, Occam’s Razor, women’s liberation, and the London Olympics: all are linked by the “most famous cycling highway in the world.”

New York City once had the best bike path in the world (and it was the first, too)
Difficult to imagine, but in the 1890s a number of American cities could boast the world’s best bicycle-infrastructure. Part paid for by pushy, influential cyclists, the bike paths in cities such as Seattle, Portland, and even Los Angeles, were far in advance of any that could be found anywhere else in the world at the time.

Ride your bicycle on a Sunday? Go to Hell!
So popular was cycling in the 1890s that American church leaders feared that congregations would be dangerously depleted by those who preferred to ride rather than attend church.

Road rugosity, the CTC member who became transport minister, and cycling in the rain at the London Olympics in 1948
He may have killed off the railways and promoted, instead, the use of motorways but Ernest Marples was a member of the CTC, the first member to rise to the role of minister for transport.

Chicago aims to be a world-class cycling city (you know, like it was in the 1890s)
In the 1890s Chicago didn’t need cycle-only “side-paths”, it had 40 miles of wide boulevards, which bicyclists had almost to themselves: the well-surfaced boulevards were for “pleasure vehicles” only, horse-drawn wagons were only allowed on dirt roads, and streetcar trolleys were also kept away from the boulevards.

edwardsCorrugations1893Tread carefully or your strap-on knobbifier may leave the wrong impression
Just as Oakley-style plastic lenses for cycling were around in the 1890s, so were MTB-style knobby tyres. Most solid tyres of the period – as fitted to high-wheelers, which didn’t need the suspension offered by pneumatics – were smooth. Most pneumatics were patterned with grooves. However, for serious mud-plugging on an overseas tour on Humber Safety cycles in 1893, the Stead brothers were equipped with the “latest bicycle Torrilliou pneumatic tyres and Edwards’ corrugate cover.”

Northern England’s cycle infrastructure is the best in Europe
The micro-infrastructure, that is. Britain’s bike paths are famously comically bad, but English aggregates – the little stones enrobed in asphalt – are in demand across the world. Specifically, some little stones from a quarry in deepest Northumberland. They’re naturally red. Some of the wide and separated bike paths in the Netherlands, and in other bike-friendly countries, are made with these red stones.

Why is cycling popular in the Netherlands: infrastructure or 100+ years of history? Both
Imagine, if you will, War of the Worlds in reverse. Imagine not a destructive alien invasion, but a constructive one. Imagine giant space-ships sucking up all of the wonderful bike paths in the Netherlands and depositing them in the UK, creating ready-made bicycle infrastructure, separated from the road network, protected, connected. Once they’ve got used to having aliens as town planners, do you think car-mad Brits would become bike-mad? Would the instant installation of near-perfect infrastructure lead to an overnight explosion in bike use?

WhippleCloseupUgly girls on bicycles: “Don’t scratch a match on the seat of your bloomers.”
For many women, the Safety bicycle of the 1890s enabled escape. Escape from kith and kin, escape from the strictures of late Victorian society, escape from tight corsets and voluminous dresses (bloomers weren’t invented for bicycling but so-called ‘Rational dress’ was ideally suited to journeys awheel), and, in many cases, escape from chaperones. Later, it was the motorcar which enabled easy illicit liaisons (especially when motorcars were made more private, with side windows, a roof and, ahem, a bed of sorts) but it had been the bicycle which had given women their first true taste of freedom. Bicycles required no fare, no feed; bicycles didn’t have timetables; bicycles could speedily go – almost – anywhere.

The bicycle which led to Britain’s gold rush
The Surrey Machinist Co. of Great Suffolk Street, London, was noted for its high wheelers but in 1889 it created a bicycle that would have almost zero impact at the time but which, about 100 years later, went on to influence what would become the Lotus Superbike, the carbon monocoque bicycle used by Chris Boardman in Barcelona.

Mayor of New York says roads are not for cars. And cyclists and pedestrians are “more important” than motorists
Michael Bloomberg: “Our roads are not here for automobiles. Our roads are here for people to get around…The streets were there to transport people. They are not for cars…Cyclists and pedestrians and bus riders are as important, if not, I would argue more important, than automobile riders.”

Drive fast to your tomb
Assassins who fret over telescopic rifle sights or the latest undetectable poisons would be better to run down their prey with a car. Kill with a gun, expect jail-time; kill with a car and more times than not you’ll walk free. It often seems that the usual laws of the land are suspended when crimes are committed on the public highway. Speeding isn’t deemed a social ill, it’s seen as a necessary consequence of our modern, over-stressed lifestyles. Yet the desire for highway haste, and the belief that slower users of the highway should get out of the way of the faster ones, has a long and inglorious history. Road bullying was amplified by motorisation, not introduced by it.

Detroit’s most famous cyclist: Henry Ford
The first motorcar on the streets of Detroit was followed by a tall, slim man on a three-year old bicycle. This bicycle was the slim man’s pride and joy, an individual means of transportation affordable by almost all. The slim man was Henry Ford. Three months after riding behind Detroit’s first car, Ford knocked out the wall of his home workshop at 58 Bagley Avenue in downtown Detroit and went for a drive in his first automobile. This was the Quadricycle, featuring a great many bicycle parts, including steel spoked wheels and pneumatic tyres.

goodroads-450x573The petition that paved America
On September 20th, 1893, the Duryea Brothers road-tested the first gasoline-powered American-built automobile. Most people assume it was early cars such as these – and later ones from the likes of Ford and Buick – which paved America. In fact, the impetus to create better roads didn’t come from the automobile industry, it came from cyclists. In February 1893, the Senate passed a law creating the Office of Road Inquiry. This office – charged with researching best-practice and learning what the Good Roads movement had spent the best part of 20 years lobbying for – later became the Federal Highways Administration. The Good Roads movement had been started by cyclists. Soon after its formation in 1880, the League of American Wheelmen started to push for better roads. The League of American Wheelmen – and the Good Roads movement – were bankrolled by Albert Pope, the manufacturer of Columbia bicycles. In 1892, Pope paid for and organized a petition, requesting the creation of a federal Government Roads Department among other things. Pope’s petition was influential – it was signed by the US Chief Justice, State Governors and was endorsed by banks, large corporations, boards of trade, labour organizations and a future President.

How two cycling organisations founded in 1878 (and a Minister for War) created better roads for all
Aristocrats who wished to take up a sport in the 1880s purchased how-to guides penned by peers. The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes was founded in 1885 by Henry Somerset, 8th Duke of Beaufort, owner of Badminton House, a stately pile in Gloucestershire. The first book in the series – on hunting, naturally – was authored by the Duke and a number of his aristocratic friends. Two tomes on fishing followed. A horsey title was published in 1886 and, in the same year, there came two books on shooting. Books on boating and cricket didn’t appear until 1888 but had been preceded by a joint book on Athletics and Football in 1887. Prior to this, and showing how important cycling was at the time, the Badminton Library’s book on Cycling was published early in 1887.

FirstHeaderLallementWorld’s first cycling faceplant, 1865 (rider wasn’t wearing a helmet, but he didn’t die)
This is a line-drawing of the world’s “first header”, a forward fall from a bicycle. It’s also a line-drawing of the creator of the world’s first pedal-operated bicycle. The creator and rider is Frenchman Pierre Lallement. The location is Birmingham, close to New Haven, Connecticut. Lallement first attached cranks and pedals to his ‘dandy horse’ in 1863 and rode this 70lb wooden machine on the cobbled streets of Paris. In 1865 he emigrated to America, taking his novel contraption with him. Meanwhile, in Paris, Pierre Michaux, as associate of Lallement and probably his employer, started selling pedal-operated velocipedes thought to based on the Lallement design. It’s Michaux who is often credited with “inventing” the pedal-powered bicycle. However, in an article in Outing magazine of 1883, Charles E. Pratt, the co-founder of the League of American Wheelman, credited Lallement as the true father of the bicycle.

Lesbians and Cycling: an Illustrated History
Cycling helped expand the gene pool. But cycling was also a vehicle, as it were, for couplings that wouldn’t result in offspring. Same-sex relationships have a long history and cycling had its part to play.

When President’s said cyclists deserved medals
In the 1896 Presidential election campaign, the League of American Wheelmen was the only organisation to have its own room in the campaign HQ of the Republican party. President of the United States: “if wheelmen secure us the good roads for which they are so zealously working, your body deserves a medal in recognition of its philanthropy.”

Main roads were once re-engineered for trams; plenty of space to build bike paths, then
re-engineering our roads won’t be easy, but it’s been done many times before. Researching the past shows us that things change. The hegemony of the car is taken for granted today, but it isn’t a given. Nothing is set in stone (or tarmac). Motor-centrism was one of the defining aspects of the 20th century but finite space, climate change, whole population health, and air quality issues mean that engineers will increasingly have to design for more people-centric towns and cities. The subjects of King Car have road republicanism in their future.





ReesJeffreysThe free distribution version of the book is in order to get the book seen by as many eyes as possible. You may know that Victorian cyclists did an awful lot to rehabilitate the use of roads – and helped to get them sealed, too – but this isn’t terribly well known outside of cycling. I’d like to change that. Producing a print-only book restricts readership; offering it in multiple formats – pay, as well as free – massively extends the reach.

The book sprang from the ‘history of the Road Fund’ research I did for I then happened upon characters such as William Rees Jeffreys, an official with the CTC who started his 50 year career in getting better roads in Britain as a cyclist and who never forgot his roots.

In a 1949 book he wrote:

“Cyclists were the class first to take a national interest in the conditions of the roads.”

Researching deeper and I found Rees Jeffreys wasn’t the only cyclist to have made a lasting impression on highways. In the US, the Good Roads movement was a nationally significant political force. Without 30 years of campaigning by cyclists it’s fair to say motoring wouldn’t have hit the ground running.

If I can rehabilitate some of this history, and turn just a few peoples’ heads, I’ll be happy


COVER IMAGE: The painting used on the front cover is by marine artist Seth Arca Whipple (1855-1901) and dates from around 1897. Permission to use the painting was granted by the Detroit Historical Society.