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Critical Mass, 1923

A 1923 census of traffic by the UK’s Department of Transport showed there were more bicycles on the road than any other vehicle. Within just a few years the situation was much different.

In 1923 there were 383,525 cars on the roads of Great Britain. By 1930 the number topped a million. Within another eight years another million cars were added to the roads.

Cars killed. There were 7305 road deaths in 1930.

Motorists quickly assumed that roads had been built for them and them alone.

In 1947, J.S. Dean, the journalist and head of the Pedestrians’ Association, wrote Murder Most Foul, a polemic calling for an end to “road slaughter” and an end to the view that highways were made for the exclusive use of motorcars:

“The private driver is… most strongly influenced by the sense of ownership of his car, and, as he often believes, of the road as well. It is “his” car to do with as he pleases, and, as he often believes, it is “his” road too, and the other road-users are merely intruders who are there at their own peril.

“This belief (it is of interest to note) has its origin in the vicious and anti-social proposition, embodied for a time in the Road Fund and since sustained by the motor and road propagandists, that the motorists have a right to demand that the motor taxes should be devoted exclusively to the construction and “improvement” of roads, i.e. as experience has shown, to the construction and “improvement” of roads with special or exclusive reference to the convenience of the drivers and with a general disregard of the convenience and safety of the other road-users. Of course, one might as well say that the drink taxes ought to be devoted to the construction and improvement of public houses or the duties on cosmetics to the establishment of beauty parlours.”

Cyclists – and pedestrians – were sidelined, and, as in this 1938 poster produced for London Transport, often blamed for “road accidents”.

Cyclists retreated from the roads.

Now, in London, they’re surging back, often much to the displeasure of motorists. The benefits of cycling are clear. And one of the key benefits is speed. Cyclists – even those in civvies and on chunky roadsters – often have higher average speeds than motorists. In 1904 a Royal Commission studied traffic in London. The speeds of various vehicles were taken. During off-peak periods a taxi cab would travel at an average of 12 miles per hour. In 1996 the average off-peak motor vehicle speed was recorded as 10 miles per hour.

Speed is promoted in another London Transport poster, below, although bicycles are noticeable by their absence. This poster is from 1915 and was drawn by Alfred Leete. There’s an exhibition of these posters at London Transport Museum from 6th January through to March.

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