Riding a bicycle is life-affirming, but I never thought writing a history book about cycling could have the sort of impact I’m about to relate.
Montreal in Quebec, Canada, was a hot-bed of cycle advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the key reasons that city now has hundreds of miles of cycleways, including a two-mile curb-protected cycleway smack-bang in the Central Business District.
Montreal became bicycle-friendly because of people power. Bicycle-advocacy group Le Monde à Bicyclette was founded in April 1975, and many of the campaign tactics it employed – such as die-ins – are still used by advocacy groups around the world.
The anti-automobile activism group was cofounded by Claire Morissette and Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman. The curb-protected cycleway in the Central Business District was built in 2007, replaced a car lane, and was named for Morissette, who had died from cancer earlier in the same year.
To research Bike Boom I visited Montreal, and hung out with some of the 1970s members of Le Monde à Bicyclette. This is my pic of Robert on the Piste Claire-Morissette (I ferried him around in a Christiana cargo trike):
For Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman and all of the other 1970s cycle advocates who tended cycling’s flame when planners and politicians were trying to snuff it out.
Last week I sent Robert a proof of the designed pages. His reply took me by surprise:
“Thank you for dedicating the book to me. Reading it actually saved my life. I’m going blind with macular degeneration which started a few years ago, which was combined in early October with a stroke. Life has been very hard; so bad that I cannot ride a bicycle any more, cook, or do other very simple tasks. I was prepared to take my own life, but changed my idea after reading your dedication.
“This is true, not an exaggeration. In Quebec, dying with dignity is legal … But since receiving your dedication [my mind has] changed.
“When I became a bicycle advocate [in the 1970s], for the first time I had a reason to live. I would ride a bike, and that in itself was revolutionary … I have dedicated my life to making the world a better place via a simple solution: the bike!”
I was very touched by Robert’s candour, and asked his permission to tell this particularly sensitive tale.
Wonderfully, Robert is now working with local advocates to produce an in-depth history of Le Monde à Bicyclette and will also be dictating a number of hard-hitting bicycle blog-postings. Bike power!
In May 1935, a Divisional Road Engineer in the Ministry of Transport wrote to the Chief Engineer in London giving the latest traffic counts:
“The cycle traffic on the Wolverton Road [near Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire] represents in numbers 54 percent of the traffic on the road throughout the day. At rush hours it reaches 80 percent of the total traffic using the road … At Magdalen Bridge in Oxford, 12,500 cyclists pass in the sixteen hours of the normal census day. They represent in numbers 50 percent of the total traffic. At a point in Bedford cyclists represent in numbers 80 percent of the total daily traffic …”
“Cyclists cause air pollution” is becoming one of the regular tropes to attack cycling, wheeled out by shock-jocks, NIMBYs and even black-cab drivers (possibly tweeting such views from their diesel-powered vehicles, idling at taxi stands).
It’s insidious. Have a look at this A-level physics exam paper from Edexcel:
Between 1934 and 1940 Britain’s Ministry of Transport paid local authorities to install cycle tracks. As seen and heard on the BBC, ninety or so schemes were built, resulting in perhaps as many as 500 miles of cycle tracks, some of them protected with curbs. The great majority were built – 9-ft wide and both sides of the roads – next to the new bypasses of the era; a few were built on “trunk roads” through residential areas, such as in Sunderland, Manchester, Nottingham and Oxford. A successful Kickstarter campaign in May 2017 has enabled us to start researching some of these cycleways (later we’ll be aiming to rescue many of them). And even though the Kickstarter campaign has now ended it’s now possible to get the same emails and reports as backers. This extension to the campaign was created after people got in touch after the campaign ended asking how to get involved.
If you’d like to be involved please fill in the form below (it’s a form hosted on Wufoo, a secure database service). Once you press “submit” you will be taken, via Wufoo, to a secure, Stripe-powered payment page where you can choose which pledge level you’d like. Information on the pledge levels can be seen below.
(NOTE: Some people have had problems connecting Stripe after “Submit” – it’s possibly a browser issue. Nevertheless you will still get a auto-generated welcoming email – if you do not see the secure Stripe details an alternative is that we could generate a PayPal invoice that has the correct payment details, and which doesn’t require PayPal membership. Hit “reply” on the auto email and ask for this option, which we have to do manually.)
Every penny of support will help us research the history of Britain’s long-lost cycleways and advocate for at least some of them to be revived. No products provided at this level, except basic email updates (no reports), but you’ll be buying us a coffee, and you’ll get a name-check in the final report.
Every penny of support will help us research the history of Britain’s long-lost cycleways and advocate for at least some of them to be revived. No products provided at this level, except basic email updates (i.e. none of the exclusive reports other backers get), but your pizza level contribution will sustain us in our work, and you’ll get a name-check in the final report.
At the Report level you’ll get a name-check in the final report, and you’ll get that report, too. It will be sent as a PDF. You will also get digital updates of the work in progress – these updates will include photos, maps and other materials that will go only to backers of the Report level and above.
Deluxe Report Level
At the Deluxe Report Level you’ll get a name-check in the final report, and you’ll get that report, too. It will be sent as a PDF. You will also get digital updates of the work in progress – these updates will include photos, maps and other materials that will go only to backers of the Report level and above. In addition, you will receive links to videos available only to backers of this level and above. You will also be able to choose the formats of the reports, including Kindle, ePub, and multi-media iPad bundles. You will also get an invite to a London launch event.
At the Belisha Level you’ll get a name-check in the final report, and you’ll get that report, too. It will be sent as a PDF. You will also get digital updates of the work in progress – these updates will include photos, maps and other materials that will go only to backers of the Report level and above. In addition, you will receive links to videos available only to backers of this level and above. You will also be able to choose the formats of the reports, including Kindle, ePub, and multi-media iPad bundles. You will also get a personal invite to a 1930s cycleway ride with the project creators as well as a London launch event.
Go Dutch Level
At the Go Dutch Level you’ll get a name-check in the final report, and you’ll get that report, too. It will be sent as a PDF. You will also get digital updates of the work in progress – these updates will include photos, maps and other materials that will go only to backers of the Report level and above. In addition, you will receive links to videos available only to backers of this level and above. You will also be able to choose the formats of the reports, including Kindle, ePub, and multi-media iPad bundles. And you’ll also get to choose between a limited-edition project t-shirt or project mousemat AND you’ll get a high-resolution print of a plan or period photograph of any one stretch of cycleway. This can be signed by the project team and dedicated to you with a message of thanks. You will also get a personal invite to a 1930s cycleway ride with the project creators as well as a London launch event.
Note: all levels above Pizza Level also gain access to the premium level of a new podcast, CyclingHistory.Today. The site has been registered and a website will be connected to that URL soon. The podcast will feature cycling history from 1817 onwards.
DIGGING UP BRITAIN’S FORGOTTEN CYCLEWAYS
Many cycle advocates urge that the Department for Transport should create dense grids of protected cycling infrastructure – in other words, Britain should “Go Dutch”. It’s almost totally unknown that Britain once had the beginnings of such a Netherlands-inspired network, and with your help we could rediscover it and, in some cases, literally dig it up. This project could result in the (re)creation of many miles of protected cycleways – and as a backer you’ll be along for the ride.
In the 1930s, Britain’s Ministry of Transport commissioned the building of 500-miles of protected cycleways. Between 1934 and 1940 more than 300 miles of these innovative cycleways were actually built, usually both sides of the new “arterial roads” springing up all over the country.
(The video above says it was 280 miles – but, thanks to the publicity generated by this project, more mileage has come to light.)
Some of these cycleways still exist, but they are not today understood to be cycle infrastructure: they should be rededicated. Others are buried under a couple of inches of soil: they could be excavated.
We are seeking your support to make all of this happen. Cash is needed to carry out further research and then work out how the historic cycleways can be meshed into modern networks.
With your help we’ll be able to demonstrate that the space for cycling is there, and in many cases it has been there for a long time!
Those who back this project will be supporting something of potentially national importance, and will gain behind-the-scenes access to our work as it progresses. You will receive timely backer-only reports that won’t be published anywhere else. Whether you’re interested in the historical side of the project, or the modern, practical side backers will receive regular updates and will be the first to be told of what could be important and, in some cases, genuinely ground-breaking developments.
Take a look at the backer options above. You could buy us a cup of coffee to keep our spirits up or go the whole hog and get us to give you an up close and personal presentation to your club, company or organisation. We’ll also be taking some backers on a guided cycle tour of one or more of these innovative-for-the-time cycleways.
“… if Britain managed to find money to produce state of the art bike lanes during the Great Depression, it can definitely do so again.” Feargus O’Sullivan, CityLab
We are author and editor Carlton Reid (the project’s historian) and Urban Movement’s John Dales (the project’s urban planner, and with a team behind him).
Between 1937 and 1940 the Ministry of Transport only gave grants to local authorities for arterial road schemes if they included 9-ft-wide cycleways both sides of the road, writes Carlton Reid. Some of these cycleways still exist (but are believed, wrongly, to be “service roads”); others have been grassed over (but their concrete surfaces probably remain). Many are not marked on maps as cycleways (or considered to be such by local authorities.)
That Britain once had a great number of protected cycleways is now almost totally unknown. I started researching these Dutch-inspired cycleways for my forthcoming book Bike Boom (Island Press, June 2017) and when I started to dig deeper (sometimes literally) I came to realise there were far more of these 1930s cycleways than I, or anybody else, knew existed. By poring through ministerial minutes I discovered that, amazingly, the Ministry of Transport was working to plans submitted by its Dutch equivalent: Go Dutch, 1930s-style.
To date, I have identified more than 90 separate protected cycleway schemes around Britain, some of which can be found on the map below.
I believe there are more cycleways to be found.
These innovative, concrete cycleways – many with granite kerbing – went out of use so rapidly that they were forgotten about soon after being built. A few were later grubbed up to make extra room for cars, but plenty can still be seen today – if you know what to look for.
By using long-neglected plans and maps I’ve been able to trace many of the buried ones; some appear to be tantalisingly close to the surface.
It’s important to map, record and then rescue these cycleways. Many have lasted this long only out of sheer luck, and need to be “listed” so that they can’t be destroyed in the future to, say, widen roads for motor traffic.
This is partly a historical – and even an archeological – project but, as John Dales says in the video above, it’s also highly relevant today because the space for cycling that many planners and politicians say isn’t there is there!
We are combining to form a small team that will research and evaluate the schemes found to date, and then approach local and national authorities with plans for meshing the 1930s cycleways with their modern equivalents. The success of the Kickstarter campaign enabled us to start work on researching and evaluating some of the schemes identified so far. The more money we raise the more cycleways we will be able to research. We shall use this research – and the modern urban planning work – to push for grants and other monies to enable rescue work to take place.
In 1934, the Ministry of Transport consulted with its Dutch equivalent before starting work on its cycleway programme. The MoT’s chief engineer was provided with cycleway plans and advice by the director of the Rijkswaterstaat.
Most of the 1930s cycleways were built alongside new arterial roads and bypasses. However, some were built in residential areas, such as the separated cycleway in Manchester seen at the top of this page. This cycleway still exists but, today, not all of it is marked or used as a cycleway – motorists park their cars on it, assuming it’s a private road built for such use. The challenge is to find and research the history of this cycleway, and the 80 or so others, then link them into today’s networks.
It’s reasonably well known – in certain cycle advocacy circles at least – that there was a 2-mile protected cycleway on Western Avenue in London, opened by transport minister Leslie Hore-Belisha in 1934 (I wrote about it in Roads Were Not Built for Cars). What’s very much not known is that this was just the first scheme, and that the Ministry of Transport majority paid-for at least 70 other schemes across the country, many of them kerb-protected and separated from carriageways.
After 1949, cycle use in the UK dropped dramatically and less use was made of the innovative-for-the-time cycleways.
In time, it was forgotten that there had once been these many cycle infrastructure schemes around the UK. This project aims to bring many of them back to life both by rededication and by demonstrating how they can be linked in to wider networks. A great deal of further archival research is required, especially in city, county and national archives. Period newspaper reports describe when the cycleways were given the go-ahead and when they were opened, but it will require more digging to find grant-aid documents, further maps and plans, and period photographs of the cycle tracks in use.
Most of the 1930s cycleways (at the time they were called “cycle tracks”) were, on average, four miles long, but the 9-ft and 6-ft cycle tracks on both sides of the Southend Arterial Road (which are not marked on modern maps) extended for more than 18 miles.
If we could bring back to life even half of the built cycleways that’s perhaps 140+ miles of cycleway that we don’t currently know about, or treasure.
This is an ambitious and potentially very practical project, but it cannot happen without your help.
CHRIS BOARDMAN: “This is a marvelous proposal. It could recover some of our lost past and give normal people the opportunity to change the way they travel, in safety.
“As a bonus, in these austere times, it would have a meaningful impact for a very modest price.”
THE RANTY HIGHWAYMAN: “This exciting delve into history seeks to rediscover the space which was found for cycling eighty years ago, and it just goes to prove that most innovations in highway engineering have already been built.
“My predecessors made their foray into enabling cycling by looking across the North Sea for inspiration and so this project is sure to provide modern highway engineers with some valuable lessons and inspiration for rediscovering cycle track design in the UK.”
MARK TREASURE, CHAIR OF CYCLING EMBASSY OF GREAT BRITAIN: “It’s fantastic (and also more than a little depressing) that, eighty years ago, this country was capable of building cycling infrastructure alongside main roads of precisely the kind we need today – cycling infrastructure that has now fallen into disrepair.
“It would be wonderful to see this legacy updated, restored and protected, not only because these cycleways would be useful in their own right, but also because they would serve as an inspiration for developing a comprehensive cycle network, using the space we already have.”
ROGER GEFFEN, CYCLING UK’s POLICY DIRECTOR: “What an inspired idea, to unearth and revive the lost history of Britain’s abortive ‘cycling revolution’! The Dutch have since taught us so much about importance of high-quality design and surfacing, and priority at junctions, for ensuring that protected cycle facilities really do ‘facilitate’ cycling. It’s now high time we acted on these lessons. High-quality reinstatements of our lost cycle tracks would be an excellent starting point.”
PHILLIP DARNTON OF THE BICYCLE ASSOCIATION & FORMER CHAIR OF CYCLING ENGLAND: “A fascinating piece of research, which just shows how little progress we’ve made in building proper cycling infrastructure in the last 80 years.”
Why did the Dutch get cycleways but the Brits and Americans didn’t? And why didn’t British cyclists use the 1930s cycle tracks? I discuss the reasons at length in Bike Boom (Island Press, June 2017). Order on Amazon.
From 1912 to 1934 the county surveyor for the County Council of Durham conducted traffic surveys on the increasingly busy Great North Road at Framwellgate Moor and Teams Crossing.
“Generally, the statistics show an increase in lorry traffic and in motor cars, together with ordinary cycles. … This year ordinary cycles have more than doubled in number the figures recorded two years ago. In this mind the committee will have in mind the recent circular of the Ministry of Transport regarding the provision of cycle tracks along the main roads … There is no doubt whatever … that the question of handling the problems created in highway administration is of great importance in the life of the community.”
Pedestrian traffic was not recorded.
Source: Report of the County Surveyor to the Works Committee, January 21, 1935, County Council of Durham.
Zoom in and out of OpenCycleMap: the difference between the Netherlands and the UK is stark, as is the difference between Belgium and France, countries which share the same topography at the border, and in parts the same language, but where the provision of cycleways is so different.
There are also stark differences between the two “halves” of Belgium, the Flemish-speaking north (Flanders) and the French-speaking south (Wallonia).
It’s also worth pointing out that the provision of cycleways doesn’t necessarily mean the cycling will be great; for instance, from the map it might seem that Belgium has more cycleways than France, but that doesn’t mean Belgium is a better cycling country than France.
Note, not all of the purple cycleways marked on the map above are separated or protected. OpenCycleMap is crowd-sourced, and some data is provided by state actors, but in other countries this is not the case. Plus, density of cycleways can sometimes reflect population density, see:
More such stuff in Bike Boom, published May 2017, Island Press, Washington, D.C. Sign up for updates on the right.
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Sequel to the #1 best-selling Roads Were Not Built For Cars
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