Dutch people, of course, but also plenty of Brits. In fact, the British bicycle industry had a ten year long PR campaign that had separation-from-motor-traffic right at the top of its shopping list. Most folks have forgotten about this now, and it’s assumed – and too often written – that there was no real push for separated cycling infrastructure in Britain until sometime after 2006.
Below are some newspaper cuttings and extracts from a couple of mid-1970s leaflets from the British Cycling Bureau, a PR outfit paid for by the Bicycle Association of Great Britain, and which successfully plugged cycling in the mass media of the day.
What the BCB didn’t get were the separated cycleways it pushed for most of all. Why? Motor-centrism. The only successful insertion of cycling in the 1978 Transport Bill was a lonely mention of bicycle parking. I’ll be discussing this and much more at a talk for the Oxford cycle campaign tonight. I’m digging up lots of these nuggets, many of which will make it into my Bike Boom book, due out next year.
Bike Boom is a history book about cycling, and I’m a bit of an antique myself. I’ve been a bike journalist since 1986. My first article appeared in Bicycle Times, a nationally-available British magazine – it was an article on cycle touring in Turkey (I had just returned to the UK from a two-year tour of the Middle East). I was gobsmacked at getting paid to write about what I loved. I remain gobsmacked. The Turkey piece was followed by a monthly column on mountain biking, billed by editor/publisher Peter Lumley as “Off-Road Reid”. I used this column as a publicity platform to create the British Mountain Bike Team, which took part in the first ever MTB world championships.
As I was the co-manager of this team (the other manager was Peter Darke who still runs his eponymously-named bike shop in Sunderland) I naturally picked myself as a team rider. I was relatively fast in those days (in the race I DNF’ed because of a puncture) and that was because I was riding thirty miles a day on the roads of Tyneside, to and from my studies at Newcastle University. I might have been a cycle tourist and then a mountain bike racer but first and foremost I was a transportation cyclist.
After university – where I read religious studies – I started a publishing business. By 1992 I was employing five people and gained the contract to produce Cycle Industry, an upstart trade magazine from the then publishers of Mountain Biking UK. As well as writing I was also dabbling in TV presenting at this time. I was terrible but I somehow managed to front Chain Gang, a six-episode magazine programme for TyneTees-Yorkshire – this is a publicity still from the series:
This was some seven years before my business was jettisoned from Cycle Industry and I was forced to create Bicycle Business, which I later sold and is now the very successful BikeBiz. Cycle Industry is no more but it’s interesting – for me, at least – to see what I was writing about cycling infrastructure back in the early 1990s. I was very much in favour, as can be seen by these clippings – although I now prefer the word cycleways to cycle paths.
As well as having the contract to produce Cycle Industry I also created, in 1997, a consumer magazine, On Your Bike. This was a short-lived family cycling magazine. Within seven issues it had grown too big for me and my small team to handle, so I sold it. I sold it to EMAP of Peterborough, the publisher of Country Walking and a load of fishing titles. They turned into a mountain bike magazine. Dumb.
Anyway, to promote the mag I also wrote articles for newspapers and sometimes also sent in letters. Here’s one that was published in The Independentin 1997.
I wrote that “enthusiast cyclists are happy to mix with motorised traffic” but that “non-enthusiasts don’t want to be anywhere near cars, lorries and buses. Many thousands of new cyclists will be created when Sustrans and their local authority partners lay down the kind of segregated cycle routes – through car-free city centres, for instance – common on the Continent. This is not ghettoisation, it is a realisation that cycle use will not grow unless truly safe routes for cyclists are provided.”
It’s apparent that I continued writing about cycling infrastructure, and I also commissioned articles about it. I even employed an in-house Dutch journalist, Kirsten Oosterhof.
I’ve been banging on about the benefits of “going Dutch” for an awfully long time.
In 1948, Britain’s Minister for Transport Alfred Barnes introduced the Special Roads Bill. This would – eventually – lead to the creation of Britain’s motorway network. But where are the cycleways promised in the 1948 plans? Apart from the New Towns – including Stevenage, with its extensive and dense network of cycleways – these ‘special roads for cyclists’ were never built. Why? The Minister for Transport said provision for cyclists was a local matter. This is exactly the same reason wheeled out today. Infrastructure for cars is “national”; infrastructure for bicycles is “local.”
The Special Roads Bill came before Parliament on 30th September 1948. Its purpose was “to provide for the construction of roads reserved for special classes of traffic; to amend the law relating to trunk roads; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid.” The Special Roads Bill became the Special Roads Act in 1949. Special roads for cars could now be constructed. The first wasn’t started until 1958 but they came thick and fast in the 1960s. It was a mature network by the end of the 1970s.
Back in 1948 the newspapers reported that the Special Roads Bill would see the building of cycleways, too. And just as cyclists would be fined for riding on motorways, pedestrians would be fined for straying on cycleways.
It will be a mistake for anyone to assume that the Bill is promoted to satisfy the selfish interests of the private motorist. It is nothing of the kind. It is often overlooked that nowadays we are all motorists, whether or not we drive a private car. Everybody travels on buses or coaches and the greater proportion of our domestic and personal needs are delivered by motor van.
But, and here’s the kicker, he believed national highway authorities should be in charge of major motoring roads, but “special roads for pedestrians and cyclists” should be provided by local highway authorities. And such “special roads” for users other than motorists were clearly deemed to be recreational, rather than everyday practical:
I should emphasise … under the powers given to them to construct a special road, highway authorities could determine that the only classes of traffic using that road should be motor vehicles. These same powers can —and, I sincerely hope, will — be used by county highway authorities for the construction of special roads for pedestrians and for cyclists — across for instance, a national park, along a river bank, across mountain, moor, or the coast line. [This] responsibility will rest upon local highway authorities, who ought to meet the cost of special roads of this type. The cost of constructing and maintaining the special types of roads for hikers or cycle paths for cyclists will not represent any very considerable capital outlay or annual cost for maintenance. At a time when the State, by this Measure, visualises the construction of these motorways at the capital cost I have mentioned, for the purpose of relieving the local authority of a good deal of the cost of other highways, it is not unreasonable to suggest that highway authorities should use these powers for the purpose I have indicated, especially as the advantages to be derived will be enjoyed largely by the residents in their own localities.
I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will explain later on whether, in passing this Measure, we are giving assent to the principle that if a cyclist fails to use a roadway provided by the nation, or by a local authority with the blessing of the nation, we shall impose a punishment of up to £20….At least in one country I have visited, which has a considerable mileage of cycle tracks, it is a punishable offence for cyclists to fail to use these particular cycle tracks. Cyclists there can be dealt with severely…It is laid down specifically that we are to provide cycle tracks, but I find that in the case of a road along which I pass almost every day — the Sutton by-pass — the cyclists disregard the cycle tracks provided on either side, with the result that the ‘bus drivers use the sort of language only London ‘bus drivers can use…If we are to lay down these roads for a particular class of user, then everyone concerned should understand the law.
The Alness report had recommended Britain should build a network of cycleways but post-war austerity killed off these plans. But while there would be no building of bike paths, post-war politicians were still urged to get cyclists off the roads “for their own safety”, even though cyclists were still by far the most numerous actors on the roads, probably because cyclists were the most numerous actors on the roads. Faced with calls to take action, politicians did what they often do best: they did nothing. Cyclists, en masse, were still a force to be reckoned with. It was easy for politicians to pick a fight with the CTC or National Cyclists’ Union, these organisations were tiny compared to the rich motoring organisations, but to impose restrictions on all of the country’s 12 million cyclists would have been folly. (One of the witnesses to the Alness committee said as much: “[Cyclists] ought to be forced to use [tracks]. The only reason they escape is because there are so many of them. There is a vague idea on the part of Governments that they would lose the cyclists’ vote,” claimed Lord Newton who repeated the claim when the report was published: “[cyclists] form a very formidable body, of which all Party politicians are very much afraid. That is the sole reason why they have not been regulated up to now, and I hope sincerely that that state of things will come to an end.”)
By not banning cyclists from the road, as so many organisations demanded, politicians avoided antagonising cyclists. By building faster roads with no cycle facilities on them it was motors which did the antagonising, not politicians. 1949 was to be the peak year for cycling in Britain. In the 1950s the increasing numbers of motor cars slowly forced cyclists off many roads, and not just the arterial ones.
Motorways – roads long championed by the CTC as a means of removing fast-moving traffic from the ordinary roads of Britain – started to be built at the end of the 1950s but it was well into the 1960s before motorway-mania took hold, with many trunk roads also being built or old roads widened, straightened and made less friendly for cyclists. None of the new arterial roads had cycle paths built beside them.
While cyclists were largely forgotten by town planners in the 1950s there were exceptions: new towns Stevenage, Harlow and Milton Keynes were veined with bike paths. (Stony Stratford, just north of what would become the new town of Milton Keynes, was one of the other locations where bike paths were first trialled. A one mile cycle track had been laid on the Stony Stratford to Wolverton Road in 1934-5, it’s now a footpath.) Workers who lived in Jarrow and Wallsend were provided with the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels, a wonderful piece of capital-intensive, protected infrastructure, still in use today. The tunnel was opened in 1951, sixteen years before the motor vehicle tunnel. At its peak, 20,000 cyclists and pedestrians used the tunnel each day.
As late as 1957, T. H. Longstaff, the county surveyor for Huntingdonshire, suggested cyclists should be provided with cycleways alongside the proposed Huntingdon bypass. This was eventually built in 1973 – but without provision for cyclists.
Writing in the following year, Professor Sir Colin Buchanan, one of Britain’s key town planners and traffic engineers, said:
“The meagre efforts made to separate cyclists from motor traffic have failed, tracks are inadequate, the problem of treating them at junctions and intersections is completely unsolved, and the attitude of the cyclists themselves to these admittedly unsatisfactory tracks has not been as helpful as it might have been.”
Some bicycle advocates have suggested it was opposition of cycling organisations to the cycle path experiments of the 1930s that prevented national take-up of these paths. If only CTC and the NCU had supported the Western Avenue experiment, a Dutch-style cycle network might have later evolved, is the claim. In actual fact, cycling organisations had little to do with the failure of the bike path network. Ordinary cyclists didn’t use the paths because they weren’t very good paths, and post-war austerity meant no new paths were built, nor were existing ones improved to the standard that CTC and NCU said would be required. As well as the lack of investment from local and national Government there was also a lack of willingness to provide for anything other than motor-cars: post-war politicians and planners were deeply dismissive of cycling, blinded by the economic potential of mass motoring. Cycling, it was felt, was outmoded, not suited for the modern era, a motor era. And the great British public seemed to agree: people wanted to own and drive cars.
The highly-influential Traffic in Towns report of 1963 – the report by Professor Buchanan which town planners used to create urban motorways and pedestrian zones separated from motor traffic – mentioned cyclists only in passing, and clearly believed, desired even, that urban cycling would soon wither to nothing:
“We also considered the question of cyclists. Although in the mode of travel diagram for the year 2010 there is an allocation of movements to pedal cycles, it must be admitted that it is a moot point how many cyclists there will be in 2010…[This] does affect the kind of roads to be provided. On this point we have no doubt at all that cyclists should not be admitted to primary networks, for obvious reasons of safety and the free flow of vehicular traffic. It would make the design of these roads far too complicated to build ‘cycle tracks’ into them, nor would this be likely to provide routes convenient for cyclists in any case. It would be very expensive, and probably impracticable, to build a completely separate system of tracks for cyclists.”
In 1964, during a parliamentary debate welcoming the Buchanan transport-in-towns report Richard Marsh, the Labour MP for Greenwich since 1959, said:
“There is no reason why we should permit vehicle deliveries in the centre of towns during daylight hours … There is no reason why more heavy traffic should not travel at night and avoid the town centres.”
Marsh later became Minister of Transport in Harold Wilson’s Labour Government, serving 1968–9. Ten years later he converted to Thatcherism and, in 1981, he was ennobled as Baron Marsh of Wiltshire.
Cyclists and pedestrians die under the wheels of heavy goods vehicles in London but this, it seems, is often deemed to be a price worth paying for the supposed economic benefits of having a bustling, thriving city. Much the same can be said about other UK cities, and cities around the world, too. Cyclists and pedestrians don’t seem to matter. So, let’s talk congestion. A ban on truck movements during rush hours can lead to clear and obvious benefits for car drivers. (Yes, valuing the time savings of motorists rather than lives lost is callous but this how much transport planning works.)
Earlier today I wrote a piece on motoring.co.uk arguing that car drivers should support the growing number of calls for HGVs to be made safer and to be prevented from using roads at peak hours. And here’s why: reduced congestion. During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics one of the key ways of freeing up roadspace was to restrict the movement of trucks – and it worked, there was no gridlock. If they want to sit in shorter traffic jams car drivers should join the campaign to get trucks off the road at peak times.
In 1987, the Los Angeles Times reported that the city would revisit the Olympic truck ban. In the end it didn’t – mainly because of a law requiring traffic planners to provide a comparable alternate route for any section of federally funded road that was made off limits to trucks – but it’s instructive to read the reporting from the time.
“Banning trucks from crowded Los Angeles freeways during rush hours may be an idea whose time has arrived,” reported the newspaper.
“Transportation planners say such restrictions could sharply reduce congestion on many freeways and streets. [The proposals] have as their antecedent the successful voluntary truck ban that is widely credited with helping create free-flowing traffic during the 1984 Olympics.
“During the two-week Games, trucks were lured from the freeways in peak hours by the temporary lifting of ordinances prohibiting operators from picking up and delivering goods before 7 a.m.
“Everyone recalls how marvelous it was when for two weeks the freeways and streets worked,” said Ginger Gherardi, highway manager for the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, “and they want to go back to lessons learned then to solve our increasingly serious congestion.”
The traffic reduction measures brought in for the duration of the Olympics – including the truck ban during rush hours – led to a 60 percent reduction in congestion.
In today’s Sunday Times Jeremy Clarkson spends the majority of a Porsche review banging on about Millennials falling out of love with motor-cars.
Soon almost no one will want to buy a car … Cars are enjoying their last hurrah, burning brightly as suns do just before they fizzle out. [Today’s] young people are simply not interested in cars at all. My son is … 19 and has not bothered to take his driving test. His argument is a simple one. There’s a coach that stops right outside his flat in London and it takes him, in a blizzard of wi-fi, to and from Oxford. For £11.
If he wants to go somewhere else, he can use a train or something called “a bus”. An Uber cab is never more than a few clicks away, and there’s always a Boris bike for short trips on level ground when it’s not too cold or hot or wet. He can move about without worrying about breath tests or speeding fines or parking tickets or no-claims bonuses. My son therefore thinks he’s free simply because he doesn’t have a car.
And there’s no point going on about the open road and the wind in your hair and the snarl of a straight six because he just doesn’t see cars this way. With good reason. When he was little he spent two hours a day on the school run strapped into a primary-coloured child’s seat, in the back of a Volvo, in an endless jam. There’s no way this was going to engender any motoring-related dreams. He wasn’t sitting there in a goo of expectation, thinking, “Hmm, when I’m big I will do this as well.”
And if you sell something as a practical proposition, it had better actually be practical. Which, as we’ve established, a car isn’t. Nor is a fridge, for that matter, since you have a supermarket on every street corner now that can keep everything chilled until you need it. Free up the space in your kitchen. Get rid. And free up the space in your garage while you’re at it. Because you don’t need a car. Not really. Not these days.
Is this yet another example of “peak car”? Or, at the very least, “peak Clarkson”? And, if so, why build more roads when we likely won’t need them?
I’ll be using Clarkson’s view of the car’s last hurrah in my forthcoming talks …