There were a great many protected cycle tracks built in the 1930s – but I am not yet sure of how many. I keep finding new candidates to add to my map of 104 definites and probables, including a doozy of a cycle track that I discovered the other day, and which I’ll describe below.
It’s entirely possible that I know more about the number and the extent of the 1930s-era cycle tracks than anybody alive at the time of their building. Local authorities appear to have constructed more tracks than are noted in the official record, and national government estimates of the length of built cycle tracks (including stats given as parliamentary answers by transport ministers of the day) came up short.
Even those who were bitterly opposed to the tracks – such many of the leading officials of the Cyclists’ Touring Club – didn’t seem to know the full extent of the cycle tracks that they despised. They complained about a few of the high-profile cycle tracks – such as the first one in Ealing and a later one on the outskirts of York – but there’s nothing in the club journal to show that they knew hundreds of miles of such tracks had been built by 1945. No one seemed to be keeping national tabs on what was being built, and that includes the Ministry of Transport.
West End Road cycle track links to Western Avenue
Each time I think I’ve got a definitive total, another candidate comes along. Take this, a separated double-track cycleway beside West End Road in Northolt, West London.
The cycle track on West End Road north of Western Avenue looks period from above, but not so much down at street level (see below) because of modern refurbishments.
The A1480 becomes Ruislip Road at its southern end. It’s joined to the Western Avenue, or A40, at its northern end. The cycle track also exists further north – beyond Western Avenue – but, even though it looks period, I have yet to confirm whether that was 1930s in origin.
Northern end of West End Road
What I do know is that the West End Road cycle track was planned in 1934, and definitely existed by 1945. I have found period plans for the 1934 date, and the cycle track shines bright white on aerial photography from 1945.
Engineering plan for Western Avenue, including cycle tracks, April 1934
As I recount in the book-of-this-blog the Minister of Transport and his chief engineer gave the go-ahead for the building of Britain’s first cycle track in February 1934. When I wrote Bike Boom I had assumed just one two-mile stretch was planned and then built – from Hangar Lane to Greenford Road in Ealing, along the new Western Avenue arterial.
However, by digging around in archives I discovered that plans were drawn up to line almost ten miles of Western Avenue with cycle tracks on each side. (Most of these cycle tracks are long gone, grubbed up and built over in the 1970s when the A40 was widened into what is, in effect, an urban motorway.) And these plans – drawn up by the county engineer – were passed by county council planning boards in April 1934, just two months after they were requested by the Transport Secretary.
The first experimental stretch (which was built rapidly and shoddily) was in use by May 1934. Transport Secretary Leslie Hore-Belisha officially opened it in December of that year.
Aerial view of West End Road junction, 1945 (Google Earth)
I need to do more archival research to pin down exactly when the cycle track on West End Road was built, but it had to be between May 1934 and 1945. I know from period newspapers that extensions to Western Avenue were finished in 1935 and 1936 so my working assumption is that the semi-protected roundabout at the junction between Western Avenue and West End Road was built in one of these two years.
Looks modern, but it’s not
The 1934 engineering plan for this junction doesn’t show the full length of the West End Road cycle track, but one side of it is still being used as a cycleway (because of asphalt and markings it looks modern) and, at the northern end, the track is made from scuffed-up concrete which, from my knowledge of confirmed 1930s cycle tracks, means this is probably the original surface.
West End Road has two 1930s-era cycle tracks, but just the left one is used as a modern cycleway
What’s very interesting about this particular 1930s-era cycle track – it’s about a mile long – is that both sides are extant, but only one side is marked as a cycleway.
Probable original concrete surface
Refurbished and properly signed this double-sided cycle track could be brought back to life, and it’s probably one of those that I’ll flag to my partner in this project, urban designer John Dales.
Both sides of the West End Road cycle track could be used
The weakest part of the chain is the roundabout over the A40, but if this was a semi-protected roundabout as far back as 1935 (when Western Avenue was narrower and at ground level) there’s hopefully no reason, apart from expense, why cyclists couldn’t once again benefit from some protection here.
There’s much more of this sort of research to be done in the months ahead. And if you didn’t back the project when it was live on Kickstarter it’s still possible to be part of the journey by subscribing to one of the project’s update levels.
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.
Carlton Reid & John Dales
CARLTON REID is the Newcastle-based executive editor of BikeBiz.com, and author of Roads Were Not Built for Cars and Bike Boom (both of these books were successfully funded on Kickstarter, and later picked up by Island Press of Washington, DC.)
JOHN DALES is a transport planner and traffic engineer, and director of Urban Movement of London (“our job is making better streets”). He is the ex-chair of the Transport Planning Society, and a columnist for TransportXtra.
WHAT DO OTHERS THINK?
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.”
Engineering and Technology
BBC Radio 4 You & Yours (12m35s)
Mother Nature Network
Fast Co. Design
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.