knuckle-hinge

Many people assume roads became the way they are today because of the rise of automobiles. In Roads Were Not Built for Cars, Carlton Reid explains that infrastructure for bicycles, tricycles, and more were the precursors to the later transportation system dominated by automobiles. Cycling enthusiasts will find plenty to interest here: they will enjoy learning about the influence of early cyclists on roadway development. And, while Reid spends much of his time on cycling, he is also careful to examine the history of roads as thoroughfares, transportation networks, public spaces, and symbols of broader trends.

For the typical reader, though, Reid’s arguments would be more usefully condensed into a long-form article in, say, The Atlantic or The New Yorker. Even for someone like me, who is more interested than the average bear in cycling, infrastructure, and urban planning, the amount of detail became tedious. Unless you’re a cycling history and policy aficionado, you probably won’t be sitting down to read this book cover to cover. For students, researchers, practitioners, and those interested in the history of infrastructure, however, it’s a worthwhile reference to have on hand. Many will recognize historical figures like Carl Benz and Henry Ford among the automobile makers who, to varying degrees, got their start in the world of cycling. Others who are technically-minded will appreciate learning the difference between streets made of cobble and sett, asphalt and tarmac, tar and bitumen.

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Early automobile technology utilized cycle tech like the knuckle hinge, allowing for better steering and handling / Island Press

Reid being a Londoner, the book is heavily biased towards London, with parallel sections examining the various goings-on and historical development in the U.S. as well. But his explanation of how roadways first started out as public space but then began to be carved in spaces that are “mine” or “yours” and how this process led to unproductive roadway behaviors, laws, and planning and design resonates anywhere. “Roads were not built for cars,” writes Reid. “Nor were they built for bicycles. They were not built for sulkies, or steam engines, or any form of wheeled vehicle. Roads were not built for horses, either. Roads were built for pedestrians.” You know, people.

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Early cyclists came mostly from the upper class / Island Press

Not that those with the most power and influence wanted it that way. Reid notes how wide roads were not built just for cars, but to increase the ability to “control” social gatherings and protests. “Air circulation for health [was important] … but crowd control was a major impetus. Narrow roads can be used for throwing up barricades [see: Les Miserables] … The use of compacted crushed stone instead of setts, or tarred-wooden blocks, reduced the availability of ready-made missiles and fire starters.”

It’s fascinating to read about how the public associated independence with cycles and, later, automobiles, while railways were viewed as faster but restrictive. “Cyclists and, later, motorists would complain about the fixed schedules of railways, citing a lack of independence.” Reid doesn’t mention Russia much, but for what’s it’s worth, this sentiment was shared by Russian thinkers as well. For example, Tolstoy had a deep discomfort with trains, feeling they brought an unwanted pre-destinationism (see Anna Karenina which, spoiler alert, doesn’t end well).

Contrast this with a passage quoted from a 1896 New York Evening Post editorial on bicycles: “As a social revolutionizer, it has never had an equal. It has changed completely many of the most ordinary processes and methods of social life. It is the great leveler, for not till all Americans got on bicycles was the great American principle that every man is just as good as any other man, and generally a little better, fully realized. All are on equal terms, all are happier than ever before.”

Early debates about whether to merge all traffic into one system of streets, or separate them out mirror the debate today: “The widest and grandest path of them all – the Coney Island Cycle Path in New York – was loved by many cyclists, but not all. Some refused to ride on it, believing that such dedicated routes, while superior to the rutted roads of the day, would become the only ways open to cyclists. They feared being restricted to a small number of recreational bicycle ways, and banned from all other roads. Many in the wider Good Roads movement wanted cyclists to keep fighting for the improvement of all roads, and not be diverted by improvements to just part of the highway.”

Separate cycle paths or fully integrate them with roadways

And anti-cyclists like The Washington Post‘s Courtland Milloy, whose 2014 tirade against “bicyclist bullies” is also mentioned in the book, might find solace in knowing that “scorchers … cyclists with arched backs and grim ‘bicycle faces,’ who treated the Queen’s Highway as their own – and woe betide anyone who got in their way,” were as much a problem a century and a half ago as they can be today.

There are other interesting tidbits. For example, Broadway in New York City was originally the “Wickquasgeck Trail, “stamped into the brush of Mannahatta by Native American tribes people. US Highway 12 began as the Great Sauk Trail, named after the Sauk people’s hunting trail, originally trodden down by buffalo, with paleontological evidence that it was first blazed by migrating mastodons. And “motorists driving today between Washington, D.C. and Detroit are following a route padded out 10,000 year ago by now-extinct megafauna.”

In the end, the big takeaway is that with the resurgence of cycling and changes in public perception about our auto-centric lifestyles, cars are not the way of the future, especially for dense cities. “Motor cars came to dominate our lives not by design but by stealth. Few predicted the motor car’s eventual dominance and it’s reasonable to assume that the same inability to accurately predict the future afflicts us, too. Cars ‘will become redundant in cities,’ something that’s already ‘happening organically’ because cars ‘cannot be fully enjoyed or used to potential’”, says Britain’s Automobile Association. As Reid notes, “Today, cars in ‘rush hour’ London creep along at 9 miles per hour, an average speed not much greater than capable of horse-drawn carriages in the 19th century. Some progress!”

What new, fascinating future for public roadways might await us just around the bend?

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is the founder of Mitsui Design and director of the Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental education fellowship at Hazon, the country’s leading Jewish environmental organization. 

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