BOOK REVIEW: Roads Were Not Built For Cars by Carlton Reid (2014)

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BikeBiz ( founder Carlton Reid has published an extraordinarily timely and valuable book.

The rhetorically charged title unfolds in two respects. First, the art of road building enjoyed a pre-railway peak in the 1830s. So in that sense, roads were built for pedestrians and horses and stage coaches. Reid's second point, and the central theme of the book, is that the coming of the bicycle from the 1860s, and its bona fide 'craze' period in the 1880s and 90s, resulted in myriad road improvement lobbying in Britain, in Europe, and in the USA. This lobbying was carried out by cyclists and pre-dated the motorcar. It's a Very Important Fact. Hence the first half of the sub-title of the book, 'How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads.'

The second half of the sub-title reads, '...& Became the Pioneers of Motoring.' This is where Reid's narrative gets delightfully confounding, if you are a partisan of cycling, and not just in the ordinary (and perhaps obvious) sense that numerous cyclists became motorists, and are today both at once. More pertinently, it was the most vigorous cyclists who became the most vigorous motorists. Reid offers cameo histories of 60 pioneering car manufacturers with cycling roots. It wasn't just the (slightly) better known handful of examples such as 

William Morris in Oxford, and Carl Benz in Germany.

The central reason for this organic transition was technology. The Victorian bicycle craze was a feast of rapid innovation comparable to mobile phones a century later. As Reid painstakingly recounts, it was the bicycle that delivered pneumatic tyres, ball bearings, differential gears, roads, motoring and even aviation (consider the Wright brothers and their roots in cycling).

The great cycling pioneers of the late Victorian period saw themselves as red-hot progressives. What the car and the bike shared in common was the open road and freedom from timetables, plus the adrenalin of speed and the utility of getting from A to B. This commonality was embodied in the tellingly titled groups such as the Self-Propelled Traffic Association.

As the book unfolds, however, we get all sorts of dark portents concerning the future dissociation of the two pursuits of cycling and motoring, and indeed their eventual mutual antagonism despite what they held in common. For one thing, the bike and the car impart to the operator a sense of being the author of propulsion. But while the car magnifies that sense to almost monstrous levels of capacity, it is a sleight of the right ankle, so to speak. The driver is a facilitator but not in fact the author of anything. The cyclist, by comparison, is the engine, and in many respects the suspension as well. Chapter 5, Speed, is exceptionally good at distilling all this. Early cycling purists were extremely aware of the nuances and distinctions. They already knew in their Victorian bones that the car would result in terminal boredom on the M4 and the larding effect of too many unearned Greggs sausage rolls, but they also delighted in mechanical efficiency and in progress and in speed. Many of the pioneers of cycling became advocates of motoring when there were only a handful of cars and no climate change. Even then, they knew that each pursuit was different and a few saw that the car could lead to all sorts of mischief. Not a few of them were killed by cars, while cycling. As the car took off the bike began to fade.

Actually, that last bit is wrong. The bike didn't fade. It did something much more damaging to its image in a world (especially in Britain) blighted by wretched class division. It went main stream. As the bicycle became affordable to workers, so the rich and privileged switched over to cars. By the 1930s, when millions cycled to the factory gate, the elites (whether true Aristocrats or middle classes) had typically disowned their earlier zeal for two wheels.

Of course, at the end, Reid brilliantly (if briefly) brings to bear our own, twenty-first century reversal of the mid-twentieth century, suggesting that since the same millions of blue collar workers ascended to car-dom (in the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties), gradually it again became chic and even elite to be seen in lycra on a swanky carbon fibre scorcher. The arrival of Rapha and Team Sky, in this light, is not a coincidence, but nigh on inevitable in a society driven still by privilege, elitism, material display and so forth. Cars became prole-mobiles. Bikes are the new elitism. Another slightly discomforting point for partisans.

Speaking for myself, as a journalist who has written lovingly about fast cars and fast bicycles, and indeed their slower brethren, I found the book therapeutic as well as fascinating. I've always owned a discomforting sense of not knowing which tribe I belonged to exactly, yinning and yanging between them, but ultimately knowing I was more cyclist than car guy (but you wouldn't always know it). I published a humourous pieceabout pro-cyclists at the wheel of cars in the Daily Telegraph Motoring Section on the occasion of the 100th Tour de France. This predated Roads were not built for Cars but made a similar point, that it is a modern myth to say or believe that cyclists and motorists are separate groups, even though they often behave like it on our busy roads.

What I found most engaging about Reid's research, is just how much it brings to life the late Victorian pioneers of cycling. Those pioneers no longer seem like whatever fusty impression you have of the dread term 'Victorian'. They come alive as the Google and Apple innovator-equivalents of their generation. They are zingy and close and alive. The ugliest and dullest bits of the past century come across rather as the mid-twentieth century and the sixties, when the planners fell in love with concrete and peer-presided traffic consultations tried their hardest to write the cyclist out of existence (except in the Netherlands, where apparently cycling was wrapped up in national character - a subject I'd like to know more about).

My follow-on thought from Reid's book is that what we now need is a massive investment in light rail, trams and trolley buses, all the things that catered to the non-cyclists of the late nineteenth century before cars came along to tempt them. Cars will no doubt continue, but road-as-race-track needs to become track-day-only; driverless electric and hybrid cars will take over the public highway, slashing fatalities and injuries, and cities will become largely car free centres of utility cycling and public transit. Cyclists will be subject to further restrictions such as speed limits in Royal Parks, if I am not mistaken, in light of their 'scorching' habits and the typically-forgotten rights of pedestrians. Cars will be banned from those same parks, except for special user groups such as the disabled.

Far from being a slender insight banged out into the Twittersphere and blogged about the land, Roads Were Not Built for Cars took Reid four years of graft, as 500 pages of careful historical research does. In fact it's a marvel that he did it in so little time. Deeply grateful to Carlton Reid! Published for now as an e-Book in numerous formats, following a tiny print run last year that sold out quickly, the book will be published in hard and soft back later this year. If you want the full beans, the print version will be worth waiting for because it will include the full index and over 900 footnotes, all missing from the otherwise delightfully executed iBooks version (which in turn boasts photo galleries and audio-visual elements that you can't get from print).