In Search of the Lost British Bike Lanes

via. Bike Boom

Many people think that separated bike lanes, or cycleways, are a new idea. In fact they are not; Carlton Reid, in his book Roads were not built for cars, pointed out that in the late 1800 bikes, and bike infrastructure, were all the rage and there were even elevated separated bike highways in the sky.

bike lanes

Modern Mechanix/via

As this clipping from the November 1928 edition of Modern Mechanics shows, separate bike lanes parallel to highways were common in the Netherlands. While doing research for his new book, Bike Boom, (review coming next week) Carlton Reid discovered that the British ministry of transport was imitating the Dutch and building bike lanes parallel to new highways. He writes:

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.
birmingham bikes

Bike Boom/via

Engineers working in Britain between the wars were often seriously far-sighted in their planning; witness the expansion of the London Underground out into the suburbs long before there was the traffic needed to support it. Making cycleways part of the specification for building highways makes so much sense; as a proportion of the cost of the whole project, it’s relatively cheap. They now do it where I live, in Ontario Canada; when they changed the policy the Transportation Minister noted:

The experience of jurisdictions where they do that is it actually doesn’t cost you any more because... you basically integrate it.. ..From now on, we’ll just simply build it in.

But unlike the Field of Dreams, if you build it, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will come. Feargus O’Sullivan, writing in Citylab notes:

..if these routes had been heavily used, we’d probably have known more about them. Contemporary references to the network are scant, but it’s possible that actual usage was light because the lanes sprung up along new roads and in newly laid-out districts where traffic was still pretty low. They may have been laid out to plan for future demand rather than to cater to needs that already existed.

They were also controversial; According to Reid in Bike Boom, cyclists fought against separated bike lanes, believing them to be a motorist plot to ban them from the roads. It was political, even a class struggle. Reid writes:

Framed as a measure to reduce what was a dreadful death toll among cyclists, cycling organizations believed the true motive of the “experimental” cycle-track building was to force cyclists to use narrow, inferior paths in order to increase the utility of motoring.

So there are many different reasons that the lanes fell into disuse, the biggest being the decline of bikes and the explosion of the automobile dominated culture after the war. But in his research, Carlton Reid has found hundreds of miles of these cycleways, but is looking for more. He raised a lot of money on Kickstarter and now is extending the campaign for those who missed it the first time (like me).

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.

It’s remarkable to think that so much bike infrastructure actually exists and was buried, or just misplaced or misidentified. And as O’Sullivan concludes, “if Britain managed to find money to produce state of the art bike lanes during the Great Depression, it can definitely do so again.”

new road in china

Lloyd Alter/ new highway in China complete with bike lanes /CC BY 2.0

But there is a real lesson here for modern road builders. It should once again be standard practice, part of the specification for highway and road builders in Britain and America: bike lanes are part of the road design, period.