Roads were not built for cars: how cyclists, not drivers, pioneered the fight to pave US roads

Nowadays, it is common to see city streets as largely a place for cars. Bikes, if anything, are seen as a very recent intrusion on them.

But many of us didn’t know that back in 1890s and 1900s, it was mainly cyclists who first admonished for cities in the US and Europe to pave their streets and build new roads. Then as cars became practical, wealthy, privileged people adopted the cars as their leisure toy of choice, and the bicycle’s central place in what’s now called the “Good Roads Movement” was largely forgotten.

The people who were making and promoting bicycles were the same people who later made and promoted cars,” says Carlton Reid, who uncovered this history in his fascinating, meticulously researched book Roads Were Not Built for Cars.

The truth is, Reid argues, the car’s eventual domination was not as imminent as it might seem today – and the bicycle itself may have been necessary to pave the road for it.


Bicyclist started the push to build and pave the roads.

In the 1880s, the introduction of the “Safety Bicycle” – a new design the incorporated most of the features seen in modern bicycles today – made cycling safer and easier than before, and led to outpouring interest in cycling. But there was a problem, in both American cities and in the countryside, most roads wee muddy, rutted mess, and suitable for slow-moving horses and carriages but not bicycles.

Within this periods, cycling was merely a leisure activity for rich. “It was basically a small number of rich, leisured white guys,” Reid says. “Bicycles were expensive, and working-class people didn’t have the cash or leisure time for them.”

This small group included several wealthy bicycle manufacturers – most notably, a Boston businessman named Alfred Pope – and they quickly organized to solve the problem of poor roads, forming an organization called the League of American Wheelmen (LAW).

“Even though they were quite selfish – they wanted good roads for themselves – they knew that to get it funded, they had to say the roads would be for everybody,” Reid says. So with pamphlets, magazines, rallies, and advertising campaigns, these cyclists worked to convince farmers, working-class city residents, politicians, and other groups of the many benefits of good and pave roads.

With money from Pope, asphalt industry and other special interest groups, these cyclist advocates were exceptionally successful. At first, the convinced legislatures in New Jersey and New York to spend state money on widening and paving roads for the first time. Horatio Earle, a president of the LAW and a bicycle part manufacturer, got elected to the Michigan state Senate, created the State Highway Commission, and pushed for the state to pour the country’s first mile of concrete road – leading to him being called the “Father of Good Roads.”

Eventually, lobbying by Pope, Earle, and other cyclists at the federal level led to the passage of the 1916 Federal Aid Road Act, in which Congress agreed to match state funds for road building for the first time. By then, though, these cyclists had stopped riding bicycles.


Early bicyclists turned into enthusiastic motorists

“Looking back, you’d think that someone who was a keen cyclist in the 1890s would have wanted to stay a cyclist,” Reid says. “But that wasn’t the case at all.”

These early cyclist loved the independence and speed afforded by bicycles. Their bikes permitted them to explore the countryside on their own schedule – not a railroad’s – and show off the fact that they could acquire a very expensive gadget. That cycling might be considered a wholesome form of exercise would have probably seemed entirely bizarre to them.

“When they discovered there was another form of transport that had the benefits of cycling and didn’t make you expend any energy, that was like manna from heaven,” Reid says. “In fact, if one of these guys could see us today, he’d probably be totally blown away by the fact that cycling still exists at all when we have cars.” Most of them ultimately viewed bikes as an intermediate, discarded step in the evolution from carriages to cars.

As a repercussion , by 1910, the LAW had largely died out – but many of its members filled the rolls of motorist clubs that quickly formed, especially AAA. And most of the people selling cars were former cyclists themselves: Henry Ford, the Dodge brothers, Louis Chevrolet, and the Duryea brothers (founders of the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, the first US company to sell gasoline-powered cars), among others, had all been avid cyclists, bike mechanics, or bicycle manufacturers.


Cars might never have done it if it weren’t for bikes

From someone’s vantage point in 2015, it seems like the dominance of cars was the natural, unavoidable way transportation would evolve. But there are some good reasons to believe that may not be the case, Reid says.

One is that private, powered road vehicles came along and slip several times before they finally took off in the early 20th century. In the 1830s and 1860s, in particular, inventors in Britain, the US, and Canada came out with steam-powered carriages, based largely from the technology developed for railroads, as well as electric vehicles.

But these early cars failed for a few different reasons. There were few roads that were smooth or hard enough for them. But more important, Reid says, “There was no push for them. There was no group of people interested in popularizing them.”

Without allies, there was no funding for road paving (as would later be won by cyclists). But there was also a bigger problem: legislatures passed laws against powered vehicles on the roads, such as Britain’s 1865 Locomotive Act, which controlled all powered road vehicles to a top speed of four miles per hour, and required that a person with a red flag walk 60 yards ahead each car. Most futurists, Reid says, considered transportation would remain on rails.

When gasoline-powered cars introduced in the early 1900s, one big thing was different: “There was a large group of people who saw that independent travel was there for the taking,” Reid says. “Very quickly, they latched on to motoring.” These cyclists-turned-motorists pushed for the creation of good roads, and they also fought back against laws regulating bicycles and cars from using them.

Finally, a number of technologies that weren’t around for the early steam-powered carriages – but had been perfected by use on bicycles – made 20th-century cars a hit.

Pneumatic tires, for instance, had been perfected by Scottish inventor John Boyd Dunlop in 1887 for use in bicycle racing. These made it possible for cars to be simultaneously fast and comfortable. Meanwhile, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen – built in 1886 and generally considered to be the first car – used spoked tricycle wheels, a bicycle chain, and a differential gear made by British bicycle creator James Starley. In a very real sense, the Benz (which would lead to the Mercedes-Benz company) was a tricycle with a motor attached.


So how did this surprising history get forgotten?

The bicycle was written out of most histories of the Good Roads Movement for a few different reasons.

To some degree, it was unintentional. Because most of these early cyclists immediately became motorists and car advocates, it was easy for historians to overlook the crucial role of the bicycle in the movement’s first few years.

But in some cases, Reid argues, the rejection of the bicycle from this history was quite deliberate. “Eventually, cycling came to be seen as a proletariat activity, something you did if you couldn’t afford a car,” he says. “So an awful lot of wealthy motorists went out of their way to hide their roots as cyclists.” Many of these motorists were the ones who later authored the history of the Good Roads Movement.

What’s more, automobile companies had an interest in retaining control of the roads, and in putting their product at the center of the story. In 1927, for example, the Ford Motor Company’s promotional materials said the Model T “started the movement for good roads everywhere.” Today, Reid points out, curator Suzanne Fischer of the Henry Ford Museum sets the record straight: “It wasn’t car owners that first demanded better roads,” she says in a museum video, “it was bicycle riders”:

Just a few decades after the creation of the Good Roads Movement, the bicycle’s place in it was largely forgotten. In his 1929 autobiography, Horatio Earle – the creator of Michigan’s State Highway Commission and one of the first people to propose the idea of the interstate highway system – described this irony:

“I often hear now-a-days, the automobile instigated good roads; that the automobile is the parent of good roads. Well, the truth is, the bicycle is the father of the good roads movement in this country,” he wrote. “The bicycle is to be given credit, not only as the pioneer of the good roads movement but also as the parent of the automobile.”