Once upon a time roads were for cyclists, not cars: in one map

In the final years of the 19th century, the first modern roads were designed to serve cyclists, before cars became widespread.

There is an important thing to know about road tax: it doesn’t exist. This will come as a shock to the many drivers who feel that cyclists don’t deserve to use the roads because they don’t pay it, but the truth is it was abolished in 1937. Its replacement, the Vehicle Excise Duty, is a general tax on cars that doesn’t go into some mythical separate fund to pay for road repairs or anything like that - it just goes into the general Treasury pot.

What would really surprise those drivers, though, might be the knowledge that we first started building roads for bikes. Tarmacked roads actually predate the widespread use of automobiles. A couple of years ago Carlton Reid wrote an article about this very thing for the Guardian:

In the UK and the US, cyclists lobbied for better road surfaces for a full 30 years before motoring organisations did the same. Cyclists were ahead of their time.

When railways took off from the 1840s, the coaching trade died, leaving roads almost unused and in poor condition. Cyclists were the first vehicle operators in a generation to go on long journeys, town to town. Cyclists helped save many roads from being grubbed up.

Cyclists' organisations, such as Cyclists' Touring Club in the UK and League of American Wheelmen (LAW) in the US, lobbied county surveyors and politicians to build better roads. The US Good Roads movement, set up by LAW, was highly influential. LAW once had the then US president turn up at its annual general meeting.

Reid’s article has led to a full-blown book - title: Roads Were Not Built For Cars - about this, which goes into more detail, but the point is all of us who travel on good quality roads owe something to cyclists.

So it’s an absolute joy to see what Slate’s history blog, the Vault, has uncovered - a map from the Cycler’s Guide and Road Book of California, published in 1896, showing off the different routes cyclists can take through the Golden State.

Click to zoom in. Image: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

This map was produced at the height of America’s bicycle craze, and while it’s unlikely that many people were cycling from one end of the state to the other, it’s fascinating to see a city like Los Angeles - which is basically one never-ending traffic jam these days - defined by how easy it is to cycle to and from it.

Those adverts are also something, aren’t they? I want to grease up my chains with some Si-Ko-Lene, hop on my Wheelery Tribune and head down to the store to pick up some Thos. E. Kent cycle clothing right now.

When legislation was passed to abolish the old rule that meant a man had to walk in front of a car with a red flag, it meant the end of the domination of the roads by bikes. Fast cars wanted those annoyingly slow, tedious cyclists to get out of their damned way, relegating both the bikes and foot traffic to sidewalks and pavements. The term jaywalker emerged in the 1910s as a derogatory slang term in the US midwest - "jay" being similar to "rube" - for someone coming to the city who's too dumb to know that roads are for cars, not people. Hearing some drivers speak of cyclists today, it's a shame how little can change.

Once the bikes had the roads to themselves. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.