Getting Rid of Cyclists
by Jeremy Parker

Going through my records, I can find no examples of any genuine concerted efforts by motorists to get cycling off roads, except by running them over and killing them (usually by accident).

- Andy Horton, urbancyclist-uk

The organized motoring bodies have lost the battle, or at least the first round, and know it. But they haven't lost the war yet. There is plenty of anti-cyclist sentiment around.

The battle against cyclists was at its height in the 1930s, and culminated in the 1938 Ministry of Transport Advisory Council 'Report on Accidents to Cyclists', which I happen to have in front of me now. I found a copy in a file drawer in Washington DC many years ago.

The Advisory Council seems to have been an attempt by the Ministry of Transport to organize all the people who were lobbying it, to lessen the volume of stuff they had to deal with. Their report writing committee was fairly high powered: five 'Sirs', three Justices of the Peace, one DSO MC DL (Distinguished Service Order / Military Cross / Deputy Lord Lieutenant), and among others, one cyclist: Frank Urry, cycling journalist and Cyclists' Touring Club rep.

Frank Urry tacked on a dissenting paragraph about cycle tracks to the report. He said, "I cannot subscribe to the recommendation of extending the building of cycle tracks, or the compulsory use of them by cyclists if and when laid down. The danger of right-hand crossings discounts any presupposed safety obtained by partial traffic segregation; and it has been admitted that where cycle tracks are in being, motoring speeds on the carriageway will increase, to the consequent danger of the cyclists when the cycle track ceases, as it must do on over 95 percent of our highways. Cycle tracks are a palliative at best, and in my opinion a dangerous one."

Not much happened as a result of the report, except the introduction of compulsory rear lights at night during the wartime blackout. The lack of activity was presumably because of the war, and twenty years without any money to build roads, plus the idea that cycling would die out by itself.

By 1958 cyclists had definitely won. Professor Sir Colin Buchanan, eventually to become one of Britain's most eminent town planners and traffic engineers, was writing in his 1958 book, 'Mixed Blessing', "The meagre efforts made to separate cyclists from motor traffic have failed, tracks are inadequate, the problem of treating them at junctions and intersections is completely unsolved, and the attitude of the cyclists themselves to these admittedly unsatisfactory tracks has not been as helpful as it might have been."

This wasn't the end of the story. Beginning in the late 1940s construction of the new towns of Stevenage and Harlow began. Both were equipped with 'cycleway' systems. With the cycleways being put down first, and the town being built round them, the cycleway systems were about as good as they could be. The word 'cycleway' was adopted by analogy with 'motorway', both being roads restricted to only certain categories of vehicle. Also, there was a need for a new word, 'cycle tracks' being so discredited.

In the late 1960s cycling began to revive around the world, with the beginnings of the green movement, and the post war baby-boomers reaching cycling age, and, the age of out-of-door activities generally. The chief engineer of Stevenage, Eric Claxton, began to publicise the Stevenage bike paths wherever he could around the world.

With the rise of student radicalism, and often lowering of the voting age to 18, small university towns in many countries began to be influenced by the opinions of their students -- pro cycling, with not much knowledge of the past, and nowhere to park their cars on campus.

Davis, California, where the tasteless American tomato was invented, also invented the bike lane in 1966 as a compromise between banning cyclists altogether and having them swamp the streets to the discomfiture of drivers. Other university showpiece towns included Groningen, the Netherlands; Eugene, Oregon; Odense, Denmark; and Madison, Wisconsin. Stevenage was often an example to these towns, and even Oxford and Cambridge thought about the subject. Oxford was still reeling from its controversies over traffic, where famous planner Tom Sharp was driven to an early grave by the reaction to his proposal to build a road across Christ Church Meadow.

In the autumn of 1973 the oil shock hit. The Arabs turned off the tap to the Netherlands, resulting in no-driving Sundays. Planners predicted continuing high fuel prices, and a probable switch from cars to mopeds. Mopeds being rather dangerous, the planners expected a big rise in moped accidents. Their reaction, around 1974, was to pass compulsory helmet laws for moped riders. Where such laws were passed the reaction was immediate. Moped riding halved, the purchase of new mopeds immediately almost ceased, and the lost moped riders took to alternate means of transport, often bikes. A wave of moped lobbyists swept the world, notably in the USA and Australia, as desperate moped manufacturers asked for relaxed laws to encourage replacement moped markets.

The Dutch, who had more-or-less forgotten about bikes -- their paths had become essentially moped paths -- decided that they had better do something, and did, starting with their first experimental bike routes in the Hague and in Tilburg, in the late 1970s.

That's about it really. Now we are in modern times, which we can all see.

© Jeremy Parker
posted to urbancyclist-uk