Carlton Reid, author of Roads Were Not Built For Cars.[1]

Many motorists assume that roads were built for them. In fact, cars are the johnny-come-latelies of highways.

The hard, flat road surfaces we take for granted are relatively new. Asphalt surfaces weren’t widespread outside of towns until the 1930s. So, are motorists to thank for this smoothness? No. The improvement of roads was first lobbied for – and paid for – by cycling organisations.

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.

Rural roads were unsurfaced and would be the colour of the local stone. Many 19th century authors waxed lyrical about the varied and beautiful colours of British roads.

Cycling 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.

The CTC created the Roads Improvement Association in 1886 and, in the same year, organised the first ever Roads Conference in Britain. With patronage – and cash – from aristocrats and royals, the CTC published pamphlets on road design and how to create better road surfaces. County surveyors took this on board (some were CTC members) and started to improve local roads.

Even though it was started and paid for by cyclists, the RIA stressed from its foundation that it was lobbying for better roads to be used by all, not just cyclists.

By the early 1900s most British motorists had forgotten about the debt they owed to prehistoric track builders, the Romans, turnpike trusts, John McAdam, Thomas Telford and bicyclists. Before even one road had been built with motorcars in mind, motorists assumed the mantle of overlords of the road.

A satirical verse in Punch magazine of 1907 summed up this attitude from some drivers:

   “The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come they go on making roads – making them up. I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.” 

DUST-FREE HIGHWAYS The dust kicked up by cars on dirt roads in the early days of motoring was a major health problem and its suppression was of pressing importance, should motoring wish to gain public acceptance.

Dust had also been a problem for cyclists. Highwheelers were nearly two metres off the ground so their riders weren’t bothered about dust, but riders of Safety bicycles, closer to the ground (which is why they were safer than high wheelers), were very concerned. The main anti-dust campaigner of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century was William Rees Jeffreys.

Rees Jeffreys is known today as an arch motorist, one of the first people to advocate for motorways, but Rees Jeffreys had started his 50 year career in the improvement of what he called “despaired and neglected roads” as a cyclist. In 1900 he was elected a member of the Council of the Cyclists’ Touring Club and was a representative on the Council of the Roads Improvement Association, an organisation founded by the CTC in 1886. Rees Jeffreys was Secretary of the RIA by 1901 and argued that the organisation should reign back its pamphleteering of country surveyors and should instead focus on political lobbying: he wanted the CTC to push for a “a Central Highway Authority and a State grant for highway purposes.”

Cyclists wanted better road surfaces. They lobbied for smoother surfaces and for “dustless” roads. Rees Jeffreys became an advocate for spreading tar on Britain’s roads. He wrote:

   “In 1902 I went to Geneva as the representative of the Cyclists’ Touring Club at the Annual Congress of the International League of Touring Associations. M. Charbonnier, Cantonal Engineers of Geneva, showed me an experiment he was making with hot tar on the road between Geneva and Lausanne.”

Five years later, Rees Jeffreys and the RIA organised competitions to find tar-spreading machines. The roads of Great Britain were gradually capped with asphalt. The work started by cyclists led to solid, sealed roads from coast to coast; roads which helped motoring become first a mania and then a form of mass transport.

Sealed roads are taken for granted now but the work of the CTC’s Road Improvements Association – and influential figures such as Rees Jeffreys – led not just to swifter, cross country travel but created health benefits, too.

“It is not only difficult, it is impossible, for the present generation to appreciate what their parents and grandparents suffered from dust and mud,” wrote Rees Jeffreys. “Not only were houses made distressingly uncomfortable by dust, but household work was increased greatly by the mud and dust which children brought into the house on boots and clothes. The dust cased many ailments and diseases of the eyes, nose and throat.

“Few reforms brought so much direct benefit to the people as a whole as that which in so few years made the British roads dustless.”

Reforms started by cyclists.

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