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The Roads Were Paved for Us

Life in the Bike Lane

By Tom Frady

In past columns I have alluded to the fact that roads were originally paved for bicycles, not cars. It is usually part of some outburst from me after we have had some encounter with a driver who felt the presence of a few bikes on “his” road constituted a reason for him to yell at us for some real or imagined transgression.

Early roads in the US were built for carts and carriages and were, at best, dirt. At worst, impassable. Sometime around 1820, John McAdam invented a mixture of soil and stone (I reinvented this mixture in my backyard when I was 6) that became known as “macadam”.

The invention of the “safety” bicycle had revolutionized the sport of cycling. The safety bicycle had two wheels of equal size, unlike the very high-wheeled “Penny Farthing”. The rider could reach the ground with his feet and the pedaling drove the rear wheel instead of the front. Today’s bike design is very similar the safety bikes of the late 1800s.

Then came a veterinarian named John Dunlap, who invented the pneumatic tire, essentially a rubber tube filled with air, nailed to a wooden rim. Tires have gotten better since 1888, but still go flat.

The cycling craze was getting underway in the early 1890s. The two improvements mentioned above led to a sudden increase in demand for bicycles in America because bikes were now accessible to the masses. At $50 – 100, bikes were initially sold to the more affluent middle class, but as cheaper models and used bikes became available, cycling became possible for everyone. Bikes increased mobility, saved time and were cheaper than owning a horse.

Bike races were a major sport, especially those held in a “velodrome”, an arena with a smooth, banked oval, often made of wood. Most races were sprints, sometimes as short as a quarter mile, seldom more than 3 miles. There were longer races on the roads of the day, but the status of the surfaces outside major cities was very unpredictable.

From about 1890 to 1910, the bicycle was the link between the horse and the automobile for personal transportation. Horse dealers saw the automobile as a passing fad, a fad that would not have the staying power of the bicycle.

Newspapers constantly discussed the social implications and economic impact of the bicycle. It was recognized for increasing exercise, creating good health and a means of expanding peoples’ horizons. Even women began riding and occasionally scandalized the local gentry by riding in “bloomers”. Charlotte M. Smith, president of the Women’s Rescue League said,

“I don’t say every woman who rides a bike is immoral. I don’t say bicycling is immoral. What I do say is it has a tendency to lure young girls into paths that lead directly to sin.”

Is she talking about donuts?

Newspapers and magazines were dedicated to the sport of cycling and there were hundreds of bicycle clubs. The power of the League of American Wheelmen and its “Good Roads” campaign grew and they were the first to lobby for road improvement for bicycles. A petition with 150,000 signatures was delivered to congress calling for the construction of paved roads to encourage more widespread use of bikes. The largest group of cyclists ever to assemble traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with President Benjamin Harrison to ask for millions of dollars to be spent to meet the needs of millions of cyclists.

But motoring and cycling developed in different directions in the US. Early in the 1900s, it was clear the car would dominate and, eventually, roads were designed with cars in mind. City planners assumed that bike riding was dead. By mid-century.

It has now been discovered cities designed only for cars don’t work well. I see a return to cities designed for people – walkers, riders, drivers – as the places people want to live.

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