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Roads Were Not Built For Cars, by Carlton Reid

A revisionist history of cars and roads, putting cyclists and cycling at the heart of the story

Roads Were Not Built For Cars, by Carlton Reid
Roads Were Not Built For Cars, by Carlton Reid

Roads Were Not Built For Cars, by Carlton Reid Title: Roads Were Not Built For Cars - How Cyclists Were The First To Push For Good Roads & Became The Pioneers Of Motoring
Author: Carlton Reid
Publisher: Front Page Creations
Year: 2014
Pages: 331
What it is: A revisionist history of cars and roads, putting cyclists and cycling at the heart of the story
Strengths: Packed full of great stories and fascinating facts for you to dip in and out of
Weaknesses: Comes across as a bit two-tribal at times - bikes good, cars bad - when really it's supposed to be showing it's not us and them, we're the same

Carlton Reid makes a number of important points in Roads Were Not Built For Cars, a cyclo-centric history of road transport. The main point is that there was considerable crossover between cyclists and motorists at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries. This is a point which I don't think comes as news to fans of bike racing. We know that many of the early bicycle firms quit the industry and went into automobiles (some kept a foot in both camps, eg Peugeot). We know there were racers in both camps: today, we have Chris Hoy seeking to drive at Le Mans and David Millar whoring Maseratis, back then - particularly when then was the era of motor-paced racing - we had many cyclists graduating from two wheels to four (see, for instance, Peter Nye's biography of Albert Champion). We know that some Tour historians tell us that right up until the Tour de France actually succeeded, Henri Desgrange was leaning more and more towards automobile racing. We know that Milan-Sanremo started out as an automobile race while other races - eg Paris-Rouen, Bordeaux-Paris - later inspired automobile races. And we know from the original name of the Tour's founding newspaper - L'Auto-Vélo - that bikes and cars could clearly cohabit peacefully, back in those days when both were young.

In spite of all that we know, it is perhaps worth considering just how intertwined the two industries were in the closing years of the nineteenth and opening years of the twentieth centuries. Consider, then, the case of Harvey du Cros and his sons. Dublin-born and of Huguenot descent, Du Cros Snr is the man responsible for turning John Boyd Dunlop's little invention into a worldwide business.

A sporty type - boxing, fencing, gymnastics, rugby - Du Cros had risen through the ranks of business, joining a Dublin paper company as a clerk, rising to become manager and ending up as a partner. His six sons followed in their father's sporty footsteps, taking up boxing and gymnastics, but also adding cycling, at which they excelled. One of the Du Cros boys was approached by a Dublin bike seller, William Bowden, and given the opportunity to try out Dunlop's new tyres, Bowden having acquired the patent. Bowden then approached Du Cros Snr - who as well as being secretary of the Irish Commercial Travellers Association was president of the Irish Cyclists' Association - with a view to forming and floating a company to exploit Dunlop's invention. The Pneumatic Tyre and Booth's Cycle Agency Ltd was launched in November 1889, with tyre production taking place in Dublin, in Oriel House, on the corner of Westland Row and Fenian Street (the tyres had originally been produced in Belfast, after Dunlop registered his patent in 1888).

Barely a year later the company was rocked when it was discovered that Dunlop's patent was invalid, there being an earlier version of the pneumatic tyre, patented by Robert William Thompson in 1845. Du Cros managed to weather this storm - basically, he bought up every related patent he could, in order to rebuild the company's near monopoly status - but then was hit by another blast: Dublin Corporation took the company to court, complaining about the smell of naphtha and rubber emanating from the company's production facility in Oriel House. The result of this was that in 1893 Dublin lost Dunlop to Coventry. Three years later - with the assistance of serial entrepreneur Terah Hooley, who had made a fortune on the back of the bicycle boom and was soon set to lose it when the bicycle bubble burst - Du Cros floated the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Where this crosses over into the realm of the automobile is not in the way Dunlop's tyres became synonymous with motoring - the company was actually late to the party here, Michelin having added automobile tyres to their bicycle business five years before Dunlop got around to doing so - but in what the Du Cros family did with its wealth. Through a London employee of Dunlop's, SF Edge, the former paper baron and his sons got involved with a variety of automobile projects.

The Australian-born Briton Selwyn Francis Edge was a former cyclist - one of the three British riders to fill the podium of the first edition of Bordeaux-Paris in 1891, Edge on the bottom step - who followed many of his peers into the nascent automobile industry. Edge had been able to use connections formed as a cyclist to import De Dion-Bouton cars into the UK in partnership with two other former cyclists, Charles Jarrot and Herbert Duncan (De Dion, you'll recall, was the Comte whose political and economic disagreements with Pierre Giffard gave birth to L'Auto-Vélo). Then - with capital provided by Du Cros Snr - Edge went into business with yet another former cyclist, Montague Napier, to form the Motor Vehicle Company, which sold modified Panhards re-badged as Napiers. Later, with the backing of Harvey du Cros Jnr, Edge acquired the rights to import Clément-Gladiators into the UK, completing a circle that had begun in the early 1890s when Clément had acquired the French rights to Dunlop's bicycle tyres, before moving into the automobile business. Among the other motoring enterprises the Du Cros sons got involved with was the Swift Motor Car Company, which in 1902 became the latest iteration of James Starley's original Coventry Sewing Machine Company, which had moved into bicycle manufacture in 1869 as Coventry Machinists and become the Swift Cycle Company in 1896.

All these links between the two industries make for an intriguing and complex family tree. But what do they actually tell us about what was really going on back then? Reid himself doesn't draw any real conclusions, other than to argue that "there was a natural progression from going fast on the cycling track to going even faster on the motoring track" (I would argue it had an awful lot more to do with commerce and mechanics than speed, more to do with transferable skills than the thrill of speed). The important point for Reid is simply that these links existed and that they prove that the bicycle begat the motorcar. A fact which, Reid argues, used to be well understood but has since been deliberately air-brushed from the official record:

"Cycling's contribution to motoring was common knowledge before the 1920s but once cycling became 'poor man's transport' the contribution was deliberately downgraded in Britain and America, and officially obliterated in Germany. The Nazi propaganda department wrote to German encyclopaedias ordering them to delete the debt motoring owed to an Austrian Jewish engineer - and, surmises one historian, the debt owed to cycling, too."

Reid presses this point - the deliberate air-brushing of history - by referencing claims made by the Henry Ford company, to the effect that it was the Ford car that "started the movement for good roads," when in fact it was cyclists - the League of American Wheelmen - who started the Good Roads Movement in the US, copying the Roads Improvement Association which cyclists had created in the UK. (This is a subject also discussed by Sue Macy in her Wheels of Change.) The Ford motor company is also responsible for air-brushing from history an important contribution made by Alfred Pope - the father of the American bicycle industry - crediting Henry Ford with the invention of wholly new mass production techniques which were in fact pioneered by Pope's bicycle business (see Glenn Norcliffe's Popeism and Fordism: Examining the Roots of Mass Production if you want more on this).

How sinister this air-brushing of history is I'm not sure. You can understand the Ford motor company bigging up everything it did - it's called marketing, and some attribute its rise to North America's bicycle boom of the 1890s - and it's easy to see how such myths have been perpetuated by lazy writers. Whereas Reid uses words like 'hidden' to describe many of cycling's contributions to motoring I think more appropriate words would be 'forgotten' and 'overlooked.' I would certainly not make claims like the following:

"The copious credit given to the bicycle by those who were present at the birth of motoring is ignored by most historians due to modern prejudice against cycling - too many think of cycling as 'poor man's transport,' a concept that did not kick in until the 1920s and 1930s."

* * * * *

In order to discuss the work done in the US by the Good Roads Movement and the UK by the Roads Improvement Association Reid delivers a brief history of roads:

"Roads did not appear recently, out of nowhere, lowered on to virgin land by modern-day navvies in hard hats and hi-vis. Most roads - in fact, the overwhelming majority of roads - have long, rich histories, carved by boots and hooves, with little thought for wheels, petrol-propelled or otherwise."

If you stop and try and answer the question raised by Reid's title - if roads were not built for cars, what were they built for? - you'll hit on things like pilgrimage routes (such as the Camino de Santiago network) and military use (the US Interstate highway system was originally the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways). Trade, though, is probably the primary reason most early roads came into being, dating all the way back to our fur-wearing ancestors. They, though, usurped the right to roam of others:

"US Highway 12 began as the Great Sauk Trail, named after the Sauk people's hunting trail, originally trodden down by buffalo. The trail's transhuman origins probably pre-date the buffalo: palaeontologists from the University of Michigan discovered the trail was blazed by migrating mastodons. Motorists driving today between Washington, D.C. and Detroit are following a route padded out 10,000 years ago by now-extinct megafauna."

One of the interesting points arising from Reid's brief history lesson here is that at almost every stop along the way from the trails of old to the roads of today, those who shared the space have been at one and other's throats, each bitterly complaining about the other (or, in the case of the mastodons and our ancient forefathers, driving them to extinction). The disputes we see today, they have been going on since time immemorial, there has never been an Arcadia in which all who used the roads of their time got on with one and other, not even in the heyday of the bicycle at the end of the nineteenth century (pedestrians took umbrage at cyclists hogging their roads, cyclists got the hump with pedestrians who insisted on getting in their way). Maybe history is here trying to teach us that it is not possible for two or more modes of transport to share the same road.

* * * * *

Roads Were Not Built For Cars carries within its 300-odd pages no call for action - reclaim the streets! ban cars! put all the motorists against a wall and hit them upside the head with rolled up newspapers! - it simply tries to rewrite history, to write the right history, and show that those who claim that cities and streets were built for cars are wrong (eg Rob Ford, the crack-smoking former mayor of that liberal heartland, Toronto: "Roads are built for buses, cars and trucks, not for people on bikes. My heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it's their own fault at the end of the day.").

As for the two tribes aspect of the war on our streets, Reid wants both sides to realise they are one, they sprang from the same roots. For me, the idea that cyclists and motorists share a common history - the idea that motoring grew out of cycling - offers the image of one of those Star Trek episodes in which two planets are warring with each other only for the Enterprise crew to finally realise that the two races are in fact one, allowing them to bring about an end to the fighting. It's a pleasant thought and it would be nice if, after reading Roads Were Not Built For Cars, cyclists and motorists could hug one and other while waiting at red lights. Do you see that happening, though?

While a great reference book, there are a couple of areas where I think Reid could have dug deeper and offered more. Most of his stories come from the United Kingdom and the United States, which leaves an awful lot of the story missing. Two issues in particular stood out for me.

The first is why the automobile industry took off in France the way it did, rather than elsewhere in Europe. As Reid notes, "even though the world's first automobile was developed in Germany, the first mass-market sales, promotions and brand building for automobiles took place in France." His reasoning for this is that it was down to avarice, the French - through newspapers like Pierre Giffard's Le Petit Journal - organising races and offering prizes. It's a nice and pithy explanation but it just doesn't ring true.

The second issue touched upon by Reid is this:

"According to town planning academic Carmen Hass-Klau, there are historical differences between German and British 'city cultures,' differences that help to explain how British cities (and perhaps, by extension, cities in America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) came to be overwhelmed by motor cars. Counter-intuitively, it's to do with national concepts of freedom. Professor Hass-Klau said German cities often restricted passage of wheeled vehicles because of a desire for order. British cities, on the other hand, were more egalitarian: 'There appears to have been (and still is) a greater acceptance of wheeled, and later motor, traffic as a way of life from very early on and a possible fear of conflicts if "equal" rights of all participants were not provided.'"

To me, this is an issue worth exploring - both the substance of it and what lessons it offers, if true - especially if you yourself are arguing for equal rights for all road users. Unfortunately, I felt that Reid didn't develop it, and certainly didn't see any merit in the notion that equal rights for all is actually part of the problem, and the real solution is to be found in the right restrictions on all vehicles.