14 December 2009

Vintage Bicycle Infrastructure 75th Anniversary

Copenhagen Bicycle Traffic in Rush Hour
Separated bicycle infrastructure is certainly nothing new. It's been around since the very beginning of bicycle culture.

The Guardian is reporting today that it is 75 years ago today that the UK opened its first bike lane/cycle track.

Even then, the UK was lagging behind other nations in Europe, notably Holland, where such paths had been around for some time.

What most strikes a contemporary cyclist is how roomy the bike lane, now long since gone, appears. Built from concrete, the path, one of a pair on each side of the road, was just over 2.5m wide and stretched for an uninterrupted two-and-a-half miles. The film shows riders using it three abreast. Try that on one the narrow, glass-strewn slivers of bumpy tarmac carved reluctantly into the edges of modern urban roads.

Indeed, as The Guardian writes, infrastructure was in place in Holland, as well as Denmark, waaaay back in the day and people used them in great numbers.

One of the world's most impressive separated bike paths was built to connect Pasadena to Los Angeles in 1900. At that time 20% of all trips where made by bicycle in the Los Angeles region so the construction of the eight-mile Arroyo Seco Cycleway - an elevated, multilane, wooden bike path, complete with streetlights and gazebo turnouts – was a given.

When the first leg opened, swarms of bicyclists handed over the 15-cent toll. A Los Angeles Times commentator gushed that the countryside it passed through "is the loveliest in Southern California, the route having been chosen with an eye to scenic beauty as well as to practical needs."

Here's the full article from The Guardian: 75 years after the UK's first cycle lane opened, the same debate rages on.

In contrast to separated infrastructure, the opponents have yet to show us that any alternative theory encourages great numbers of people to cycle, allowing society to reap the many rewards involved.

The opening of the cycle track, from the Pathe Archives:


Thanks to Kim for the link.


Taliesin said...

"In contrast to separated infrastructure, the opponents have yet to show us that any alternative theory encourages great numbers of people to cycle, allowing society to reap the many rewards involved."

Quite true. When the integrationalists/vehicularists can show me a city in a developed country with high cycling rates and little separation of cyclists from motor traffic, then I will sit up and take notice.

The only scenario under which the cyclists take back the streets is one in which the motor vehicle retreats very significantly from those same streets.

Bring on peak oil, it is UK cycling's best hope. :)

lagatta à montréal said...

Taliesin, while I'm very anti so-called "vehicular cycling", which is another phrase for survival of the fittest - not making cycling safe for 8 or 80 year olds - I do believe we have seen exceptions in Japan. However I remain committed to dedicated cycling infrastructure, at least in urban areas - even in rural areas cycle trails, such as our Route verte here in Québec - have provided a great boost to cycling.

What is tragic in the UK is its retreat from its strong cycling culture early in the 20th century. So much of our cycling imagery involves British tweeds and sweater twin-sets and woollen skirts, men in flat caps etc. (Of course flat caps were common in many countries, including Denmark, but you've all seen the British imagery).

When were the first Dutch cycle lanes or tracks opened? How about Denmark?

kfg said...

With the advent of modern engineered wood products I would like to some return to wood paving for non motor vehicle use.

tensaimon said...

It's possibly slightly ridiculous on account of being nigh-on impossible to achieve, but the more I look around me at driving and drivers, the more I think that human nature (impatient, distractable, think-we're-invincible) means we are simply not fit to be in control of 1 ton + vehicles that can travel at speed.

I'm thinking we need to move towards a world where we don't have to have these segregation arguments because there aren't any cars anymore - its bikes or trains or nothing. This is of course a ludicrous aim in todays world.

But back to reality: segregated cycling lanes are the only thing that will get people feeling safe enough to get out on bikes. I wish we had some around here (Okinawa).

Amsterdamize said...

@Maria: the first Dutch bike path (fietspad) was proposed in 1885 and installed in 1887 in Utrecht.

kfg said...

Tensaimon: Yes, it is probably impossible. I'm not at all sure it's even desirable. It IS, however, possible to a large extent in city centers that they be given back to the people.

I'll note here also that the first cycle paths were not intended as any sort of segregation scheme, per se, but rather to give cyclists a suitable, high speed surface to ride on compared to the cobbles and compacted earth that was the common road construction of the time.

It is a one of those little twists of history that smooth paved roads, built by and for cyclists, started to appear at the same time the motor car started to appear and that they claimed as their own what had never been theirs at the outset.

When a driver says "The roads were made for cars" he is either ignorant or lying. Perhaps a bit of both. Even here in the New World (specifically the New Netherlands) most of the roads I ride on predate cars, often by hundreds of years. In some cases their routes may have been laid down by feet thousands of years ago.

Man is the restless animal. He not only moves about, but even though he may cling to a personal territory, he chafes at the idea of being LIMITED to that territory. He spread to cover most of the landmass of Earth when "transportation technology" meant little more than walking barefoot and clinging to floating logs.

If I have an objection to modern cycle infrastructure philosophy it's that it is too modern. It is couched and provided in terms of a "transport system," ignoring the idea that people don't simply live in one box and transport to a box where they work.

People like to just plain MOVE ABOUT.

City centers were not laid down as part of the "transport system." That's one of the reasons they are so hard to integrate into one. They are places where people congregate and move about, often rather randomly and for no real purpose other than the movement itself.

Movement is tranquility. - Stirling Moss

Take the cities back for the people and let them move about in it.

lagatta à montréal said...

kfg, here too many of the most important roads (those that follow the lay of the land, often called "côtes" or hillsides) were Amerindian trails laid out by the feet of the local inhabitants. This island has been inhabitated for at least 10.000 years, by recent calculations. I believe your Broadway was also a road laid out by Indigenous people.

The city of Québec celebrated its 400th anniversary (of European settlement; the location was also settled long before that; like Montréal island and Manhattan, Cap Diamant is strategic for trade and war). Sure cars were invented over 100 years ago but were rare indeed before the First World War, and by and large reserved to élites or specialised uses before the Second.

kfg, if there is a fietspad everywhere that pretty much solves your problem of wanting to just cycle about.

kfg said...

"I believe your Broadway was also a road laid out by Indigenous people."

An interesting case that. When the grid system was first being planned it was assumed that Broadway would be eradicated, but it proved to be too useful to do away with. It followed the route people naturally wanted to take.

In more modern times an architect's plans for a new campus (I'm going all aphasic on which) were reviewed and criticized because there weren't any walking paths. The architect responded; "Wait a few years and then put the walks where the grass is worn away."

"if there is a fietspad everywhere that pretty much solves your problem of wanting to just cycle about."

My desire to just cycle about is not my only concern. Indeed I do that without any particular qualms (except on certain exceptional routes, usually CAUSED by traffic seperation) already.

Mikael might class me as among the "Young and testosteronal," although I aver that I am neither. It's just that while I am concerned about cars, I do not fear them. Thus while it may not be my personal vision of Paradise I have no problems with practicing vehicular cycling and having the complete freedom of the road. I am not limited by the lack of cycling infrastructure (well, if we had a local velodrome I'd be using it).

I find that my views have placed me in something of an odd situation. There appear to be those who seem to have the impression that I am a militant vehicular cyclist opposed to the very existence of cycling specific infrastructure; while at the same time others seem to have the impression that I am a radical car hater.

Again I aver that I am neither.

What I believe is that cars have little to no place in the URBAN landscape and that the segregated infrastructure created for THEM is, in the words of James Howard Kunstler, "The greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world."

This belief has nothing to do, per se, with my status as a cyclist. It is my direct assessment of CARS. I would hold it even if I did not cycle. Indeed my belief that city centers ought to be feets pad everywhere is rather a bit at odds with my desire to just cycle about.

Taliesin said...


I quite agree that cars should never have been allowed to dominate our cities and towns in the way they do. Car free roads would accomodate cycling far better than even the best segregated infrastructure. But I have to favour pragmatism above what I might see as a perfect solution since not even the citizens of Amsterdam or Copenhagen seem ready to completely abandon the motor vehicile, despite having better opportunities to do so than almost anyone else on Earth. And that, to me, means segregation is one of the most important approaches to moving the cause of cycling forward.

And the car free approach is what the CTC seemed to argue 75 years ago according to the Guardian article. It is far from clear that governments didn't build cycle infrastructure in the UK because of the hostility from cyclists, but the net result was a collapse in cycling after WW2, with no recovery as there has been in other countries.

As for fear of cars: I'm not usually scared of cars, except on the all too common occasions of drivers disregarding my safety. But this mental state took me some years to attain. I think it would have been about 5 years after I began cycling as an adult before I used "primary" position as a safety aid for the first time, although I didn't know of the idea of vehicular cycling at that time.