They’re hidden in plain sight, remnants of a lost time when cycling was not just mainstream, but a dominant means of transportation. Hundreds of miles of concrete tracks, flecked with pinkish concrete, spider out across the U.K., a ghost system of cycling infrastructure that present an alternative history of transportation, and hints at what could have been.
Even more curious, they weren’t built in the last few decades; they date from the ‘30s.
Carlton Reid, an author and historian from Newcastle, first uncovered this hidden part of Britain’s cycling infrastructure during research for his book on cycling history, Bike Boom. This immense system of roadways—Reid’s research suggests there might be as many as 500 miles spread across the U.K.—speaks to a time when cycling was much more popular. They’re a welcome relief from the “crap cycle lane” common in the country today, he says.
A combination of archival research, searching through old maps, and even Google Street View, helped him dig up this part of bicycling history. Some are literally buried, some have degraded over time, and many are still in use, but few are aware of the extent of this network.
Reid launched a popular Kickstarter campaign—which is about to hit $20,000 and already blew past its stretch goals—to fund research to uncover more of these hidden cycle paths, and pass that information along to an urban planner, who hopes to find ways to resurrect some older paths and connect these forgotten routes to contemporary bike lanes. At a time when many are asking for better biking infrastructure, Reid has found that the country actually already had the backbone of such a system.
“These roadways really show what can be done and what’s possible,” Reid says.
According to Reid’s research, the government program for these cycle tracks was inspired in part by an article in the Times of London newspaper in the early ‘30s, showing a wide Dutch cycleway that took riders from Amsterdam to Haarlem. The Ministry of Transport was intrigued, and wrote to their Dutch counterparts, who sent back detailed plans (all of which can still be found in the U.K. National Archives).
“Right now, when people talk about good cycling infrastructure, people say you need to Go Dutch, and ape the Dutch,” Reid says (it was even the name of a local London cycling campaign). “Everyone assumes that was just the lat few years. But we actually went Dutch in 1934.”
The government motivation for such a massive program was born of the reality that, in the ‘30s, cycling was much more popular that driving. At the time, roughly 12 million Britons rode bikes, while there were just 2 million drivers. Quite unlike the U.S. at the time, the moneyed middle class was more about cycling, and had fallen behind their American counterparts when it came to private car ownership.
Politicians, therefore, advanced two main reasons for investing in national cycling infrastructure. Elected officials and planners, part of the car-owning intelligentsia, according to Reid, wanted to go faster in their cars, so creating separate roadways for the “pesky” cyclists would give them more room on the emerging highway network. Reid noticed that many linked up council homes (public housing) with commercial and industrial areas, providing direct links between workers and their jobs.
“From a class perspective, the managers of the factories would drive in their cars, while the workers would cycle in on these cycle ways,” he says. “It was a brilliant class distinction.”
The program was also pushed forward by public outcry over cycling deaths caused by bikes and automobiles sharing the road. Reid research uncovered a series of letters between the Minister of Transport and his chief engineer expressing concern over injuries suffered by cyclists.
Launched in 1934, the program added cycle lanes along a then-growing network of arterial roadways. It was relatively short-lived, but Reid found it still attracted enormous support until the war changed infrastructure priorities. As late as 1945, there were still plans to resurrect the program.
But by the time WWII ended, the government was more focused on building housing for returning soldiers, and bicycle infrastructure was placed on the back burner. In 1949, cycling in the U.K. had a 25 percent share of the country’s transportation mix, says Reid, a level roughly even with the Netherlands today. But after that, cycling in the country fell off a cliff.
By the time roadways and transport became a priority in the mid-’50s, and there was money for more roadways, the car had become dominant, and cycling was out of favor, never to regain its position as a extremely popular mode of everyday transportation.
“The car came to dominate and crushed everything else,” says Reid. “It’s natural selection.”
Repaving a road less traveled
Ever since Reid launched the Kickstarter campaign (which has a little less than two weeks left), he’s been surprised by how extensive the network was before it was abandoned. Before the campaign launched a few weeks ago, he had found 280 miles, and doubted a previously unearthed government record that said 500 miles of these tracks have been laid. As more and more people have come forward and sent him photos and maps, he’s realized the minister may have been telling the truth.
Despite decades of neglect, the remaining cycle tracks suggest these lanes must have made for a smooth ride. Varying between six and nine feet wide, these concrete paths feature granite curbing. Mysterious remnants of a different time in transportation history, some still make for a great ride.
Reid, who lives in the northeast part of the country, has found two of the paths near his home which are pristine, almost exactly as they were left decades ago. He says it’s always a bit puzzling for people who aren’t aware of these roadway’s history to come upon seemingly abandoned roads. Why isn’t that sidewalk being used? What are those bollards there for? Who on Earth is this road for?
“I’m a historian and have a historical bent, so I’d like to preserve these as heritage assets, interesting bits of 30s infrastructure,” he says. “It’s interesting, like old railways today, just fascinating bits of infrastructure. But there are many of these 1930s bike paths that you could bring back to life.”