posted 1 year ago

Wide Grass Verges Beside Trunk Roads Could Be Hiding 1930s-Era Cycleways

Guest article by the executive editor of BikeBiz.com, Carlton Reid.

A lot of comments on car websites – and in the mainstream media – claim that there isn’t enough space for both cyclists and motorists on Britain’s roads. The argument “last one on, first one off” isn’t going to curry much favour, especially on motoring.co.uk, so we’re back to square one, with brickbats thrown from both sides.

But what if I told you that the space for cycling is there, and it’s been there for a long time? In fact, since the 1930s. That’s when the Ministry of Transport did something few today know that it did, and that’s start the construction of a national network of protected cycleways. These are the sort of cycleways that became common in the Netherlands (it’s one of the reasons why driving there is so pleasant, with motoring navigation app Waze listing it as the best country in the world for motorists). 

Go Dutch, argue many cycle groups today. The MoT did that, in 1934. That’s when it linked up with its Dutch equivalent, and was provided with plans on how to build kerb-protected cycleways, separating cyclists from motorists.

This was radical at the time, and except for a few places in the UK – London’s Embankment, for instance – it remains radical today. But only because we’ve forgotten about the 280+ miles of protected cycleways that used to line both sides of Britain’s trunk roads. The A1-as-was in Durham was equipped with a 9-ft-wide both-sides-of-the-road cycleway in 1937, and the Southend Arterial Road had a protected cycleway that extended for 18 miles, and linked into other protected cycleways that ringed London.

Cycling started its slow decline in 1949, quickly rendering obsolete the pre-war cycleways, with some grubbed up to make way for wider roads, but most were left to languish, unloved and then lost.

I discovered all this while researching a history book, http://www.bikeboom.info, and at the start of the week I launched a Kickstarter campaign with an urban planner to bring many of these 1930s cycleways back to life. Pleasingly, after just three days the campaign looks likely to meet its initial target of £7,000. Any additional monies will be used to research and revive more of these cycleways.

This video shows what they used to be like because many of them are still with us. The Durham cycleway is still 9-ft-wide and still protected with kerbs, but few know that it’s a 1930s cycleway – I’ve seen motorists bump over the kerbs and drive along it, and I’ve seen cyclists stick to the adjacent narrow footway because they had no idea the wide cycleway was built for them as protection from cars.

These hidden-in-plain-sight cycleways could be easily refurbished and meshed into modern cycleway networks. Those that are buried beneath what motorists assume are just wide grass verges could be excavated and brought back to use.

Since launching the campaign a number of local authorities have been in touch expressing interest in getting more information on how their 1930s cycleways could be modernised. This is a history-infused engineering project that could benefit both cyclists and motorists. 

+++ Carlton Reid drives a Nissan Note (it’s his wife’s car, really) and is the executive editor of BikeBiz.com and author of Roads Were Not Built For Cars