Let's rescue Britain's forgotten 1930s protected cycleways
Many cycle advocates urge that the Department for Transport should create dense grids of protected cycling infrastructure – in other words, Britain should "Go Dutch". It's almost totally unknown that Britain once had the beginnings of such a Netherlands-inspired network, and with your help we could rediscover it and, in some cases, literally dig it up. This Kickstarter project could result in the (re)creation of many miles of protected cycleways – and as a backer you'll be along for the ride.
- UPDATE: We may have reached our Kickstarter target but that's not the end. In fact, it's just the beginning. Reaching the initial target will enable us to research and perhaps revive a number of cycleways but by no means all of them. Every single pledge, no matter how small, is important (the number of pledges could play an important later role when we start seeking the institutional funding required for national-scale cycleway improvements). If you haven't got the financial means to back this project right now please share it widely.
In the 1930s, Britain's Ministry of Transport commissioned the building of 500-miles of protected cycleways. Between 1934 and 1940 more than 300 miles of these innovative cycleways were actually built, usually both sides of the new "arterial roads" springing up all over the country.
(The video says it was 280 miles – but, thanks to the publicity generated by this project, more mileage has come to light.)
Some of these cycleways still exist, but they are not today understood to be cycle infrastructure: they should be rededicated. Others are buried under a couple of inches of soil: they could be excavated.
We are seeking your support to make all of this happen. Cash is needed to carry out further research and then work out how the historic cycleways can be meshed into modern networks.
With your help we'll be able to demonstrate that the space for cycling is there, and in many cases it has been there for a long time!
Those who back this project will be supporting something of potentially national importance, and will gain behind-the-scenes access to our work as it progresses. You will receive timely backer-only reports that won't be published anywhere else. Whether you're interested in the historical side of the project, or the modern, practical side backers will receive regular updates and will be the first to be told of what could be important and, in some cases, genuinely ground-breaking developments.
Take a look at the backer options on the right. You could buy us a cup of coffee to keep our spirits up or go the whole hog and get us to give you an up close and personal presentation to your club, company or organisation. We'll also be taking some backers on a guided cycle tour of one or more of these innovative-for-the-time cycleways.
"... if Britain managed to find money to produce state of the art bike lanes during the Great Depression, it can definitely do so again."
Feargus O'Sullivan, CityLab.
Thanks to amazing support our campaign hit its target three days after launching! This doesn't mean the campaign ends, the more funding we get the more cycleways we can research and rescue.
If we reach £10,000 we'll add Kickstarter Live functionality for all levels above Pizza Levels where either or both Carlton and John will host backer-only interactive video sessions. REACHED!
If the pledges exceed £12,000 all levels above Pizza Level will get access to the premium level of a new podcast, CyclingHistory.Today. The site has been registered (thanks to @CyclistStaffs for the prompt) and a website will be connected to that URL soon. The podcast will feature cycling history from 1817 onwards. (Naturally, there will be plenty of content from the period connected with this Kickstarter campaign.) REACHED!
We are now beyond £12,000 but are all out of ideas on stretch goals (the best suggested to us so far – and by @tynetom – was a night out in Whitley Bay). We'll think about it.
Between 1937 and 1940 the Ministry of Transport only gave grants to local authorities for arterial road schemes if they included 9-ft-wide cycleways both sides of the road, writes Carlton Reid. Some of these cycleways still exist (but are believed, wrongly, to be “service roads”); others have been grassed over (but their concrete surfaces probably remain). Many are not marked on maps as cycleways (or considered to be such by local authorities.)
That Britain once had a great number of protected cycleways is now almost totally unknown. I started researching these Dutch-inspired cycleways for my forthcoming book Bike Boom (Island Press, June 2017) and when I started to dig deeper (sometimes literally) I came to realise there were far more of these 1930s cycleways than I, or anybody else, knew existed. By poring through ministerial minutes I discovered that, amazingly, the Ministry of Transport was working to plans submitted by its Dutch equivalent: Go Dutch, 1930s-style.
To date, I have identified more than 90 separate protected cycleway schemes around Britain, some of which can be found on this map. But I believe there are more to be found.
These innovative, concrete cycleways – many with granite kerbing – went out of use so rapidly that they were forgotten about soon after being built. A few were later grubbed up to make extra room for cars, but plenty can still be seen today – if you know what to look for.
By using long-neglected plans and maps I've been able to trace many of the buried ones; some appear to be tantalisingly close to the surface.
It's important to map, record and then rescue these cycleways. Many have lasted this long only out of sheer luck, and need to be "listed" so that they can't be destroyed in the future to, say, widen roads for motor traffic.
This is partly a historical – and even an archeological – Kickstarter but, as my project partner John Dales says in the video above, it's also highly relevant today because the space for cycling that many planners and politicians say isn't there is there!
We are combining to form a small team that will research and evaluate the schemes found to date, and then approach local and national authorities with plans for meshing the 1930s cycleways with their modern equivalents. Once the campaign has ended we can immediately start work on researching and evaluating some of the schemes identified so far. The more money we raise the more cycleways we will be able to research. We shall use this research – and the modern urban planning work – to push for grants and other monies to enable rescue work to take place.
In 1934, the Ministry of Transport consulted with its Dutch equivalent before starting work on its cycleway programme. The MoT’s chief engineer was provided with cycleway plans and advice by the director of the Rijkswaterstaat.
Most of the 1930s cycleways were built alongside new arterial roads and bypasses. However, some were built in residential areas, such as the separated cycleway in Manchester seen at the top of this page. This cycleway still exists but, today, not all of it is marked or used as a cycleway – motorists park their cars on it, assuming it's a private road built for such use. The challenge is to find and research the history of this cycleway, and the 70 or so others, then link them into today’s networks.
It’s reasonably well known – in certain cycle advocacy circles at least – that there was a 2-mile protected cycleway on Western Avenue in London, opened by transport minister Leslie Hore-Belisha in 1934 (I wrote about it in Roads Were Not Built for Cars). What’s very much not known is that this was just the first scheme, and that the Ministry of Transport majority paid-for at least 70 other schemes across the country, many of them kerb-protected and separated from carriageways.
After 1949, cycle use in the UK dropped dramatically and less use was made of the innovative-for-the-time cycleways.
In time, it was forgotten that there had once been these many cycle infrastructure schemes around the UK. This project aims to bring many of them back to life both by rededication and by demonstrating how they can be linked in to wider networks. A great deal of further archival research is required, especially in city, county and national archives. Period newspaper reports describe when the cycleways were given the go-ahead and when they were opened, but it will require more digging to find grant-aid documents, further maps and plans, and period photographs of the cycle tracks in use.
Most of the 1930s cycleways (at the time they were called "cycle tracks") were, on average, four miles long, but the 9-ft and 6-ft cycle tracks on both sides of the Southend Arterial Road (which are not marked on modern maps) extended for more than 18 miles.
If we could bring back to life even half of the built cycleways that's perhaps 140+ miles of cycleway that we don't currently know about, or treasure.
This is an ambitious and potentially very practical project, but it cannot happen without your help.
Carlton Reid & John Dales
UPDATE (28th April): Just three days after launch, we hit our funding target. This was wonderful news and means that, at the end of the campaign, we can hit the ground cycling. However, after the euphoria wore off, it's important to stress that this is just the start – it doesn't mean every single one of of the 1930s cycleway schemes identified so far can be researched and rescued.
The campaign lasts until 25th May, and the more funding we can raise the more cycleways we can add to our "to do" list.
Pleasingly, thanks to the publicity that the campaign has generated so far, we have been contacted by individuals and local authorities with more possible 1930s cycleways. The 70+ schemes we initially identified is now comfortably into the 80s. That's amazing.
It will require some digging (at this stage, mostly metaphorical) to confirm these as genuine 1930s-era cycleways but, in all probability, there are even more to be found. And the more we find, the more chance that these forgotten cycleways might have once linked together and, with effort, could therefore be more easily meshed with modern networks. That is, once improved, especially at junctions and side roads.
In the fullness of time we'll be producing plans and recommendations that could help convince local authorities (and perhaps even the Department of Transport) to release some meaningful cash so that as many of these cycleways as possible can be brought back to life.
You wonderful backers helped us get to the first stage, there are many more to come.
CARLTON REID is the Newcastle-based executive editor of BikeBiz.com, and author of Roads Were Not Built for Cars and Bike Boom (both of these books were successfully funded on Kickstarter, and later picked up by Island Press of Washington, DC.)
JOHN DALES is a transport planner and traffic engineer, and director of Urban Movement of London ("our job is making better streets"). He is the ex-chair of the Transport Planning Society, and a columnist for TransportXtra.
WHAT DO OTHERS THINK?
CHRIS BOARDMAN: "This is a marvelous proposal. It could recover some of our lost past and give normal people the opportunity to change the way they travel, in safety.
"As a bonus, in these austere times, it would have a meaningful impact for a very modest price."
THE RANTY HIGHWAYMAN: "This exciting delve into history seeks to rediscover the space which was found for cycling eighty years ago, and it just goes to prove that most innovations in highway engineering have already been built.
"My predecessors made their foray into enabling cycling by looking across the North Sea for inspiration and so this project is sure to provide modern highway engineers with some valuable lessons and inspiration for rediscovering cycle track design in the UK."
MARK TREASURE, CHAIR OF CYCLING EMBASSY OF GREAT BRITAIN: "It's fantastic (and also more than a little depressing) that, eighty years ago, this country was capable of building cycling infrastructure alongside main roads of precisely the kind we need today – cycling infrastructure that has now fallen into disrepair.
"It would be wonderful to see this legacy updated, restored and protected, not only because these cycleways would be useful in their own right, but also because they would serve as an inspiration for developing a comprehensive cycle network, using the space we already have."
ROGER GEFFEN, CYCLING UK's POLICY DIRECTOR: “What an inspired idea, to unearth and revive the lost history of Britain’s abortive ‘cycling revolution’! The Dutch have since taught us so much about importance of high-quality design and surfacing, and priority at junctions, for ensuring that protected cycle facilities really do ‘facilitate’ cycling. It’s now high time we acted on these lessons. High-quality reinstatements of our lost cycle tracks would be an excellent starting point.”
PHILLIP DARNTON OF THE BICYCLE ASSOCIATION & FORMER CHAIR OF CYCLING ENGLAND: "A fascinating piece of research, which just shows how little progress we've made in building proper cycling infrastructure in the last 80 years."
- BikeBiz (natch)
- The Guardian
- Engineering and Technology
- Curbed, USA
- Cambridge News
- Mail Online
- BBC Radio 4 You & Yours (12m35s)
- Atlas Obscura
- Mother Nature Network
- Fast Co. Design
- City Lab
Risks and challenges
Even with huge backing on Kickstarter, enabling every single scheme to be researched, there's no guarantee that we will be able to convince local authorities to spend time, effort and money to rescue these cycleways.
In short, some of the seeds will fall on stony ground.
However, we have already tentatively approached some local authorities and they were very keen to hear more. (The 70+ schemes found so far are in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.)
While the cash required for the one-the-ground rescue work would be substantial it's relatively small beer compared to, say, a junction widening.
We believe that space is in shorter supply than money, and what we have identified is the space for cycling that many say isn't there.
This project is research-led. We couldn't raise enough money on Kickstarter to pay for the actual hard labour that will be required to physically dig-up and rededicate these cycleways.
What we can do is provide the information that's required to progress this rescue work, and pinpoint which schemes have the best chance of success and make the most sense as part of today's cycle route network.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)