Roads Were Not Built for Cars [Book Review]

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One of the greatest misnomers of our times is that roads were built for cars. The cycling world’s leading and best-rounded journalist, Carlton Reid, evidently heard it said one time too many, enough to get 648 Kickstarter sponsors behind him to research the history of road building in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If I’m right he was originally planning to call the book Asphalt, but the title “Roads Were Not Built for Cars” is better in that it spells out the whole thesis for the millions who don’t need to read the whole book, they just need to know they are ignorant shits. It chronicles a time when the bike, and shortly thereafter the car, were emerging as alternatives to trains, omnibuses, horse-drawn carriages and boring old walking as real modes of transport.

The book arms us bicycle advocates with a few thousand air rifle pellets to shoot back at the next pillock to give us that tired old line that roads are for cars. Alternatively, if we don’t want to recite the whole book, we could reply with the more nuanced answer Reid provides in the book’s subtitle, that Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads and Became the Pioneers of Motoring. Henry Ford, we could tell them, was Detroit’s leading cyclist. Detroit started out as a bike making town. The car has more cycling DNA in its pnumatic tires and ball bearings than anything taken from the horse drawn carriage. Car lobbies were originally car and bike lobbies, until a court judge declared a conflict of interests. The book is filled with tidbits (pellets), like these.

But wait. If roads weren’t built by motorists, but individuals we might broadly term tech-heads, who abandoned bike advocacy quicker than Toad of Toad Hall when cars came along, can we really say roads were built for cycling? I would think the most accurate thing to say is that roads were built for whatever new technology should come along, whether it has wheels, hovers, or runs on mechanical legs:

Bicycle advocates have cause for concern that Reid’s book gives less ammunition to them than savvy purveyors of Autonomous Vehicles (AV), who might conclude that roads were built as a test site for whatever excites the Toads of this world at any given moment in history. I guess these days Elon Musk would be such a Toad (he’s certainly getting Toad’s belly), and wants the road for AV. The message I get from Reid’s book, is that Musk has a right to an era. Being more concerned personally with greenways along rail corridors and urban drainage routes than the endless fight for the street network, I might even be happy to view the disaster.

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So why have I read it (or about half so far to be honest)? For me the fascination with a book such as this lies with the portrait it provides of the late 1890s through to the mid 1920s, a period most historians look to for stories about metros and street cars shaping the city. While cities were growing beyond the horizon and snaking their way up the faces of hills thanks to wheels attached to strong motors, I want to know about the smaller ways cycling might have determined the layout of streets at the scale of the district. I want to know, for example, if the move from grid plans, that often gave rise to steep streets, to plans that had streets follow contours (the Griffins’ plan for Castlecrag is my favourite example), was in any way due to people using bikes to get to the tram. If we really get down to it, it’s the relationship between cycling and Garden Cities theory and practice, that I want to crack.

Though Reid’s book helps me a little, the focus, alas, is the road easement itself, not what it served or produced either side. Le Corbusier gets mentioned, but as usual only to be blamed for what his imitators did in his name. The reason he  agonised over freeway design was so drivers would have no excuse not to keep their machines in the space he provided. He was like Palladio perfecting space for the servants, so they could never be seen from space for the good life, like the piano nobile—or in Corb’s case a continuous park. So the book I really want is still one I’ll have to research and write for myself, or maybe supervise as a PhD project.

Griffins-1932-plan-lgeThose who follow Carlton Reid’s various websites, ebooks and Twitter account know he’s a feisty one, with tireless energy, and for those of us with the energy to match, this book is an absolute must for our shelves. Fit your copy with a homing device and loan it, one week at a time, to every pillock who tells you roads are for cars. Before WW2 they generally weren’t. If you don’t tell them what I have, that those early roads can also be seen as playgrounds for every new gadget, then when you get your book back from your pillock they will be agreeing that roads are for us, cyclists, the good guys, and motorists have just stollen them from us. Insofar as shaming is the aim of the book, it succeeds.

It will belong on my shelf beside Jim Fitzpatrick’s The Bicycle and the Bush, another phone book I’ll never read cover-to-cover in the sequence intended, but need to own as a resource. On that point Reid’s is even better, having more than just a bibliography but an online companion of complete endnotes for every chapter. A true gift to future scholars! They are so thorough I can see why he has put them online: to save paper!

But then, the book itself could be written on a little less tree. For me, one thesis argued with thousands of pellets makes for less interesting reading than a whole lot of theories without much behind them. You can read that as a criticism of my work, not Reid’s, or side with me and Max Walker from whom I have taken the following quote as my own moral compass. “Never bugger a good story for the facts.”

Roads Were Not Built for Cars reads more like a PhD thesis than one of Max Walker’s good yarns. Enough academics have praised it already that I would think it would just be a matter of Reid enrolling for some token interval before the work could be submitted and he could have Dr. in front of his name.

My recommendation: buy it, use it along with the endnotes as a brilliant resource, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t read the whole thing all at once. Though it’s well written and funny, it would need lots of cutting to be a page turner. I guess Carlton would be happiest if I linked you from here straight to his website.

You may get right the way through it before me, in which case we can keep the comments section open below as an ongoing book club discussion.

1 Comment

  1. crank says:

    Was “Bicycle and the Bush” a phonebook? I have it as an ebook and found it mostly engaging. A bloody big one is “A Whirl of Many Wheels”, which is only part 1 or 3 planned as I understand!
    (I have yet to start on it).

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