Say what you will about the current state of cycling infrastructure in the United Kingdom: underwhelming, adequate but improving, total crap. But from 1934 through 1940, the Ministry of Transport was on it — hammering away at an impressive bicycle highway that, when complete, was poised to rival the vast network of protected cycling paths in the Netherlands, a country where bikes are as ubiquitous as licorice, windmills and wooden shoes. (Not surprisingly, Rijkwaterstaat, the Ministry of Transport’s infrastructure-focused Dutch counterpart, lent a helping hand in creating Britain’s pre-war cycleways.)
The British government’s early love of segregated bike lanes, however, never really had the chance to germinate due to some truly unfortunate timing.
On Sept. 3, 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany in a global battle that raged for nearly six years. In the busy post-war years defined by relentless rebuilding and rapid growth, Britain found itself seduced, in a big way, by the automobile. The government, once passionate about promoting and building out infrastructure for cycling, placed bikes on the back burner and focused its energy on the construction of expansive motorways to better accommodate the growing number of car owners.
Today, the nearly 300 miles (out of a planned/completed 500 miles) of dedicated cycleways built by the Ministry of Transport are frequently neglected and largely forgotten.
Some are fully or partially buried by soil and topped with grass; some have been incorporated into adjacent roads or pedestrian sidewalks; others are still used as active bike lanes although local residents aren’t aware of their age or the history behind them. Many of the cycleways that are still visible boast a faint pink hue — a telltale sign of their authenticity as Britain’s original, '30s-era bike lanes were painted a bright shade of red before they fell into disrepair.
“We might see them every single day and not realise what they are — they're very much hidden in plain sight,” historian and cycling advocate Carlton Reid tells the BBC.
Through months of Google-assisted sleuthing, Reid has identified a bulk — roughly 80 — of Britain’s disused octogenarian cycleways that are spread across the U.K from Liverpool to London to the Scottish city of Dundee. And now that they’ve been unearthed and their locales made public, Reid has made it his mission to properly revive these generously sized paths, enabling Britons to finally benefit from the ambitious, Dutch-inspired cycling network that the government set out to complete decades ago.
Unearthing the past with Google Street View
So exactly does one go about locating 280 miles of largely defunct dedicated bike paths that most Britons don’t even realize exist?
Reid’s methods, however time-consuming, were rather straightforward: Combing through the Ministry of Transport’s archives and partaking in some heavy-duty armchair exploring via Google Street View.
Reid, who, like most, was completely unaware of the presence of the unmarked and obscured bike paths until he started on research for a book project, details his methods in a bylined article for the Guardian:
I’ve found these cycleways by digging — not in the ground, but in dusty archives, including poring over Ministry of Transport minutes held in the National Archives. And once I find a period source telling me a cycleway scheme once existed I use the spin-off from an American military mapping project to take a look at the location.
Google Street View is an off-shoot from Google Earth, the descendant of EarthViewer, a CIA-funded project that was used by the US military in war zones from the late 1990s onwards. Google acquired EarthViewer in 2004 and rebranded it as Google Earth in 2005. Archeologists often use Google Earth — and other open-access satellite-imagery services — to find hidden hill-forts and even buried treasure, but this is the first time the satellite and street-level imagery has been used to discover 1930s-era cycleways.
In his research, Reid found that most of these forgotten cycleways — called “cycle tracks” by the Ministry of Transport at the time — were, on average, 4 miles long although one, straddling the A127 (the Southend Arterial Road) through London and Essex, extended roughly 18 miles.
To accommodate a population that, at the time, favored bikes over automobiles, most cycleways, in true Dutch style, were segregated from major roadways and protected by concrete curbing.
More often than not, an individual cycleway flanked both sides of a road, with each lane measuring 9 feet wide. As Reid notes, a width of 9 feet was the standard established by the Ministry of Transport, which from 1937 through 1940, required local authorities to include accompanying bike lanes when constructing new arterial roads, which are major thoroughfares fed by smaller collector roads.
Today, some of these dual-lane cycleways are still in use although often only one of the two lanes will be marked for cyclists, as is the case with the partially used cycleway flanking Durham Road in Sunderland, North East England. Cycleways that aren’t buried or partially buried are often mistaken for service roads or as shoulder parking areas. Most Britons don't know what in the world to make of them.
No room for new bike lanes? Try reviving the old ones
It’s all fascinating stuff and, of course, Reid has much more in mind than just locating and mapping these infrastructural relics.
Ideally, Reid would like to see Britain’s ancient-ish cycleways be resurrected and linked to existing modern cycling infrastructure — that is, if it exists in certain locales.
“Urban planners often say, 'Oh, there's no place for cycling, we can't put these things in,’” Reid tells the BBC. “This project says we have got the space, sometimes [the cycleways] are already there.”
Of course, Reid himself doesn’t have the authority to go “full Dutch” himself — digging out and marking long-disused bike paths in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
This is where a recently launched Kickstarter campaign comes into play.
Conceived in partnership with urban planner John Dales, the campaign seeks crowdfunded cash that would enable Reid to carry out further research and, eventually, work in partnership with local authorities to restore and revive many of the long-forgotten bike paths.
The ultimate hope is to woo the Ministry of Transport — now known as the Department of Transport — and secure governmental funding for the ambitious scheme.
“We will also be working hard on getting the Department for Transport to also provide some national cash," Reid tells the BBC. “After all, it can be shown that the Ministry of Transport, its predecessor organisation, was 75 years ahead of its time."
The campaign page details how the pledges will be put to use:
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.
It may be a ways off before the Department of Transport starts forking over funds to resurrect its own cycling infrastructure but Reid and Dales’ Kickstarter campaign has already generated a massive amount of enthusiasm and all-important cash, blowing past its initial £7,000 goal in three days. With just under two weeks left until the campaign wraps up, it has amassed nearly £16,000 (about $20,000) in pledges. As Reid notes, more pledges equals more researched — and reactivated — cycleways.
In addition to funding, the campaign has also lead to the discovery of even more hidden 30’s-era cycleways across the U.K. in addition to the ones already identified by Reid. It’s also garnered accolades from some of Britain’s top cycling advocates, including Mark Treasure of the 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,” Treasure says. “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.”
Inset image of vintage cycleway signage: Carlton Reid