It has always been a source of contention in the debates over how to allocate road space. “Roads are made for cars,” “Motorists pay the taxes that build our roads,” and “Why should I have to pay for infrastructure for cyclists” are among the many complaints that are made about the allocation of transportation funds in our municipalities. I’m going to avoid the tax issue for the moment (planning on a much longer post about that in the future.) Besides, many others have taken this issue on already.
I would like to address the idea of who roads were actually built for. And interestingly enough it would seem that the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) has some thoughts on the matter themselves.
…did you know that the pressure to create a state highway system came not from automobile manufacturers or drivers, but instead from bicycle enthusiasts and manufacturers in the 1800s?
The most common way to travel in the late 19th century—other than train—was horse, wagon, coach, foot—or the craze at that time—the bicycle. Bikes were so popular that by 1890, more than one million bicycles were being built each year, but roads, especially those that connected cities and towns, were in poor condition.
“Cycling enthusiasts initiated the push for a connected highway system, and even in 1895, with the many ways people traveled, we were well on our way to a multimodal highway system,” said Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty.
The League of American Wheelmen, now known as the League of American Bicyclists, formed in 1880, and at one point in the 19th century had more than 100,000 members. They were at the forefront of the Good Roads Movement—a movement at the local, state, and federal levels to improve the nation’s poorly maintained roads—roads shared with horsemen, wagon drivers and pedestrians and that often created safety issues for the diverse travelers.
There you have it. There is no one correct answer that will define who the highways were built for. The were, from the onset, pioneered by cyclists, for the use of many diverse groups.
So next time someone complains about all those pesky scofflaw cyclists clogging up the road ways, remind them that it was our cycling ancestors that quite literally paved the way for the roads we all share.