Most roads were not built for use of cars

Viewed from a car windscreen, roads look as though they were built for cars and trucks. Motorways and the elevated arterial road systems of the 1960s and 1970s seem to bear this out but such car-centric highways are the exception not the norm. For every one mile of motorway, there are 95 miles of roads conceived originally for non-motorised traffic.

According to the Department for Transport, there are 33,435 miles of major roads in the UK, including 2211 miles of motorway. However, there are 211,675 miles of B, C and unclassified roads.

The first motorway was built in 1959; a great many of Britain’s other roads are prehistoric (the Romans built many new roads but they also re-used plenty of existing ones).

punch3a

In the 1880s, bicycles became the first through-traffic to use roads since the decline of the stagecoach – and the success of the railway – fifty years earlier. With the setting up of the CTC’s Road Improvement Association, cyclists called for better roads ten years before the famous London to Brighton motorcar demonstration.

When these 30 motorcars chugged-chugged away from Charing Cross in London, they were accompanied by 10,000 cheering cyclists.

The reason for the run was to celebrate the overhauling of the Locomotive Act 1865. This was infamous ‘Red Flag Act’ which had set speed limits of 4 mph in the country and 2 mph in towns: and with a man walking ahead warning locals by flapping a red flag. The Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act of 1878 asserted that the motorised vehicles must stop upon sight of a horse. Bicycle builder, motorcar enthusiast and fraudster Harry J Lawson had applied pressure on the Government for a repeal of the Red Flag Act and this duly came with the Locomotives on Highways Act 1896. Motorcars were now defined as light locomotives and subject to the higher 14 mph speed limit.

This speed limit was easily breeched by almost all early motorcars and the first ‘automobilists’ thought the law an ass. Calls for no-speed-limits whatsoever were made from the earliest days of motoring, and have never gone away.

Ten years after the London to Brighton ‘Emancipation Run’, motorcars were easily capable of driving at almost three times the speed limit and many did so. Some local authorities clamped down hard on these ‘motor scorchers’ (usually the same local authorities who had clamped down on the original scorchers, cyclists) but most did precious little. Why? MPs, Lords, Justices of the Peace, chief police constables and other scions of society were among the first to take to motoring. The landed classes believed everything belonged to them, and this was the start of some motorists believing “they owned the road.”

By 1907, two years before the creation of the Road Fund, most motorists had forgotten about the debt they owed to prehistoric track builders, the Romans, turnpike trusts, John McAdam, Thomas Telford and bicyclists. Before even one road had been built with motorcars in mind (this wasn’t to happen until the 1930s), motorists assumed the mantle of overlords of the road.

punch1a

A satirical verse in Punch magazine of 1907 summed up this attitude from some drivers:

The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come they go on making roads – making them up. For I break things. Roads I break and Rules of the Road. Statutory limits were made for me. I break them. I break the dull silence of the country. Sometimes I break down, and thousands flock round me, so that I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.

Forty years later, J.S. Dean, the journalist and head of the Pedestrians’ Association, wrote a polemic calling for an end to “road slaughter” and an end to the view that highways were made for the exclusive use of motorcars:

“The private driver is… most strongly influenced by the sense of ownership of his car, and, as he often believes, of the road as well. It is “his” car to do with as he pleases, and, as he often believes, it is “his” road too, and the other road-users are merely intruders who are there at their own peril.

“This belief (it is of interest to note) has its origin in the vicious and anti-social proposition, embodied for a time in the Road Fund and since sustained by the motor and road propagandists, that the motorists have a right to demand that the motor taxes should be devoted exclusively to the construction and “improvement” of roads, i.e. as experience has shown, to the construction and “improvement” of roads with special or exclusive reference to the convenience of the drivers and with a general disregard of the convenience and safety of the other road-users. Of course, one might as well say that the drink taxes ought to be devoted to the construction and improvement of public houses or the duties on cosmetics to the establishment of beauty parlours.”

‘Murder Most Foul A study of the road deaths problem’ was – and still is – a withering attack on ‘victim blaming’, the expectation that vulnerable road users should assume more responsibility for their safety than those who posed the harm. It’s clicky-flicky below and well worth a read.

  • Anonymous

    You could be right. It’s certainly possible, maybe even probable. But rnall road histories tend to go from Romans through to 1550s or turnpike rntrusts. More indepth ones mention ‘King’s Highway’ legislation of rn1300s which stated that British roads had to be cleared of undergrowth rnto prevent hiding places for robbers.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the reply. TBH I had thought the Normans had installed some routes after the 1066 invasion to ease the mobility of their soldiers but I guess I misunderstood the history.

  • Anonymous

    Romans get a lot of good press about roads – they certainly took the rnsurfacing to a high art, although not every road was to the same rnstandard – but it’s not always appreciated that many of the routes rnthey took were already in existence. Some routes were transhumance (ie rnanimal migration routes) in nature but adapted by early man. Neolithic rnand mesolithic man were not confined to ‘Ridgeways’, they had cleared rnmost of the trees from low-lying valleys long before most people assume.rnrnNormans did very little road building. Castles, yes, roads, no.rnrnBiggest road builders after Romans were turnpike trusts of 18th rnCentury, and enclosure awards – which often required making of new rnroads (the wiggly ones that go around fields and look very odd today rnwhen you consider no hill to go around, so why wiggly?).rnrnCyclists pushed for better surfaced roads from 1886 onwards, with rncreation of Road Improvements Association. This was created by rnforerunner of British Cycling, and CTC. RIA produced pamplets etc for rnthe new role of County Surveyor but RIA had no major impact until CTC rnboard member Rees Jeffreys came along and made RIA into an org that rnpressed politicians to make better roads. This had an impact, esp when rnmotoring came along and all the toffs wanted better roads.rnrnSo, cyclists paved the way, you could say, for better roads. Motor- rnspecific roads ie motorways were proposed by Rees Jeffreys pre-WWI but rnAA, RAC and the trade bodies couldn’t work together and they actually rndefeated a parliamentary bill for ‘motorways’, 30+ years before the rnfirst one was actually built.rnrnThe Road Fund was effectively wound up in 1926 and paid for a tiny rnfraction of new build roads. All of the later ‘motoring’ roads, like rntrunk roads etc, were built after the demise of the Road Fund, with rnall the monies coming not from motorists but from general taxation.rnrnMotorists paid directly for just a few miles of two roads (I’m going rnto do a story on which two roads later); every other road, including rnmotorways, built from general taxation. The public highway is just rnthat: public. Roads are for all, not just motorists.

  • Anonymous

    I often mention the Romans, even the Normans, when talking to work colleages about roads. There are several large roads in Southampton that have been here for centuries, yet many drivers assume (even cyclists infact) that it was the motorcar that lead to said route, forgetting the ancient history and links between many villages and towns.

  • Pingback: Kylie Batt

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/downfader2 Downfader

    I often mention the Romans, even the Normans, when talking to work colleages about roads. There are several large roads in Southampton that have been here for centuries, yet many drivers assume (even cyclists infact) that it was the motorcar that lead to said route, forgetting the ancient history and links between many villages and towns.

  • http://www.quickrelease.tv carltonreid

    Romans get a lot of good press about roads – they certainly took the
    surfacing to a high art, although not every road was to the same
    standard – but it's not always appreciated that many of the routes
    they took were already in existence. Some routes were transhumance (ie
    animal migration routes) in nature but adapted by early man. Neolithic
    and mesolithic man were not confined to 'Ridgeways', they had cleared
    most of the trees from low-lying valleys long before most people assume.

    Normans did very little road building. Castles, yes, roads, no.

    Biggest road builders after Romans were turnpike trusts of 18th
    Century, and enclosure awards – which often required making of new
    roads (the wiggly ones that go around fields and look very odd today
    when you consider no hill to go around, so why wiggly?).

    Cyclists pushed for better surfaced roads from 1886 onwards, with
    creation of Road Improvements Association. This was created by
    forerunner of British Cycling, and CTC. RIA produced pamplets etc for
    the new role of County Surveyor but RIA had no major impact until CTC
    board member Rees Jeffreys came along and made RIA into an org that
    pressed politicians to make better roads. This had an impact, esp when
    motoring came along and all the toffs wanted better roads.

    So, cyclists paved the way, you could say, for better roads. Motor-
    specific roads ie motorways were proposed by Rees Jeffreys pre-WWI but
    AA, RAC and the trade bodies couldn't work together and they actually
    defeated a parliamentary bill for 'motorways', 30+ years before the
    first one was actually built.

    The Road Fund was effectively wound up in 1926 and paid for a tiny
    fraction of new build roads. All of the later 'motoring' roads, like
    trunk roads etc, were built after the demise of the Road Fund, with
    all the monies coming not from motorists but from general taxation.

    Motorists paid directly for just a few miles of two roads (I'm going
    to do a story on which two roads later); every other road, including
    motorways, built from general taxation. The public highway is just
    that: public. Roads are for all, not just motorists.

  • Downfader

    Thanks for the reply. TBH I had thought the Normans had installed some routes after the 1066 invasion to ease the mobility of their soldiers but I guess I misunderstood the history.

  • http://www.quickrelease.tv carltonreid

    You could be right. It's certainly possible, maybe even probable. But
    all road histories tend to go from Romans through to 1550s or turnpike
    trusts. More indepth ones mention 'King's Highway' legislation of
    1300s which stated that British roads had to be cleared of undergrowth
    to prevent hiding places for robbers.

  • Downfader

    Thanks for the reply. TBH I had thought the Normans had installed some routes after the 1066 invasion to ease the mobility of their soldiers but I guess I misunderstood the history.

  • http://www.quickrelease.tv carltonreid

    You could be right. It’s certainly possible, maybe even probable. But rnall road histories tend to go from Romans through to 1550s or turnpike rntrusts. More indepth ones mention ‘King’s Highway’ legislation of rn1300s which stated that British roads had to be cleared of undergrowth rnto prevent hiding places for robbers.

  • Pingback: Never mind the length, feel the width – I Pay Road Tax

  • Pingback: Roadies should be stay-at-homeies, says doc – I Pay Road Tax