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).


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.


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.