“Roads Were Not Built For Cars”, by Carlton Reid: A Review

It’s been a while coming, heralded by regular progress updates and advance extracts from the author, but here we are: 2014 saw the publication (in a variety of formats and eventually to be available free in extracts) of Carlton Reid’s magnum opus. Has the advance publicity by the author been justified?Yes, it has.

It is indeed packed full of references, anecdote, social history, facts and illustrations of interest to anyone concerned about the status of different forms of road transport. I could have done with reference to the work of John Adams, the 1990s Road Danger Reduction movement and, yes, my book, but you can’t have everything – particularly if you have a packed 300+ pages to start off with. This book is a lot more than a dry history of road building with a focus on the 20th century: it fascinates with a steady stream of revelatory contemporary views on who those roads were for. As such it is, above all, a contribution to the debates we should be having now on transport policy.

Take the example of segregation as the answer to the problems for cyclists. Carlton Reid shows that the pre-war attempts at cyclist segregation in the UK were far from the boon you might think from considering many modern advocates. The views of the cycling organisations at the time were justifiably sceptical or hostile not just because of the poor quality of the cycle tracks, or even the danger as cyclists were at increased risk when dumped into motor traffic at junctions. They realised that the official view was essentially one of cyclists being a problem to be marginalised, not least as revealed in the 1938 Alness Commission.

As such they were rightly suspicious of what would befall cyclists not just where the inadequate and dangerous new tracks were proposed, but elsewhere as well. After all, segregation elsewhere had been very obviously to the detriment of cyclists. In the most car-centred society in the world (with the possible exception of the USA), Nazi Germany, use of inferior cycle paths was mandatory for cyclists and part of a clearly anti-cycling agenda (p.253).

What numerous examples like this show is how, above all, roads are about the rights, freedom and power of different kinds of road user.  The discussion is therefore highly political: both in terms of the power exercised by different kinds of road user and the governments that support or undermine them.

And for the author, this has been a motivating factor in writing the book,  not least over the “I pay a tax for the road” mythology espoused by too many motorists. It is not only justifiable, but necessary, to counter this mythology. I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that this mythology impedes the possibilities of having a sustainable transport policy. It supports subsidising motoring – as well as road building for more motor traffic – at a time of austerity. It backs up a sense of motorist entitlement which facilitates rule- and law-breaking driving and threatens the safety of cyclists, as well as being a part of abuse and discrimination.

So Carlton Reid is a man with a justifiably righteous mission: showing motorists that roads were in fact not built for them and that they ought to realise that cyclists were there first.

My problem is: is that approach actually going to deal with the anti-cycling prejudice and motorist sense of entitlement? After all, any old bigot can say that even if roads were built for cyclists they just think they should now be there for motorists (in general and themselves in particular). After all, what does the fact that roads were not built for cars actually mean?

Carlton seems to me to be overly optimistic in hoping that this history will win over the Great British Motorist. Indeed, he goes a lot further by pushing the story of – as the subtitle states: How cyclists were the first to push for good roads and became the pioneers of motoring. Are cyclists supposed to be proud of this? Does it have a useful and positive relevance to the struggles ahead?

What it does achieve is a Foreword from the President of the Automobile Association, Mr King. In it he suggests that “It would be healthy for some of the Mr. Toads out there to read this book…” but getting some of the most bigoted to read a book isn’t going to make much, if any, positive difference. And King wants to tell us that “Motorists and cyclists are not two tribes” and that “Car v Cycle arguments” should be demolished. But this “We’re all in it together” type of argument will not get us further in the right direction.

In fact, it confuses the issue. Many cyclists (but by no means all) are indeed also motorists. But that tends to obscure the fact that when driving they are far more likely to endanger others on the road, as well as damage the global and local environment and have an adverse effect on public health. My view is that we need to emphasise that fact. Indeed “Car v. cycle arguments” which show that the former mode is far more of a problem to society than the latter are exactly what we need.

Take the key example of the “road tax” myth. In my view it is not enough to talk about when a specific “Road Tax” was abolished and what Vehicle Excise Duty is. More robust arguments are needed. I have tried to show how costs of motoring have fallen and that driving is subsidised.  There are dangerous pitfalls with cost benefit analysis, but if Edmund King could suggest to his members that motorists – compared to cyclists – do not pay their way we could get somewhere. There is nothing to suggest that he is going to object to the declining costs (to the motorist, that is) of motoring.

Nor is he likely to take a robust approach to law enforcement (too much of that and you start losing members of the AA). Or of the cuts in highway capacity for drivers that would be required if modern segregation for cyclists (unlike the 1930s type) is to work well; or the change in enforcement and culture to reduce danger from drivers to cyclists where there is no segregation.

Carlton Reid provides us with a splendid illustration of how the dominance of the motor vehicle has developed over a short period of time: the implication is that a more civilised and equitable relationship with the more benign forms of transport and the environment can obtain. The issue is how to make this happen.


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