The Cyclists Behind the Good Roads Movement

The improvements made to highways are normally assumed to have been started by motorists. This assumption is mistaken. It was actually cyclists who wanted roads improved in America.

Good Roads Movement

Wealthy cyclists created an influential highways campaign in the 1880s, which marked the beginning of the Good Roads Movement.

Photo by Fotolia/magann

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Contrary to popular belief, it was not motorists who advocated for paved roads in the United States. In Roads Were Not Built for Cars (Red Kite Publishing, 2014), Carlton Reid shows how cyclists were the first to push for well-paved roads and were also the pioneers of early motor cars. This excerpt, which tells how well-paved roads came to be in America during the late nineteenth century, is from Chapter 1, “When Two Tribes Were One.”

Many country roads in the 19th century were rutted in winter, dust-bowls in the summer and churned with deep mud at most other times. Urban areas fared better, with macadam roads capped with layers of dust-bound crushed stone. Major thoroughfares in cities were often topped not with setts – don’t call ‘em cobbles – but with wood. In 1871, Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., “America’s Main Street,” was laid with hardwoods. Five years later some of the wood blocks were lifted, and a thin asphalte

strip laid in their place. This was a test of a tar-and-gravel mix patented by a Civil War cavalry general who had been inspired by a Belgian scientist’s mountain-sourced French bitumen. In effect, this was America’s first bike path. Asphalte roads spread through the city – there were 45 miles of them by 1882. The District of Columbia’s asphalte roads formed a “wheelman’s paradise,” said Bicycling World. A writer in 1889 asked: “How is it possible for a man or woman to get along in that city of magnificent surfaces without a cycle of some kind?”

Cyclists may have loved the pioneer blacktop, but it soon rippled and popped, and within a decade the asphalte roads had been grubbed up; the perfect road surface was still some years away. However, Gilded Age cyclists had seen the future – a future of hard, smooth roads. In the late 1880s the pushiest of these well-heeled cyclists created an influential highways improvement campaign. The Good Roads movement would go on to achieve much of what it wanted: Federal funding for roads, a national plan, and the start of the world-reshaping American highway system. The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 was signed by President Woodrow Wilson. When a law professor, Wilson had spent much time in Europe, touring on his bicycle. The roads of France and England were far superior to the ones in America and Wilson became an advocate of Good Roads, an interest he kept as he became a motorist. By his side at the signing of the Federal Aid Road Act was Amos G. Batchelder, Executive Secretary of the American Automobile Association. By 1916, the Good Roads movement was no longer led by bicycle riders, but by motorists. However, Batchelder had first been a cycling official. A member of the League of American Wheelmen since 1888 he had been the L.A.W.’s official handicapper, and was also chairman of the National Cycling Association’s racing board. A great many other motoring officials, journalists, promoters, and manufacturers had also been heavily involved in cycling but in 1916 cycling’s contribution to the improvement of America’s highways was becoming obscured, partly by design.

The hiding was so successful that, by 1927, the Ford Motor Company could boldly claim that the “Ford car … started the movement for good roads.” The record was set straight in 2011 by Suzanne Fischer, curator of The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan. “It might surprise you,” she said, in a video, “but it wasn’t car owners that first demanded better roads – it was bicycle riders.”

Cyclists' Demand for Good Roads

That it was bicyclists who first pushed for improved highways is today surprising, but it was clear and obvious in the 1890s. “The bicycle has done more for good roads, and will do more for good roads in the future, than any other form of vehicle,” remarked Brooklyn’s Mayor in 1896. An American newspaper said in 1899 that the reason bicyclists were “such advocates of good roads is that, having to furnish the motive power by the use of their own muscles, they learn at once what a mighty difference there is in the energy required to move the same load on a smooth, hard road or an uneven and muddy one.” Another newspaper, in the same year, stated that cyclists had at first been despised because many thought they were demanding “that others should, without cost to him, smooth the roads that he alone might have more pleasure.” When faced with rough or muddy highways, American farmers had acquiesced: “For years the farmer drives behind his horse with many a bumpety-bump, and the horse became stalled without ever swearing about it or writing a long protest to the county paper.”

Cyclists, on the other hand, didn’t keep quiet: “Here were people who could swear and write, pushing their vehicles by main strength on wretched paths when a [smooth] street … permitted them to glide along almost without effort.”

Spreading the “Gospel of Good Roads,” cyclists cajoled, leafleted and sued, and flexed their political muscles. The campaigning continued when these moneyed cyclists morphed into motorists. Motoring pioneers were successful at – finally! – getting roads improved because they either benefited from the earlier lobbying work of cyclists or, just as likely, had started to lobby for Good Roads when, back in the day, they were cyclists. 

Cycling’s role in highway history started to be obscured when cycling became proletarian and when, even though cyclists were still the overwhelming majority on the roads, most of the money spent on highways was devoted to the needs of motorists alone. Motoring was modern; motoring was thrusting; motoring, thought almost everybody, was the future.

The critical part the bicycle played in the history of roads, automobiles, technology and, indeed, of society was played down because propulsion by anything other than motors was deemed old-fashioned. Pedalling became passé. “People may be divided into those who possess cars and those who want to possess them,” chided aeronautical and automotive designer Sir Dennistoun Burney in 1931. Bicycles, went the slur, were “relics from the 19th century” (as though automobiles weren’t).

In the 1890s there was a cross-over period when there was no dominant mode of transport in the cities of Britain, America and most other countries, too. Pedestrians, cyclists, equestrians and motorists, all shared the usually ill-defined roads. Add to the mix trams and omnibuses – both originally pulled by horses, later by motors – and the answer, as period films show, looks chaotic to modern eyes. A 35-minute 1906 film of San Francisco, shot from a moving trolley-car, shows pedestrians and cyclists darting hither and thither between motor cars, horse-pulled omnibuses and hand-pulled carts. Motor cars drifted between slower-moving vehicles. The large number of motor cars in the film is often said to point to early automobile domination of San Francisco’s streets when, in fact, the same cars keep doubling back to appear multiple times in the film, a deliberate ploy by the film-makers. One of the motor cars appears ten times in the space of one and a half miles.

The film shows peaceful co-existence between the different road users. Motorists had not yet succeeded in using speed and power to claim road space as theirs alone. Roads were transport conduits, but they were also still linear parks, brimming with life, not the roads we know today – sterile, mono-use and largely personality-free.

Want to read more about roads and cyclists? Read Territorial Space on Public Highways: Who Owns the Roads? to learn why humans view roads as a personal space instead of a public one. 


Reprinted with permission from Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads and Became the Pioneers of Motoring, by Carlton Reid and published by Red Kite Publishing, 2014.