The first bike path in England was built in 1934, a two and a quarter mile stretch of uneven concrete from Hangar Lane to Greenford Road in Ealing, London, kept separate from, but adjoining, Western Avenue. A cinema news snippet from British Pathé said the Western Avenue cycle track was “a new safety innovation” and that “motorist users of the road will be equally appreciative of this new boon.” A large crowd witnessed Leslie Hore-Belisha, the new Minister of Transport, cutting the ribbon officially opening the experimental “cycling track.” (The dedicated track disappeared years ago and cyclists, where provided for at all on this stretch of the A40, are expected to share the slim footway with pedestrians).
At the opening, Hore-Belisha said the cycle track, created at the behest of the previous Minister of Transport, was for the “comfort and safety” of cyclists. Hore-Belisha was no fan of cycling: he believed cyclists were “the most dangerous people on the roads today” and, in parliament, when Viscountess Astor asked whether a “system could be devised to prohibit pedal cycling in very crowded areas?” he answered “I quite appreciate her humanity of view.” Opposition to the Western Avenue path came from both the Cyclists’ Touring Club and the National Cyclists’ Union, forerunner to the British Cycling Federation. The Perils of the Cycle Path, a CTC leaflet from 1935, made it plain that cyclists did not want to be fobbed off with sub-standard bike paths and feared being compelled to use them. Hore-Belisha described cyclists as “hysterical prima donnas.”
Lord Newton described cyclists as “the chartered libertines of the road” because “they are not taxed, they are not registered, they are not numbered and…they are not even obliged to ride on the tracks which are specially provided for them.”
These “specially provided tracks” were a poor substitute for the roads cyclists were used to riding on. Even one of the designers wasn’t a fan. Eric Claxton, then a junior engineer in the Ministry of Transport, was an everyday, practical cyclist not a racing or touring cyclist. In 1992 he said the cycle tracks he worked on in London were sub-standard. “As a cyclist they gave me no satisfaction,” he admitted.
“They were too narrow. They were made of concrete and suffered from either cracking or construction joints. They provided protection where the carriageway was safe but discharged the cyclists into the maelstrom of main traffic where the system was most dangerous. For me worst of all the tracks were uni-directional either side of the dual carriageways; thus if for any reason one needed to retrace one’s way, one was compelled to run the gauntlet of crossing the streams of traffic on both carriageways to return on the far side – woe betide the person who left money, keys, books, tools or even lunch behind.”
But it wasn’t just cyclists who thought the 8ft6in wide path on Western Avenue disjointed and bumpy. The AA, the RAC, the police, and many others, also said the experimental bike path was poorly executed. Better ones should be provided, were “segregation” to be compelled by law, the Alness parliamentary committee was told and when the Alness report was published one of the chief recommendations was that cyclists should be provided with wide, well-surfaced cycle tracks, separated from fast-moving motor vehicles.
Despite CTC and NCU opposition to the uneven Western Avenue cycle track, often crowded with pedestrians, the Ministry of Transport ordered more cycle tracks to be built in the five years that followed. By 1938 forty-five miles of new arterial roads had bike paths running beside them, with a further sixty-eight miles “under construction.” England’s bike path network was growing and, with 60 percent Ministry of Transport funding, likely to grow further. The Alness report recommended that building of a fully segregated transport network should be accelerated, with cyclists and pedestrians given protected slices of the newly minted highways. This protection was mooted in order to reduce the startlingly high death-toll on the roads. A death toll that JS Dean, chair of the Pedestrians’ Association, later described as ‘Murder Most Foul’. The House of Lords committee, chaired by Lord Alness, published its findings in March 1939; in September war was declared. The construction of a national network of ‘cycle tracks’ was halted.Post-war austerity prevented the resurrection of the plans. Not that there was much to resurrect. Bike paths built in the early 1930s – like many of those of today – were often poorly surfaced, used also by pedestrians, didn’t form a usable network and cyclists had to give way frequently, interruptions that increased as more and more housing and industrial developments took place beside the new arterial roads. Expensive clover-leaf intersections for motorists could be designed and budgeted for but similar intersections for cyclists would be “impossible” or “too costly”, town planners told the six peers on the Alness select committee. (The AA submitted plans to the Alness committee which had underpasses and other bike path features the like of which only started to become commonplace in the Netherlands from the 1970s). In evidence given to the committee, witness after witness – from surveyors to arch motorists – attested to the dire nature of England’s experimental bike paths but, apart from cyclist witnesses, most wanted cyclists to be forced to use the paths.
The peers on the committee – the Earls of Iddesleigh and Birkenhead, and Lord Brocket, Lord Rushcliffe, Lord Addison and Lord Alness – made frequent mentions of their love of motoring when questioning witnesses, a bias not lost on interested parties. In a parliamentary debate welcoming the Alness report Lord Sandhurst said:
“…the editor of Cycling finds it necessary to invent a new body of your Lordships’ House, which he calls the Peers Road Council. Having invented it, he then elects four members of the Select Committee to it — the noble Lords, Lord Reading, Lord Iddesleigh, Lord Birkenhead, and Lord Brocket — and then, having described them as keen motorists, he says, “Let us see what this Committee recommends for cyclists.” What is the idea? Obviously they are trying to get at their not too well educated public and suggest that this is such a biased Committee that no attention need be paid to their recommendations.”
The motoring bias of the report is obvious today as it was obvious then. Motoring organisations and motoring magazines were very much in favour of almost all of the 281 recommendations in the Alness report. In April 1939 an editorial in Commercial Motor described the report as “the finest of its sort that has ever appeared” and liked its victim-blaming approach:
“The case for the fair-minded motor driver has been put forward admirably. There is little need to read between the lines to appreciate that the Committee is fully aware how the good driver is constantly “nursing” the careless pedestrian and, often, the cyclist….Exception is taken to “a popular fallacy . . that the motor driver, being in control of ‘what is sometimes termed a lethal weapon, is usually to blame when an accident occurs.” This is a destructive attitude, whilst the Report throughout is constructive. Its compilers obviously realize that progress, represented by fast road transport, is desirable, that the change of conditions following in its train must be accepted, that the mode of life of the people must be modified in accordance and adapted to the new conditions, and not that progress should be checked in order that that mode of life may remain unaltered.”
As can be seen in the 662-page transcript of the evidence given to the committee (see below), there was palpable excitement from the peers at the prospect of German-style autobahns being built in Britain – free of cyclists, pedestrians and animals – and frustration when cyclist and pedestrian groups said they weren’t too keen on ordinary roads being made into “race tracks for motors”. Lord Brocket didn’t fancy being forced to drive at a certain speed: “I drive a lot and I must admit that I regard the speed [limiting] device as being very dangerous.”
Lord Alness asked almost every witness about England’s “experimental” bike paths, especially ones beside London roads he knew well, the Western Avenue and the Great West Road.
London’s Great West Road was built, in stages, from 1920 and between 1936 and 1937 stretches were made into a dual carriageway, with two 23-foot carriageways and a 9-foot ‘cycle track’ at the edges, both sides of the road. According to the Ministry of Transport only half of the cyclists on the Great West Road used the cycle track. Why? The track was “inferior”, said the police. The surface was poor and many pedestrians used both the footway and the cycle path.
The Ministry of Transport had specified that the minimum width of a cycle track should be 9ft. Planners routinely ignored this and, when road widenings took place, they nibbled away at the space given over to cyclists and pedestrians. Wide, well-surfaced bike paths – such as the one above, beside Chertsey Road, a bypass of Twickenham or this concrete 1930s bike path at Neville’s Cross, near Durham – were usually narrowed to make more room for motor vehicles. This was despite the fact there were many more cyclists than motorists on Britain’s roads at the time. Cycling was booming. Six million more people had taken to riding bikes since 1928. This fact “staggered” Lord Alness. Cyclists were largely “proletarian”, said one Lord in the debate launching the Alness report of 1939, and were not deemed to be as valuable to the economy – or the war effort – as motorists. (In the 1930s the motor industry was especially cosseted because it was expected that car production would be shifted to military vehicle production; bicycle factories, such as the Raleigh plant, were also converted for armaments production but Sturmey Archer gears couldn’t power tanks. And, roads, unlike the railways, couldn’t be brought to a standstill by powerful unions).
In evidence given to the Alness committee, the Cyclists’ Touring Club stressed that its main objection was to the quality of bike paths and not just the principle of being able to continue riding on the carriageway, the hard-won right of cyclists since 1888. The CTC feared that legislation would be brought in that would make it compulsory to use cycle paths even before a useable network of cycle paths had been built, and that going by the poor provision of paths in the previous five years, there was little likelihood that the paths of the future would be of a decent quality.
George Herbert Stancer, secretary of the CTC, said:
“If the paths are by any miracle to be made of such width and quality as to be equal to our present road system, it would not be necessary to pass any laws to compel cyclists to use them; the cyclists would use them.”
The Earl of Iddesleigh asked: “You think that the cyclist is being offered an inferior article?”
Stancer was certain of it: “A very much inferior article, my Lord.”
Later, the Marquess of Reading said “we are endeavouring not to oppress but to protect [cyclists].”The Alness Report was published in March 1939. It was heavily biased towards motorists. The report made 231 recommendations, including that children of ten and under should be banned from public cycling, and that segregation on the roads should be carried out with utmost urgency. Cyclists, said the report, should get high-quality wide cycle tracks and that, once built, cyclists should be forced to use them. Pedestrians were also to be corralled and fined for daring to cross the road at points other than designated crossing points. Motorists, decided the motoring Lords, should be treated with a light touch by the law and should be provided with motorways and many more trunk roads. “Courtesy cops” would make sure motorists acted like gentlemen rather than cads.
Then war intervened. The Alness report – derided by a Labour MP as a “tale of deaths and manglings…and extraordinary conclusions” – was moth-balled. After the war a House of Commons select committee dusted it down. In a parliamentary discussion of the dusted-down report Lord Sandhurst remarked:
“One of the bugbears of cycle tracks in this country, and one of the things that keep cyclists off them, is that tracks are continually crossing drives into houses. The track suddenly dips, almost bumping the cyclist out of his seat; then it rises on the other side, and throws him into the air. When the Swedes come across a thing like that, they take the cycle track, away from the road altogether, to the back of the house. When they come to a steep hill they run the cycle track round it, and do not ask the cyclist to sweat and push his way to the top.”
Many of the Alness report recommendations were taken forward, especially the pro-motoring bits, but, for a while at least, there would be no new roads and certainly no provision of bike paths. Post-war austerity killed off putative plans for a national network of cycle tracks. But while there would be no building of bike paths, post-war politicians were still urged to get cyclists off the roads “for their own safety”, even though cyclists were still by far the most numerous actors on the roads, probably because cyclists were the most numerous actors on the roads. Faced with calls to take action, politicians did what they often do best: they did nothing. Cyclists, en masse, were still a force to be reckoned with. It was easy for politicians to pick a fight with the CTC or NCU, these organisations were tiny compared to the rich motoring organisations, but to impose restrictions on all of the country’s 12 million cyclists would have been folly. (One of the witnesses to the select committee said as much: “[Cyclists] ought to be forced to use [tracks]. The only reason they escape is because there are so many of them. There is a vague idea on the part of Governments that they would lose the cyclists’ vote,” claimed Lord Newton who repeated the claim when the report was published: “[cyclists] form a very formidable body, of which all Party politicians are very much afraid. That is the sole reason why they have not been regulated up to now, and I hope sincerely that that state of things will come to an end.”)
By not banning cyclists from the road, as so many organisations demanded, politicians avoided antagonising cyclists. By building faster roads with no cycle facilities on them it was motors which did the antagonising, not politicians. 1949 was to be the peak year for cycling in Britain. In the 1950s the increasing numbers of motor cars slowly forced cyclists off many roads, and not just the arterial ones.
Motorways – roads long championed by the CTC as a means of removing fast-moving traffic from the ordinary roads of Britain – started to be built at the end of the 1950s but it was well into the 1960s before motorway-mania took hold, with many trunk roads also being built or old roads widened, straightened and made less friendly for cyclists. None of the new arterial roads had cycle paths built beside them.
While cyclists were largely forgotten by town planners in the 1950s there were exceptions: new towns Stevenage, Harlow and Milton Keynes were veined with bike paths. (Stony Stratford, just north of what would become the new town of Milton Keynes, was one of the other locations where bike paths were first trialled. A one mile cycle track had been laid on the Stony Stratford to Wolverton Road in 1934-5, it’s now a footpath.) Workers who lived in Jarrow and Wallsend were provided with the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels, a wonderful piece of capital-intensive, protected infrastructure, still in use today. The tunnel was opened in 1951, sixteen years before the motor vehicle tunnel. At its peak, 20,000 cyclists and pedestrians used the tunnel each day.
Elsewhere in the UK, provision for cyclists was non-existent. Writing in 1958, Professor Sir Colin Buchanan, one of Britain’s key town planners and traffic engineers, said:
“The meagre efforts made to separate cyclists from motor traffic have failed, tracks are inadequate, the problem of treating them at junctions and intersections is completely unsolved, and the attitude of the cyclists themselves to these admittedly unsatisfactory tracks has not been as helpful as it might have been.”
Some bicycle advocates have suggested it was opposition of cycling organisations to the cycle path experiments of the 1930s that prevented national take-up of these paths. If only CTC and the NCU had supported the Western Avenue experiment, a Dutch-style cycle network might have later evolved, is the claim. In actual fact, cycling organisations had little to do with the failure of the bike path network. Ordinary cyclists didn’t use the paths because they weren’t very good paths, and post-war austerity meant no new paths were built, nor were existing ones improved to the standard that CTC and NCU said would be required. As well as the lack of investment from local and national Government there was also a lack of willingness to provide for anything other than motor-cars: post-war politicians and planners were deeply dismissive of cycling, blinded by the economic potential of mass motoring. Cycling, it was felt, was outmoded, not suited for the modern era, a motor era. And the great British public seemed to agree: people wanted to own and drive cars.
The highly-influential Traffic in Towns report of 1963 – the report by Professor Buchanan which town planners used to create urban motorways and pedestrian zones separated from motor traffic – mentioned cyclists only in passing, and clearly believed, desired even, that urban cycling would soon wither to nothing:
“We also considered the question of cyclists. Although in the mode of travel diagram for the year 2010 there is an allocation of movements to pedal cycles, it must be admitted that it is a moot point how many cyclists there will be in 2010…[This] does affect the kind of roads to be provided. On this point we have no doubt at all that cyclists should not be admitted to primary networks, for obvious reasons of safety and the free flow of vehicular traffic. It would make the design of these roads far too complicated to build ‘cycle tracks’ into them, nor would this be likely to provide routes convenient for cyclists in any case. It would be very expensive, and probably impracticable, to build a completely separate system of tracks for cyclists.”
Post-war austerity froze many of the recommendations in the Alness report of 1939, including the provision of bike paths, but post-war austerity couldn’t be blamed for the total lack of interest in bike paths in the 1950s and beyond. Mass motoring was the real culprit. Buchanan’s Traffic in Towns wasn’t just influential in Britain. In the Netherlands – a country with a strong history of cycling, where national identity was tied up with cycling – the Buchanan report (commissioned by transport minister Ernest Marples, a touring cyclist and CTC member) inspired town planners to reign back the car in residential streets. While in the UK Buchanan’s ideas were used to construct flyovers, in the Netherlands he inspired ‘residential yards’, the famous ‘woonerf’ of Niek De Boer, professor of urban planning at Delft University of Technology and the University of Emmen. Traffic engineers in the Netherlands tamed the car (and improved the bike path network); traffic engineers in the UK designed only for the car.
The long and detailed evidence below is but just short extracts from far longer witness statements contained in a 662-page appendix to the Report by the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Prevention of Road Accidents, more commonly known as the Alness Report. I’d urge you to read the material below, it has ossified a five year period when bike paths started being built in England and shows that while the AA, the RAC, the Metropolitan police and many others were calling for an expansion of the bike path network, the cycling organisations remained wary but, were the “inferior” bike paths to be substantially improved, this wariness would turn into a welcome.
MINISTRY OF TRANSPORT
Mr Robinson from the Ministry of Transport said: “The number of cyclists is increasing, and has increased considerably in recent years. Unfortunately, cycle tracks are most needed in built-up areas where it is a physical impossibility to get the width without very large demolition of property.”
Lord Alness: “The cycle tracks of today, particularly the one on the Great West Road…are more or less useless, are they not?”
Major Cook, chief engineer, Ministry of Transport: “They are used by 50 percent of cycle traffic.”
Lord Alness: “In Germany, cycle tracks are not only more numerous and wider but are always observed by cyclists.”
Major Cook: “Cyclists are compelled by law in Germany to use the tracks.
Lord Alness: “Have you contemplated the possibility of attaching a penalty to the non-use of cycle tracks of due width, when constructed?”
Major Cook: “…that requires legislation.”
Lord Alness: “Which would not be unopposed I presume?”
Major Cook: “Which would not be unopposed.”
Edward Fryer, deputy secretary of the Automobile Association (an organisation with 680,000 members), gave evidence to the committee, admitting that “the only time I was ever fined for committing a road offence was for cycling on a pavement many years ago.”
Fryer: “The cycle tracks on the Great West Road are not only too narrow but they were too rough, they were too full of manholes, there were too many crossings where the cyclist had to go up and down….Our submission has been for many years that if special tracks are made, they should be of the right type, so as to attract the cyclist. The width of the cycle track should be 12ft…excepting where cycle tracks are provided for big works, 12ft would be insufficient…under the existing law, the cyclist and the pedestrian cannot be excluded from the King’s Highway.”
Lord Alness: “If the cycle track is there, and is of suitable dimensions, and the cyclist deliberately neglects to use it, and uses the carriage-way instead, would you favour the imposition of a penalty?
Fryer: “I think it must come.”
Fryer also went on to show a diagram of a road of the future which included Dutch-style cycle underpasses. “The [cyclist] would pass under the carriage-way, come up on to the bank and join the other cycle track which goes continuously along the arterial road.”
AA recommended the taking of 300ft for designing such roads, giving plenty of space for anticipated rise in motor traffic as well as protected tracks for cyclists and pedestrians. “You can get complete segregation of these three kinds of traffic…[but] it requires more land…more land than is the present policy of the Minister of Transport.”
“[Where] cycle tracks and footways are sometimes going over and sometimes going under, if you are going to continue to have those at a reasonable gradient, looking to the future, instead of being really steep, it does require this extra width for getting into the swing.”
Lord Alness: “A considerable time must elapse before all the road junctions in the country can be redesigned and reconstructed?”
Fryer: “We appreciate that.”
Lord Alness: “But if you are going to make it compulsory, you get the possible weekend time when between large towns you have droves of cyclists…”
Fryer: “[By] that time I hope that the extra provision of land by the side of the roads, and in certain cases even footpaths, may be used as cycle tracks…[so] the carriageway is left free for vehicular motor traffic.”
Sir Herbert Alker Tripp, assistant commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, gave evidence to the Alness committee on behalf of all police. He was heavily pro-motoring: “To safeguard [pedestrians] we should have our footways at first floor level in every street and with bridges between them. That would eliminate the pedestrian casualties entirely. In the same way with the pedal cyclists we should want separate tracks. If we had in London a layout designed for motor traffic only we could reduce the pedal cyclists casualties probably by 50 or 75 percent…”
Lord Alness: “Have you any suggestion to make with regard to any improvement to sanction with regard to conduct [of the motorist]?Tripp: “I have none. He has been the subject of regulation…over this period of years, and I do not think things can be carried very much further…Accidents are caused by encounters between the motorist on the one hand and the pedal cyclists on the other. We have at present a system of unilateral restriction on the driver, and the effect of unilateral restriction is inclined to cause the unrestricted party to be bolder and more arrogant, and I would not at the present moment advocate any further regulation with regard to the motor driver.”
The feeling at the time was that motor traffic had absolute priority on the roads and cyclists and pedestrians must be separated, and sanctions applied to any pedestrians or cyclists who get in the way of the more important users of the road, namely motorists.
Tripp: “The pedestrian has hitherto been entirely unregulated. The first step would have to be of a very easy character, namely to try and induce him to accustom himself to a rather more orderly movement in the road.”
For the pedestrian, this included being prevented from crossing roads with a railway-style crossing barrier:
Tripp: “[we ought to guard] pedestrians more certainly at crossings…by means of bars which will prevent them from crossing while the signal is against them. The Ministry are already experimenting on whether they can find an apparatus whereby when the signal turns against the pedestrian a bar will come across in front of him that will stop him from crossing. We are doing the same by physical means down in Whitechapel Road…We have bars which keep the pedestrians from going on to the crossings until the traffic is stopped and then they can cross in a body.”
ROYAL AUTOMOBILE CLUB
Professor Raymond Clements, chairman of the Roads and Traffic Committee of the RAC, and a member of a great many other technical committees, gave evidence to the Alness committee. He said the rise in number of private motor cars between 1928 and 1938 was an increase of 103 percent, from 884,645 to 1,798,105. On class 1 (busy) roads, a government traffic census showed an increase between 1931 and 1935 an increase of 34 percent in motor vehicle movements, and on class two roads, between 1929 and 1938 there was an increase of 55 percent in passenger vehicles.
Clements: “The census of pedal cycles is the most startling. The census taken on class 1 roads in 1935 shows the number of pedal cyclists recorded as 95 percent higher than in 1931. In the class 2 roads census taken in 1936, the aggregate number of pedal cycles enumerated at over 3000 comparable points was 10,123,000 compared with 5,343,000 in 1929.”
Lord Alness: “These are very arresting, if not staggering figures?”
Clements: “They are indeed, my Lord; those are the most impressive of all, I think.”
Lord Alness: “Have you seen the cycle track on [the Great West Road] bare while the highway is teeming with cyclists?”
Lord Alness: “Have you also seen in Germany where the cycle tracks have been fully used and where, on the roads, one rarely sees a cyclist? [historical note: use of cycle tracks in Germany had been made mandatory in 1926, an imposition extended a year after the Nazi party came to power in 1933, citing "the problem of disciplining cyclists" who did not use cycle tracks. During WWII cyclist use of cycle tracks in the Netherlands was made compulsory under Nazi occupation].
Clements: “I have that in mind…[On] Continental roads…where any facility exists even of a primitive and poor type…that track is made use of at once by the cyclist in preference to the carriageway…In Germany the tracks are being created under a highly organised system, quite as organised as the construction of the Autobahnen. There is a separate organisation responsible for constructing what are known as the Radfahrerweg-en (the cycle riders’ tracks) and in those cases they are making the track, not necessarily blindly paralleling the main road, but winding the track through the countryside, dissociated from the main road itself.”
Lord Alness: “Where the cycle track [in England] is of suitable width and construction, would you make use of it compulsory, subject to a penalty?”
Clements: “There is a certain difficulty in this connection owing to the fact that the cycle track which can be carried along parallel to the carriageway…does present a real problem at the road junction. And as at present devised, the cycle track is brought into the carriageway at the junction and, in fairness to the cyclist, the point should be made that at that particular point he is cast into the vortex at the critical point.”
Lord Alness: “But that is more or less mechanical or road engineering problem?”
Clements: “Yes; it almost at the moment, seems insuperable in the light of our present conception of the highway system.”
Lord Alness: “Would you put cycle tracks and footpaths along [the new] Great North Road?”
Clements: “I should prefer not to see the cycle track and the footpath added to that portion.
Lord Alness: “You think the cyclist would continue up the old Great North Road?
Clements: “I have the impression that he would prefer the old meandering road rather than he should be compelled by law or otherwise to use the motorway.”
Despite the fact there were 12 million cyclists at the time and 2 million motorists, the powers-that-be would only countenance spending money on motorists. Some 500 miles trunk roads and bypasses were built between 1925 and 1935 but only ten percent were equipped with cycle paths. Improving the roads for use by cyclists, too, was not seen as a priority by Governments of the day and motoring organisations were nevertheless keen to push for segregation of cyclists even when they acknowledged that provision would be patchy and far inferior to the infrastructure being built for the minority road user group, motorists.
BRITISH ROAD FEDERATION
Gresham Cooke, secretary of the British Road Federation, founded in 1932, gave evidence to the Alness committee.
Lord Howe: “Do you advocate, where it is possible, the construction of special cycle tracks?”
Cooke: “I certainly do, my Lord.”
Lord Howe: “Do you further advocate their compulsory use by cyclists?”
Cooke: “Yes, my Lord, certainly…I should like to see it made an offence where a cycle track exists and where it is in a proper state. There is a great deal of criticism of cycle tracks and the state in which they are, but where they exist, we certainly urge that it should be an offence not to use them.”
Lord Howe: “Do you happen to know whether this is so in Germany? One’s observation is that one almost never sees a cyclist on the highway, but always on the cycle track.”
Cooke: “Both in Germany and in Holland which is another densely trafficked country, where there seem to be many cycles per thousand of the population, you find everywhere that the cyclist keeps very closely to the cycle path, which is a far less satisfactory path than in this country.”
The British Road Federation, like other motoring organisations, was also keen to see registration of cyclists:
Cooke: “The registration of cyclists is a matter of urgency. The numbers are very large now, and are growing every year.”
Lord Howe: “That would aid their identification after an accident?”
Cooke: “Yes, my Lord.”
ROYAL AUTOMOBILE CLUB
Corris William Evans, solicitor, head of the legal department of the Royal Automobile Club, gave evidence to the Alness committee. He told the peers the RAC had 300,000 members.
Evans: “[The RAC seeks] the provision of cycle tracks. That, we feel has not been carried out to the extent it might have been. 6 feet [for cycle tracks] is probably insufficient on a heavily cycle trafficked road. [Compulsion should be enforced when the track is of] appropriate width and appropriate surface…[In rural areas] where footpaths are provided, and cycle tracks are provided and a roadway is provided, we have have found that the pedestrian, owing to the condition of the surface of the path, will walk on the cycle track and the cyclists will proceed along the carriageway.”
COMPANY OF VETERAN MOTORISTS
Admiral G. H. Borrett of the Company of Veteran Motorists gave evidence to the Alness committee. CVM was founded in 1931 and had 34,000 members. It was renamed the Guild of Experienced Motorists in 1983 and now, as GEM Motoring Assist, provides breakdown services to motorists.
Lord Howe: “Has your association formed a view about the necessity for codifying the law relating to the highway?”
Borrett: “The law is rather hard on motorists, and the other road users have very little law to contend with at all…The whole law against motor-cars started in the old days when only the rich had cars…But nowadays, the whole population is interested in motor traffic…We think that a certain amount of propaganda could be usefully used in making ordinary people who do not own motor-cars realise how much they owe to motor traffic.”
Lord Howe: “What about cycle tracks?
Borrett: “Cycle tracks, of course, are most desirable…They should be wide enough, and when there are sufficient of them we think they should be made compulsory.”
WARWICKSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL
D.H. Brown, County Surveyor of Warwickshire (“at the present time we are constructing the Coventry By-pass road…this comprises two 24ft dual carriageways…grass verges, cycle tracks on both sides, service carriageways 16ft wide and footpaths 8ft wide,”) gave evidence to the six peers.
Lord Alness: “What do you say about railings?”
Brown: “My view of the railings problem is that sufficient use is not made of it…I think we have to get a new mentality: not only that we are dealing with what is commonly called a road, but we are dealing with in effect, with an express railway track, with this obvious difference that a motorcar is not bound to rails, and it can vary its track on the road…Engineers look upon the highway as the whole width between the forecourt fences, i.e. the the outside boundary wall or the front wall of the houses. We do not draw a distinction like the cyclists do, that they are are driven off the highway if they are driven off the carriageway…Railings should be put beside footways…and the pedestrian should not stray on the carriageway but should be confined to his own section of the highway, in the same way that cyclists should be…The underlying idea is of segregation of the highway…We believe that the expense of putting [cycle] tracks down in a proper way – and they are of no use if they are not serviceable – is so great that the use of them when they are made should be compulsory…As engineers we cannot understand the attitude of the cyclist who will not ride on the special track provided…the cycle track is part of the highway.”
Now Living Streets, the Pedestrians’ Association was founded in 1929. The Pedestrians’ Association representative T.C. Foley told the peers the Association was in favour of speed limiters for cars, tougher sentences for law-breaking motorists “penalties are often ridiculously light”, and lower speed limits (“We think that 30mph is too high for built-up areas.”)
Lord Alness: “What is the view of your Association with regard to the provision of guard rails fencing the streets off mechanically from pedestrians?
Foley: “We feel the effect would be, if it was developed, an unreasonable infringement of the rights of the pedestrian and would impose serious inconvenience upon him, particularly as the traffic may be abnormally heavy along such roads for only a minor portion of the day.”
Lord Alness: “What about subways and bridges?”
Foley: “Subways and bridges could not, on the ground of expense, be erected at very frequent intervals and therefore the pedestrian would have to walk a long distance…If subways and bridges were put into general operation it would only confirm the view of the motorist that the public highway was a motor speed track…”
The judges rarely intervened to put an opposing view when interviewing motor lobby witnesses. There was no such hesitance for non-motor witnesses…
Lord Alness: “I am not sure that you are not making a little too much of the principle of inconvenience to the public and to the pedestrian in particular.”
Lord Brocket: “Regarding children on the road, I drive a car a good deal and I think that children and horses and dogs and hens and road users of that kind are more careful now than they were a few years ago.”
Foley: ‘Yes, I think that is true.”
MIDDLESEX COUNTY AUTOMOBILE CLUB
Lieut-Colonel J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon, was vice-chair of the Automobile Club and a motorist and a racing car driver since 1903. He was later appointed Minister of Transport, in October 1940. His views, given to parliament in 1934, on how everything and everybody should get out of the way of cars is perhaps instructive:
“It is true that 7000 people are killed in motor accidents, but it is not always going on like that. People are getting used to the new conditions… No doubt many of the old Members of the House will recollect the number of chickens we killed in the old days. We used to come back with the radiator stuffed with feathers. It was the same with dogs. Dogs get out of the way of motor cars nowadays and you never kill one. There is education even in the lower animals. These things will right themselves.”
Lord Alness: “Are you in favour of cycle tracks?”
Moore-Brabazon: “Yes, but I think you have to give them very good cycle tracks, you know. They are given very bad cycle tracks which make them jump all over the place.”
Lord Alness: “You would hardly blame a cyclist for failing to utilise the 6ft-wide cycle track on the Great North Road?”
Lord Alness: “Should use of these tracks be compulsory?”
Moore-Brabazon: “Yes, providing the track is a good one, I think it should be compulsory…I think what you have to do is to make the tracks so attractive as to attract the people automatically; then you could put the penalty on; but to force them on to something which is not good is very difficult.”
CYCLISTS’ TOURING CLUB
CTC was founded in 1878; it had 40,000 members in 1938; 1440 cyclists were killed in 1937. George Herbert Stancer and R. C. Shaw gave evidence for the Cyclists’ Touring Club at the Alness select committee. G.H. Stancer was secretary of the CTC and a long-time cycling journalist. In 1926, under the pen-name of ‘Robin Hood’, Stancer wrote in the CTC Gazette:
“Those of us who oppose the construction of cycle paths alongside English country roads firmly believe that any such paths would be inferior in quality to the roads, and would generally be neglected, on the ground that ‘anything will do for push-bikes'; that the presence of such paths would imply…that cyclists were banished from the carriage-way; that coroners, judges and jacks-in office everywhere would be inclined to censure a cyclist who was involved in an accident on the road when a path has been provided for him; and that in the end we should forfeit the rights that were won for us by the pioneers of the pastime in days gone by. All these fears may be groundless, but they will not be easily removed. The advocates of cycle paths, with few exceptions, are the most violent enemies of cyclists…”
Lord Alness: “I suppose your Association first began to function when the situation was very simple as compared to today?”
Stancer: “Yes. All traffic was very slow moving and when bicycles were introduced, they of course, for many years, were the fastest vehicles on the road. That is not the case at the present.”
Lord Alness: “And the accidents which did occur before the motor was introduced were due either to the condition of the road or the behaviour of road users?”
Stancer: “Exactly. We concerned ourselves considerably with the condition of the roads. Of course, 50 or 60 years ago roads were generally in bad condition and we devoted ourselves very largely to improving the condition of the roads…We did a great deal to improve the conduct of cyclists as far as we could…we regarded it as essential that he should put himself right with the community, he should show that he was not in any way a reckless or careless or incompetent road user and was not likely to do pedestrians generally the injury they seemed to fear. In that way in a very short time, in a few years, the cyclist did live down all the early animosity that his appearance had incurred.”
Lord Alness: “Your Association is, if I may say so, broad-minded enough to regard motor traffic as necessary and proper development?”
Stancer: “Yes, my Lord. Of course we have grown up with the motor movement and I think that during the whole of that period we have treated it with perhaps more tolerance than we have always received at the hands of the people who have been concerned with motoring.”
Lord Alness: “Is your Club in favour of the construction of motorways?
Stancer: “Yes, my Lord, we have been advocating that for many years.”
Lord Alness: “Is your Club in favour of the strict enforcement of the law against persons whose conduct may endanger…?
Stancer: “Yes, my Lord; our feeling is that the law as it exists today is…quite sufficient…if it were only enforced…the ordinary lay Magistrate is very much inclined to let his fellow motorist off much too lightly when they come before him.”
Lord Alness: “is your Club in favour of the provision of separate cycle tracks for cyclists?
Stancer: “No, my Lord, we are not. Our feeling is that cycle paths at the side of the road do not, in the present circumstances, and never can, provide the same facilities for enjoyable cycling as are provided by our present road system.”
Lord Alness: “I should have thought personally that it would be more enjoyable to cycle on the cycle track on the Great West Road than to cycle on the highway there?”
Stancer: “Those people who are not accustomed to cycling always tell me that and I think that it must be a general view…The fact of it is that the existing experiments in the construction of cycle paths are, I think, most unsatisfactory and they have created a bad impression amongst cyclists.”
Lord Alness: “Assume the track was adequate in dimensions, in breadth, as in Germany, 9ft let us say, and its surface was good, do you not approve of the experiment at least being made?
Stancer: “The difficulty is not so much a matter of width or surface. It would be essential to provide a sufficiently wide track and most of the tracks we have knowledge at present are too narrow and the surface is very unsatisfactory. On most of them even if we had a sufficient width and an excellent surface there is still the disadvantage that the track by the side of the road is constantly being interrupted and broken by the passage of other tracks coming from houses or whatever it may be. Every time there is a private house with a garage or there is a filling station or there is a way into a field or way into a shop…everything has to come across the cycle path; so that while on the carriageway you get a perfectly straight, smooth, unbroken, uninterrupted course for whatever vehicle is using it, the cyclist has always got something coming across.”
Lord Alness: “But he is not submitted to the same dangers as when he is cycling on the highway on the Great West Road?
Stancer: “No, my Lord. My suggestion is that those dangers ought to be removed.”
Lord Alness: “Is that not a counsel of perfection? The removal of the dangers seems rather idealistic?
Stancer: “The other alternative seems to be a counsel of despair: “The law is powerless to preserve you on the road now; you must get off the road.” That is roughly what it comes to.”
Lord Alness: “The disadvantages which you have been enumerating are not necessarily deep-seated or irremovable. I am merely asking you about the principle of the thing and as I gather, you are against the provision of the cycle track, however good, in principle?”
Stancer: “In principle, yes my Lord, but may I say that there really is nothing very new in cycle paths. They have been in existence for at least 40 years in France on quite a wide scale, and in many other countries of Europe…In days gone by the roads of France were very bad…and cyclists agitated for the construction of paths so they could escape the very poor quality of the road. In this country…our roads are excellent for cycling.”
The six Lords were so disappointed with the answers from the Cyclists’ Touring Club they recalled the witnesses to give evidence again, five days after their first appearance. After much discussion about the taxation and registering of cyclists, and the placing of rear red lights on bicycles, Lord Brocket asked:
“Then you consider that cyclists and motorists have an equal right to the road?”
Lord Brocket: “But you realise that motorists pay for the upkeep of the roads to a certain extent?
Stancer: “I realise that they frequently say so but in point of fact the main costs of the roads is borne by the ratepayers, and the ratepayers include cyclists. I know to my cost that I pay an enormously large sum in rates for the use of roads which have been rendered much more costly by the requirements of motorists. Pedestrians and cyclists…are paying excessively for the provision of roads which are mainly intended for the use of motorists…It is unfair to say motorists pay for roads. Many motorists say they pay for the roads entirely.”
Earl of Iddesleigh: “Is it a subject of complaint of cyclists that pedestrians get on to the cycle track?
Stancer: “Yes that it so invariably.”
Earl of Iddesleigh: “On the Western Avenue, the pedestrians have a perfectly good footway of their own, have they not?”
Stancer: I think so, but they seem to prefer the cycle path…[in law a] pedestrian is perfectly entitled to make use of a cycle path.”
Earl of Iddesleigh: “Assuming the law is so cruel and unkind as to make you use cycle paths, you would probably welcome legislation forbidding pedestrians to get on them, would you not?”
Stancer: “I think that would be a necessary part of such a scheme.”
Earl of Iddesleigh: “If we could enable you to avoid the great motor roads and provide for you really satisfactory roads on which you would not have to compete with a great deal of fast moving traffic, there would be a gain in enjoyment…?
Stancer: “If it were possible to provide facilities that are equal to those that we enjoy now, with the additional advantage that they would not be shared by motorists, I think that cyclists would have no objection…”
Earl of Iddesleigh: “Supposing it were an adequate cycle track, do you think it would be fair and reasonable that cyclists should be advised to use it?”
Stancer: “Advised but not compelled to.”
Earl of Iddesleigh: “Are the two grounds upon which you are against cycle tracks these? First, because the cyclist insists on his abstract right to the use of the highway, and secondly, because it is less pleasant to use a cycle track than a highway?”
Stancer: “The second one you have mentioned is far more important. Cyclists would never insist upon their abstract rights if it were not that they are losing the chief pleasure of cycling by being forced on to the paths. If the paths are by any miracle to be made of such width and quality as to be equal to our present road system, it would not be necessary to pass any laws to compel cyclists to use them; the cyclists would use them.”
Earl of Iddesleigh: “You think that the cyclist is being offered an inferior article?”
Stancer: “A very much inferior article, my Lord.”
BRITISH CYCLE AND MOTOR-CYCLE MANUFACTURERS AND TRADERS UNION
H.R. Watling, director of the British Cycle and Motor-cycle Manufacturers and Traders Union told the Alness committee that the UK made two million bicycles each year and that there were 15 million bicycles in use. The organisation later split in two, although shared the same building in Coventry. The bicycle half of the organisation is now the Bicycle Association.
Lord Alness: “What is your view of the cycle track proposal?”
Watling: “I have no objections to the principle of cycle tracks. We have every objection to the cycle track as at present produced…the provision of a cycle track is, at best, a palliative…The cycle track to-day is of very little value because it is poorly constructed; there is only a small mileage of it, and furthermore, although it is provided for the cyclist yet the track is actually used by various other people, such as perambulators, pedestrians and the like. In other words the cycle track to-day is not sufficiently inviting or sufficiently well constructed to induce the cyclist to use it.”
Lord Alness: “Assuming that a cycle track is constructed of adequate width and with a suitable surface would you then be favourable of pedal cyclists using that track?”
Watling: “I personally should encourage them with every means in my power…If and when we had an adequate mileage, and not merely an experimental mileage, [then] it would be competent for compulsion to be considered as a practical measure….It would be unfair and unreasonable to expect compulsory use of those tracks when they are in an experimental stage. Once the standard has been laid down of a satisfactory character, and once it is clear that the cycle track is reserved for the cyclist and nobody else, and once the construction with respect to cross streets and the like is satisfactorily dealt with, then you can have something which you can properly invite the man to use in due course after a period of probation, so to speak…I think cyclists in general fear that if cycle tracks are provided in certain places the psychology of the motorist will be affected adversely…they will regard the cyclist as more and more an undesirable person on the road, and it may lead in some cases to an increase in the degree of carelessness exhibited by drivers of all types.”
NATIONAL CYCLISTS’ UNION
J.E. Holdsworth represented the NCU, an organisation of racing cyclists, which later became British Cycling. In 1938, the NCU had 60,000 members. Holdsworth said the NCU was a “friendly rival” to the CTC. Both had been formed in 1878. Holdsworth said the NCU represented “all cyclists”, a dig at the CTC, who represented recreational and touring cyclists. A newly created category of membership of the NCU was associate member which, Holdworth told the peers, was “intended to cover the man and the girl who ride to work; who do not take up cycling for a pastime but merely as a utility measure.”
Lord Alness: “You are against [cycle paths?]
Holdsworth: “We are against these, because we think that the disadvantages outweigh the possible advantages…The [fear is that] quite apart from whether cycle paths can be made of sufficient width and surface, the roads where there are not cycle paths will be more dangerous for them, and especially if it is part of the same road…[We] feel that the attitude of motorists towards cyclists will not improve because they are put on cycle paths. [We] feel that some type of motorists will feel that cyclists ought not to be on the road at all.
Lord Alness: “Supposing you have a cycle track on the Great West Road which is 9ft wide, and the surface which is as good as that of the road itself, would it not be safer for the cyclist…that he should use that track instead of mixing in the maelstrom of traffic on the road?”
Holdsworth: “If, my Lord, it were possible to build a cycle track that would over-come the difficulty of cross-roads and junctions, then we would be in favour of it…If the Great West Road had been planned originally so that there had been prohibition of any access to the road by other people, then a cycle path would have been a perfectly sound and feasible thing; but the difficulty is that the public on the outside of the cycle path have an access to the road the whole time.”
Lord Alness: “Supposing you had 24 million cyclists would the speed of motor vehicles be halved?
Holdsworth: “If there are a large number of cyclists, it does reduce the speed of motorists.”
PARADISE FOR THE MOTORIST
In a 1939 debate about the Alness report, William Leach, the Labour MP for Bradford Central, made a withering speech, highly critical of the report’s pro-motoring agenda:
“[The new minister for transport] has a lot of very bad and false advisers seeking his ear. They include…the swagger Automobile Club, who want a paradise for the motorist. They include county surveyors, and a number of chief constables who have wrong ideas about winding roads and the sins of pedestrians and the sins of children. Probably the worst of all his advisers, and the most mischievous, are the seven peers who have issued a report on the prevention of road accidents.
“Many newspapers are pressing very hard that legal effect shall be given to the findings of this Select Committee; I hope the Minister will pause for quite a long time before he obliges them…I want to deal with the key recommendations contained in this document.
“According to their Lordships, there are no road-hogs in this country, but only ‘so-called road-hogs’. Nowhere is it admitted that speed has anything to do with road fatalities…So their Lordships want a lessened imposition of the speed limit, with a view to its ultimate elimination. They want restricted speed areas to be reduced in number or extent; they want the complete segregation of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians…On the sins of cyclists, pedestrians and children, my Lords waxed really eloquent: “Children under seven cause 23.9 per cent. of the accidents to pedestrians.” So we are led to suppose, from this statement, that the responsibility of infants and tiny children for avoiding accidents is exactly the same as that of the motorist. Any legislation passed on that supposition would be a wicked innovation in British law. Having let go on the sins of babies, their Lordships say, on the shortcomings of pedestrians and cyclists: “It would seem…that many pedestrians are unwilling to sacrifice any of their rights to the common cause of safety.…There is much thoughtless conduct amongst cyclists which is responsible for many accidents.” There you have the key-note to all the recommendations which follow in this report. They go on to make them. They recommend that no cycling under 10 years of age should be allowed. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] The Committee recommend that all child cyclists should be banned.
“Further, cyclists must not carry bulky luggage, or ride more than two abreast, and, if there is a cycle track, they must come off the highway.
“If the pedestrian steps heedlessly off the causeway, he is to be prosecuted. That is, of course, supposing he is still alive…Where an accident occurs to a pedestrian who is on the highway where a footpath is available, his right to damages is to be denied. He is to be forced to use pedestrian crossings only at dangerous places, but wherever there is a pedestrian crossing and he fails to use it, his right to damages in the event of accident to himself is to be taken away. One sees from this report that it is the view of their lordships that the chief menaces, indeed almost the only menaces, to road safety, are children, pedestrians and cyclists. In other words, the principal sinners are the victims themselves.
“Let us leave for a while this tale of deaths and manglings, and the extraordinary conclusions reached in the Alness Report, and turn to what the Committee have to say in regard to roads and road improvements. They recommend that no main roads should be less than 300 feet wide, and that a vast new construction programme should be undertaken, that bridges and tunnels should be provided for pedestrians to take them off the roads altogether, and cycle tracks to take the cyclists off as well.
“Further, these gentlemen want roadside trees removed. No doubt that would provide a lot of work for the unemployed, because there are millions of roadside trees. They want humps taken out of bridges.
“A few million acres of agricultural land will have totally disappeared. Cycling paths will be empty, because cycling will then have become too hazardous for anyone to undertake. The nation’s beauty spots will have become things of horror, advertised by flaming petrol stations and gorgeous hotels. All the main streets of the principal cities will be railed off by steel and wooden barriers. The reign of the motorist will have become supreme.”
In a House of Lords debate welcoming the Alness report, in May 1939, the Marquess of Reading said:
“The reception of the recommendations in those two quarters to which I have referred does not seem to indicate at the moment that we have altogether succeeded in that particular object, but I still hope that more reflection and more detachment, and the very great weight of public opinion which is behind these recommendations, will persuade the cyclists and the pedestrians that in what we are recommending we are endeavouring not to oppress but to protect them. I confess that, approaching it with all possible detachment, I find it extremely difficult to accept the doctrine put forward on behalf of the cyclists that in some peculiar way segregation and degradation are synonymous words. You have a highway, and the cyclist says, “It is my right to use that highway.” Does the highway consist only of that part of the road upon which motor cars proceed, or does it include that part of such roads as may be reserved for cyclists and that part reserved for pedestrians? Does any sane pedestrian expect — certainly he does not expect for long — that he should be allowed to walk upon the middle of the Great West Road on Sunday morning, and say that unless he is allowed to do so he is being deprived of the right to use the King’s highway? One wonders what would be the attitude of cyclists if, in a place where there was a cycling track, a motorist suddenly took it into his head to proceed along that cycle track. Yet, if the cyclists have a right on the motorists’ road, why, on similar terms, have not the motorists a right on the cyclists’ road?”