In 1948, Britain’s Minister for Transport Alfred Barnes introduced the Special Roads Bill. This would – eventually – lead to the creation of Britain’s motorway network. But where are the cycleways promised in the 1948 plans? Apart from the New Towns – including Stevenage, with its extensive and dense network of cycleways – these ‘special roads for cyclists’ were never built. Why? The Minister for Transport said provision for cyclists was a local matter. This is exactly the same reason wheeled out today. Infrastructure for cars is “national”; infrastructure for bicycles is “local.”
The Special Roads Bill came before Parliament on 30th September 1948. Its purpose was “to provide for the construction of roads reserved for special classes of traffic; to amend the law relating to trunk roads; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid.” The Special Roads Bill became the Special Roads Act in 1949. Special roads for cars could now be constructed. The first wasn’t started until 1958 but they came thick and fast in the 1960s. It was a mature network by the end of the 1970s.
Back in 1948 the newspapers reported that the Special Roads Bill would see the building of cycleways, too. And just as cyclists would be fined for riding on motorways, pedestrians would be fined for straying on cycleways.
Introducing his Bill, Alfred Barnes said:
It will be a mistake for anyone to assume that the Bill is promoted to satisfy the selfish interests of the private motorist. It is nothing of the kind. It is often overlooked that nowadays we are all motorists, whether or not we drive a private car. Everybody travels on buses or coaches and the greater proportion of our domestic and personal needs are delivered by motor van.
But, and here’s the kicker, he believed national highway authorities should be in charge of major motoring roads, but “special roads for pedestrians and cyclists” should be provided by local highway authorities. And such “special roads” for users other motorists were clearly deemed to be recreational, rather than everyday practical:
I should emphasise…under the powers given to them to construct a special road, highway authorities could determine that the only classes of traffic using that road should be motor vehicles. These same powers can —and, I sincerely hope, will — be used by county highway authorities for the construction of special roads for pedestrians and for cyclists — across for instance, a national park, along a river bank, across mountain, moor, or the coast line. [This] responsibility will rest upon local highway authorities, who ought to meet the cost of special roads of this type. The cost of constructing and maintaining the special types of roads for hikers or cycle paths for cyclists will not represent any very considerable capital outlay or annual cost for maintenance. At a time when the State, by this Measure, visualises the construction of these motorways at the capital cost I have mentioned, for the purpose of relieving the local authority of a good deal of the cost of other highways, it is not unreasonable to suggest that highway authorities should use these powers for the purpose I have indicated, especially as the advantages to be derived will be enjoyed largely by the residents in their own localities.
Mr. Walkden, the MP for Doncaster, stressed that if cyclists did get cycleways, they ought to be fined if they choose not to use them, despite the fact a previous parliamentary report had found that the cycle paths constructed in the 1930s were universally poor:
I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will explain later on whether, in passing this Measure, we are giving assent to the principle that if a cyclist fails to use a roadway provided by the nation, or by a local authority with the blessing of the nation, we shall impose a punishment of up to £20….At least in one country I have visited, which has a considerable mileage of cycle tracks, it is a punishable offence for cyclists to fail to use these particular cycle tracks. Cyclists there can be dealt with severely…It is laid down specifically that we are to provide cycle tracks, but I find that in the case of a road along which I pass almost every day — the Sutton by-pass — the cyclists disregard the cycle tracks provided on either side, with the result that the ‘bus drivers use the sort of language only London ‘bus drivers can use…If we are to lay down these roads for a particular class of user, then everyone concerned should understand the law.