June 14, 2009

"The bicycle, quite literally, paved the road for automobiles."

Is this true?
The explosive popularity of the human-powered, two-wheeled vehicle sparked road construction across the Western world’s cities. The League of American Wheelmen was a major vector for the political will necessary to build better roads with more than one million members (out of a mere 75 million people) at its peak. Sure they engaged in silliness like racing and bicycle polo (!) but at heart, the group was a potent, progressive social force that inadvertently helped bring about its own end by getting roads paved, thus making long distance “touring” possible in automobiles.


bearing said...

It's not the first time I've seen that claim -- I remember reading it in The Art of Urban Cycling. The Wikipedia article for the League of American Bicyclists makes the same claim.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Sorry, but I have to believe its bunk.

Roads were paved in the cities well before 1860, and unpaved in some parts of the countryside well into the 1920's.

It wasn't paved roads that favored the internal combustion engine, it was its practicality.

Have you ever lit a steam boiler? Here is Jay Leno, lighting his 1909 Stanley Steamer:(http://www.jaylenosgarage.com/cars/09StanleyModelR_shell.shtml)

In the same era with with a gas car it was set the spark, twist the crank and head to town. 20 seconds, not 20 minutes.

Electrics were also limited; Again, here is Jay with his 1909 Baker Electric: (http://www.jaylenosgarage.com/cars/Baker_E_shell.shtml).

Again, it wasn't roads that killed the electric car, it was the deficencies of the electic compared with the gas; the same issues electic cars have 100 years later.

Issues such as battery life, poor range, long recharge times and disposal of dead batteries.

I'll agree that the bicyclist did much to get roads paved in the 1880's and '90's, but that paving had nothing to do with the rise of the gas automobile.

I will say this though. Bicycling through the the countryside did lead to an urge to travel, and the motorcar allowed you to travel farther, use less energy and take along more luggage and more family, so the bicyclist themselves probably had a lot to do with rise of the gas automobile.

Bissage said...

SAM MALONE: That’s when she asked me to true her rims.

WOODY BOYD: Gee, I don’t know Sam. Seems to me the car came first.

CLIFF CLAVIN: Err, ah, a little known fact there, Sonny Boy, is that your original roadside diners catered exclusively to the peculiar tastes of your typical cross-country bicyclist, serving up tasty dishes made from PowerBars®, Gatorade®, bananas and gorp.

NORM PETERSON: And I'll have another blue plate special. Fill her up with high-test.

Paddy O. said...

A bicycle freeway!

In 1901!

bearbee said...

According to Wiki roads were first 'paved' for horse-ridden mail delivery and commercial enterprise:

With any transportation decision, speed to destination is an important factor in choosing any particular type of infrastructure. Overland transportation in the late 18th century was by horse, and water and river transportation was primarily by sailing vessel. The United States population was centered on its Atlantic coast, with all major population centers located on a natural harbor or navigable waterway. Low population density between these centers resulted in heavily reliance on coastwise and riverboat shipping. The first government expenditures on highway transportation were funded to speed the delivery of overland mail, such as the Boston Post Road between New York City and Boston. Due to the distance between these population centers and the cost to maintain the road, many highways in the late 18th century and early 19th century were private (i.e Plank roads and other turnpikes). Most highways, however, were unimproved and impassable at least some of the year by wagon. Economic expansion in the late 18th century to early 19th century spurred the building of canals to speed goods to market, of which the most prominently successful example was the Erie Canal.

The River Otter said...

@Paddy O-
In Milwaukee, and many other cities, we do have what I call "bicycle superhighways"- repurposed railroad trcks, going above and below major auto thoroughfares. Much safer and better-traveledthan they used to be, and just as fast as driving to work for me (four miles)- no stop lights, no crazy drivers. Ergo, trains paved the way for bicycles.

elizabeth said...

Maybe in the U.S.A. (though I would not rely on WIKI for my main source...) - what about Europe, where often biking still reigns!?

chuckR said...

Doesn't sound plausible.

However, there were three well-known bicycle mechanics who worked on major alternative forms of transportation: Henry Ford and Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Another interesting claim (old SciAm article) is that there is nothing in nature - fish, fowl or land dweller - that is as efficient at covering ground as a human on a bicycle. On a paved road...

dbp said...

Paved roads may be a stretch, but it seems pretty clear that bicycles drove the development of the pneumatic rubber tire.

Dunlop and Michelin both got their starts in bicycle tires.

rhhardin said...

Shoulders of Interstates make excellent bike routes, much better than state highways, for traversing a state you wish to skip.

There's lots of clearance from traffic owing to width that is lacking on regular roads.

Unfortunately the police started taking a pig-headed "does not belong" stance in the late 70s and bicycles are relegated to less safe no-clearance highways.

Also some of the shoulders have been converted to traffic lanes in the interim.

dbp said...

And what's the deal with this?

"The bicycle, quite literally, paved the road for automobiles."

I mean, roads are not made out of bicycles, nor were they made by bicycles.

Chip Ahoy said...

Hang on. I've heard this before.

* drums fingers, looks blankly upwards *

Oh! That's right ... "The Chicken or the Egg" conundrum, settled.

rcocean said...

Off Topic. The link leads to site showing the occupations in Louisville in 1852. Out of the 15,000 workers there were:

125 lawyers
45 Hucksters
05 Oyster Brokers
48 Paper Hangers
26 Professors
32 Policeman
330 River Men
43 Speculators
275 Tavern keepers
231 Barkeeps
36 Gentlemen
1,920 Laborers

ricpic said...

Did the Romans bike? Actually, it was the need to get the legions to the frontiers of the empire pronto that incentivized Roman engineers to build roads of such strength and durability that they can take auto traffic to this day. A very unprogressive basis for road building but the truth. So eat it! progressives.

Big Mike said...

Is this true?


A number of Civil War histories mention that a problem for Lee's troops the two times they marched north into Maryland was that many were forced to march barefoot on "macadamized" (paved) roads. Much tougher than marching barefoot on the dirt roads of rural Virginia!

At any rate paved roads go back to Roman days (long before the invention of the bicycle), if not substantially earlier. Have your bicyclist go to Italy and look at the surviving segments of the Via Appia.

Big Mike said...

@ricpic, dang. I was still sorting out a problem with closing tags and you beat me to it on the famous Roman roads.

SGT Ted said...

However, there were three well-known bicycle mechanics who worked on major alternative forms of transportation: Henry Ford and Wilbur and Orville Wright.

There were also two others: William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson.

If fact, there was a time when there were more motorcycles on the roads than cars, because M/Cs could navigate dirt roads much better than cars.

k*thy said...

I doubt it, having just got back to my westside home, having biked to an early morning yoga class - mostly using the converted rail lines. Quite a nice day for it, I must say.

I'll take the roads thru town, if the car traffic isn't too heavy.

ricpic said...

And you put so much more effort into your post, Big Mike, than I did into mine, what with that link and all...hee hee.

AJ Lynch said...


I noticed there were no doctors on that list. Perhaps they had universal healthcare back then?

Palladian said...

I wonder if the WIRED writer who posited this theory is one of those militant bicycle people who block traffic and act like douchebags every month in some places?

Palladian said...

If he is, I'm thinking that soon his theory will be used as justification by the hirsute and feral bicycle activists to form a PLO-like organization demanding a "right-of-return" to all paved roads currently "occupied" by the evil automobiles.

Flexo said...

That the Romans paved the way 2000 years ago for today's roads, so to speak, is irrelevant. Until some narcisisstic progressive named Obama or someone else thinks up something, it didn't happen.

bearbee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bearbee said...

2008 US top selling car

China's Now the World's Largest Car Market

Cedarford said...

Bicycles as 'drivers' of better roads? Bunk.

Others mentioned the Roman roads. The Chinese, Mesopotamians, Celtic tribes, Japanese, Europeans after the Romans all had roads designed to not become a mire of springtime mud but remain usable 365 days a year. They were built above grade, sometimes doubling as flood barriers and defensive bulwarks. Stone and gravel base, sometimes long lasting wood in marshy areas.

Paved with wood, broke stone gravel locked and pounded in place, seashells, brick, straw and reed-reinforced mud (frequently replaced), cobblestones, cut stone, macadam bitumin once that became commonly available after 1st being used in Mesopotamia.

Bikes have always been "incidental" to city transit, in America and elsewere. As someone else wrote, bikes only really took off in the 1920s when better gearing, pneumatic tires made them practical ways of getting around.
Before that, you have horse trolleys, steam trolleys, electric trolleys, trains, subways, the 1st motorized buses in wide use..besides autos...(all needing improved paved roads, roadbeds) all before bikes were a mass transit option.

rhhardin said...

The Roman Empire eventually fell to German bicyclists.

rhhardin said...

Accidental discovery. Shift + wheel mouse changes the type size in Firefox.

Having figured out the cause, it's no longer necessary to reboot to fix it.

rhhardin said...

Make that ctrl + wheel mouse.

Shift + wheel mouse pages back.

rcocean said...

"I noticed there were no doctors on that list. Perhaps they had universal healthcare back then

They are on the list. See "Hucksters"

Flexo said...

When I went to Pompeii, it was raining, and I was thankful that the city streets of Pompeii had curbs and gutters, with the road surface tilted toward the gutters, to keep the water away and the road usable. Of course, the curbs, gutters, and roads were unable to keep the volcanic ash from burying the town. But the whole structure of the city blocks and houses and roads was quite remarkable.

(There was one house where the frescos were really well preserved. When I started taking pics, I looked closer and was a little taken aback when saw what the people were doing in the frescos -- it was one of the town brothels and the frescos depicted the lady's specialty.)

And before someone claims that the toilet and sanitary sewer systems were invented in the 19th century, Romans had those too. (Now toilet paper is another matter)

David said...

This claim shows great disrespect for horses, oxen, coolies and all other creatures, human or otherwise, that dragged people around for thousands of years.

The bicyclists are poised to become the next great pain in the ass group.

Joe said...

The bicyclists are poised to become the next great pain in the ass group.

Too late.

EDH said...


Speaking of Cheers, the old saying is that the streets of old downtown Boston are built on cow paths.

How now? Cow path tale is pure bull
By Johnny Diaz, Globe Staff | April 25, 2004

The layout of Boston's streets is so helter-skelter because they are founded on the lines of meandering cow paths.

Fact or fiction?


The cow path fable is one of Boston's biggest and most enduring myths, according to William Fowler, director of the Massachusetts Historical Society, who urged drivers not to blame cows for our dysfunctional roadways.

The birth of Boston's roadways was simply unorganized, he said; people built houses where they pleased, and roads emerged among them without the benefit of urban planners.

''There was no plan," he said. ''When the English men and women here got off the boat, they decided where they wanted to live, and it was up to other people to make the roads."

The early pioneers were well aware the city was poorly planned and dense, a lot like today, Fowler said.

''In 1630, Boston was a tiny place, a small peninsula, and everyone wanted to live close to work, and most of the work was down along the waterfront," he said. ''Everyone crowded into a very small area. It was very, very dense. There used to be a toast given in taverns: 'Here is the crooked little town of Boston.' Even in the 18th century, people understood it was pretty confusing."

One area of Boston that is unusual for its ease and maneuverability is Back Bay, with its grid-like pattern and alphabetized street names.

''There are no surprises in Back Bay," Fowler added. ''The Back Bay is very well-planned."

So what about those cows?

Yes, there were cows and they grazed on the Boston Common, according to the website thefreedomtrail.org and that is probably why the myth has endured over the years.

MartyH said...


Dennis Menchov almost lost the world's second most prestigious bike race on one of those Roman roads a few weeks ago. He was on a straightaway in the rain in Rome and his bike just slid out from under him. Fortunately, he recovered in time to preserve his victory.

The cite to Macadamized roads indicates that they were dusty. Dust clogs the lungs and impairs sight. One of the scariest stretches of road I have ridden was a ten mile long construction zone in Western Canada-the billowing dust cloud when a motor home passed simply blinded you and presumably any drivers following the motor home. I did a lot of ditch diving on that stretch.

Of course, a bicyclist's butt knows the difference between "chip seal" with coarse aggregate and real asphalt.

A great road makes all the difference in the world to a bicyclist. A great road is solid, smooth, dust free, and not slick when wet.

Asphalt was probably the first material to meet those requirements, and I can see hundreds of thousands of bicyclists advocating for asphalt roads-particularly in the days before suspension, gel saddles, vibration dampening elastomers, etc..

Ernst Stavro Blofeld said...

It's true. Of course they weren't the first or last group to advocate good roads, but they were an important interest group in the late 19th century. Bicycles were more sensitive to good roads than were horses, and a lot of bicycles were being sold. The League of American Wheelmen were a lobbying force to be reckoned with.

Bicycles were a significant social change, a sort of small-scale version of what happened later with cars. With a bike you could easily extend your commuting, socializing, and shopping range by miles, which was pretty extraordinary for the time. Think of it--the common man could easily and cheaply travel in a range of ten miles or more from home without the expense or land requirements of having to keep up a horse.

For example, New York Times, June 6, 1896:

"The wheelmen here and all over the State are making vigorous preparations to push their cause at the Good Roads Convention, which is to be held at Asbury Park on July 5 and 6. The Chief Consul of the League of American Wheelmen.... many other prrominent cyclists have been especially invited to attend, and more than a third of the delegates, who will come from all parts of the United States, will be League of American Wheelmen members."