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Roads Weren’t Built For Cars 20

GoodRoads2

Drawing from The Great Bicycle Protest of 1896” by Hank Chapot

We have all heard the tall tale that roads were built for cars, so bicycles and pedestrians have no place on our streets. Perpetuating this myth might help some motorists sleep better at night to think that they have an exclusive, god-given right to our streets, but it simply isn’t true.

Motorists don’t have an exclusive right to our streets in the first place. Driving is a privilege that is granted only to those who earn it (and the methods in which the government grants this privilege is questionable). That privilege can be revoked at any moment too, by the way.

Bicyclists on the other hand have an inherent right to our streets. Citizens have a right to lifetime mobility – and short of cutting of our legs, this cannot be revoked for any reason.

Furthermore, roads are paid for by everyone – not just by drivers. In fact, people who don’t drive cars pay disproportionately more for our streets than those who drive cars. Driving is the most highly subsidized mode of transportation.

Truth be told, roads weren’t built for cars in the first place. Cities with more than 100 years of history have been altered to attempt to accommodate as many cars as possible – at the expense of general liveability and to the detriment of the mobility rights of people who choose not to use cars to get around.

Long before Henry Ford brought Americans the affordable personal motor vehicle, there were a group of advocates who fought for better roads. These tireless advocates envisioned cities with better mobility and fought to make their streets safer and more enjoyable to navigate because they were tired of being treated like second class citizens.

Sound familiar yet?

It was called the “good road movement”, and on July 25th 1896, residents took to the streets in downtown San Francisco to advocate for better roads for bicycles in “The Great Bicycle Demonstration” – garnering over 100,000 people in the streets.

The next day, the San Francisco Call heralded these bicycle riders as “Disciples of Progress”.

GoodRoads1

San Francisco Bicycle Riders As Disciples Of Progress / from “The Great Bicycle Protest of 1896” by Hank Chapot

The bicyclists demanded that Market Street be repaved – as a wheelman explains:

“The purpose for the march is three-fold; to show our strength, to celebrate the paving of Folsom Street, and to protest against the conditions of San Francisco pavement in general and of Market Street in particular. If the united press of this city decides that Market Street must be repaved, it will be done in a year”.

The demonstrations and advocacy from these wheelmen resulted in the swift re-paving of Market Street.

The victory was short-lived however as combustion engines allowed motor vehicles to become the method of choice for Americans to transport themselves. Nonetheless, the wheelmen succeeded in paving the roads before being subsequently squeezed off the streets by motorists.

Bicycle sales in the United States sadly dropped from a whopping 1.2 million in 1899 to just 160,000 in 1909 due to the rise of the car. The bicycle rose again during the Great Depression of the 1930’s and again in the 1990’s.

Tomorrow night I will be participating in a demonstration just like these wheelmen did 115 years ago . Except while these wheelman fought for better conditions in San Francisco, I will be fighting merely to prevent our suburban car-is-king mayor from tearing apart what little bicycle infrastructure we have.

Despite the fact that my city is being torn apart, bicycling is on the rise in almost every major city in North America.

History tells us that we will experience an even more significant spike if the United States defaults on its debt for the first time in history – catapulting the global economy into a state that will make the 2008 bust seem like a walk in the park.

In the meantime, while we wait for economic catastrophe to help people discover the freedom and pleasure of using a bicycle for transportation,  you can free yourself from the imprisonment of automobile ownership now so that you’re one step ahead.

You won’t regret the decision.

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com or follow him on Twitter.

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  • http://www.joyofbicyclecommuting.com Micheal Blue

    James, it’s fascinating to see the stuck line of cars on Lakeshore Blvd, when I bike by on my way home from work. It’s amazing that the people seem to prefer being stuck there, rather than taking the GO train or cycling. The concrete and fence barriers errected on Lakeshore for the Honda Indy race are still there and make the place look like a prison – cars behind bars. About a month ago I had to drive to work, and the return journey took almost 2 hours, following the same Lakeshore Blvd. When I bike it takes one hour…

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      Michael, I think it’s a testament to how comfortable car companies have built their cars. If only our road builders made bicycling more comfortable… A bicycle is usually a faster way to get around the city than a car in the city, but it’s not necessarily comfortable for most people because of the constant conflict with cars.

  • http://www.joyofbicyclecommuting.com/ Micheal Blue

    James, it’s fascinating to see the stuck line of cars on Lakeshore Blvd, when I bike by on my way home from work. It’s amazing that the people seem to prefer being stuck there, rather than taking the GO train or cycling. The concrete and fence barriers errected on Lakeshore for the Honda Indy race are still there and make the place look like a prison – cars behind bars. About a month ago I had to drive to work, and the return journey took almost 2 hours, following the same Lakeshore Blvd. When I bike it takes one hour…

  • http://www.fullfat.ca Octavian

    I like the tie-in with another possible regional/global depression. People might not be able to afford to drive their cars in the near future.

  • http://twitter.com/doc0c Octavian C.

    I like the tie-in with another possible regional/global depression. People might not be able to afford to drive their cars in the near future.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    Michael, I think it’s a testament to how comfortable car companies have built their cars. If only our road builders made bicycling more comfortable… A bicycle is usually a faster way to get around the city than a car in the city, but it’s not necessarily comfortable for most people because of the constant conflict with cars.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    Agreed, cheap driving can’t last forever. Even with the significant government subsidization of driving in North America, it’s still quite expensive to own a car – approximately 2 hours a day of work for the average American: http://www.theurbancountry.com/2011/05/americans-work-2-hours-each-day-to-pay.html

  • Bryan Eaton

    I’ve been making this argument since before the election. Roads were not built for cars, trucks and buses. They were built for pedestrians, horses, carriages and bicycles. Cars were a retrofit experiment, and the data is in: they don’t work. Pollution, gridlock, inherant dangers, cost, maintenance requirements, social cost of fuel sourcing… After a hundred years, we still can’t make it work. Time to give up. There’s still a place on our roads for motor vehicles, but they’re not right for the average user.

  • Bryan Eaton

    I’ve been making this argument since before the election. Roads were not built for cars, trucks and buses. They were built for pedestrians, horses, carriages and bicycles. Cars were a retrofit experiment, and the data is in: they don’t work. Pollution, gridlock, inherant dangers, cost, maintenance requirements, social cost of fuel sourcing… After a hundred years, we still can’t make it work. Time to give up. There’s still a place on our roads for motor vehicles, but they’re not right for the average user.

  • kfg

    Photography arrived in my neighborhood before the motor car; so we’ve got the docs. Of course the roads had already been there for hundreds of years before that.

  • kfg

    Photography arrived in my neighborhood before the motor car; so we’ve got the docs. Of course the roads had already been there for hundreds of years before that.

  • http://jamesradke.wordpress.com/ James K. Radke

    And we thought that Critical Mass was a novel idea in the 1990s. Let us silently take over the streets and force the anxious drivers to abandon their cars and
    walk home.

  • http://jamesradke.wordpress.com/ James K. Radke

    And we thought that Critical Mass was a novel idea in the 1990s. Let us silently take over the streets and force the anxious drivers to abandon their cars and
    walk home.

  • Tkeen

    I believe there was a similar movement in Toronto to pave the streets around that time. But the transition to cars was not smooth – the first motorists were greeted with hostility from the walking, cycling, and carriage-riding public… despite the fact that the car at that time was a great improvement over the existing mode of transport…

    “It was a whopper of a problem. Everything was transported by horse-drawn vehicles of one kind or another – people, goods, food – everything. In cities like New York, the horse dung began to: stink, pile up, overwhelm.”

    “The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?”

    “In 1898, New York hosted the first International urban planning conference. The agenda was dominated by horse manure, because cities around the world were experiencing the same crisis. But no solution could be found. “Stumped by the crisis,” writes Eric Morris, “the urban planning conference declared its work fruitless and broke up in three days instead of the scheduled ten.” The world had seemingly reached the point where its largest cities could not survive without the horse but couldn’t survive it either.
    And then the problem vanished.”(Thanks to you-know-what)

    … not to mention additional health problems caused by dead horses left in the street, and people killed by runaway horses. The car didn’t seem like much of a problem 120 years ago.

  • Tkeen

    I believe there was a similar movement in Toronto to pave the streets around that time. But the transition to cars was not smooth – the first motorists were greeted with hostility from the walking, cycling, and carriage-riding public… despite the fact that the car at that time was a great improvement over the existing mode of transport…

    “It was a whopper of a problem. Everything was transported by horse-drawn vehicles of one kind or another – people, goods, food – everything. In cities like New York, the horse dung began to: stink, pile up, overwhelm.”

    “The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?”

    “In 1898, New York hosted the first International urban planning conference. The agenda was dominated by horse manure, because cities around the world were experiencing the same crisis. But no solution could be found. “Stumped by the crisis,” writes Eric Morris, “the urban planning conference declared its work fruitless and broke up in three days instead of the scheduled ten.” The world had seemingly reached the point where its largest cities could not survive without the horse but couldn’t survive it either.
    And then the problem vanished.”(Thanks to you-know-what)

    … not to mention additional health problems caused by dead horses left in the street, and people killed by runaway horses. The car didn’t seem like much of a problem 120 years ago.

  • Guest

    I think the arguments most likely to persuade the obstinate are the historical and fairness ones. I don’t think car people respond to arguments about health, the environment, or conservation of scarce resources because those benefits are either abstract or enjoyed by someone other than them. What they care about is the immediate (perceived) convenience and comfort of being able to take their cars everywhere and not being slowed down by bikes (although they don’t seem to mind much being slowed down by other cars).

    So if I were making a pro-bike speech, this would be my approach: (1) the streets, for thousands of years, have been public space for all to use and (2) people who drive cars, especially in dense urban environments, impose costs on others and don’t bear the full costs of their decision to drive. I guess you could call this the “shame” approach. The idea is to shift the conversation from “you bike people want special rights that interfere with the us regular people” to “you car people are selfish for usurping so much of the road.” In other words, get motorists to fully understand the extent of their sense of entitlement.

    Easier said than done I know. But, as we all know, motorists are privileged to the detriment of everyone else, and what incentive do they have to give up any of that privilege? What can we offer them in exchange? I think they’re very skeptical about the benefits of increased health, more livable cities, cleaner air, fewer traffic deaths, and faster and cheaper transportation. Those all sound great to me, but most people are either happy with the status quo or afraid of change. I think the best strategy is to keep hammering the point that the current state of the streets is unfair, highly subsidized, and really a very modern aberration in history.

    I realize that this is all about politics and doesn’t respond the way the author requested but I just needed to say this.

  • Guest

    I think the arguments most likely to persuade the obstinate are the historical and fairness ones. I don’t think car people respond to arguments about health, the environment, or conservation of scarce resources because those benefits are either abstract or enjoyed by someone other than them. What they care about is the immediate (perceived) convenience and comfort of being able to take their cars everywhere and not being slowed down by bikes (although they don’t seem to mind much being slowed down by other cars).

    So if I were making a pro-bike speech, this would be my approach: (1) the streets, for thousands of years, have been public space for all to use and (2) people who drive cars, especially in dense urban environments, impose costs on others and don’t bear the full costs of their decision to drive. I guess you could call this the “shame” approach. The idea is to shift the conversation from “you bike people want special rights that interfere with the us regular people” to “you car people are selfish for usurping so much of the road.” In other words, get motorists to fully understand the extent of their sense of entitlement.

    Easier said than done I know. But, as we all know, motorists are privileged to the detriment of everyone else, and what incentive do they have to give up any of that privilege? What can we offer them in exchange? I think they’re very skeptical about the benefits of increased health, more livable cities, cleaner air, fewer traffic deaths, and faster and cheaper transportation. Those all sound great to me, but most people are either happy with the status quo or afraid of change. I think the best strategy is to keep hammering the point that the current state of the streets is unfair, highly subsidized, and really a very modern aberration in history.

    I realize that this is all about politics and doesn’t respond the way the author requested but I just needed to say this.

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