In the 1930s, Britain’s Ministry of Transport built an extensive network of bike highways around the country—at least 280 miles of paved, protected infrastructure dedicated to cyclists alone. For decades, it was entirely forgotten—overgrown and overlooked—so much so that no one seems to remember that these lanes had existed at all.
“There’s all this infrastructure, it’s been there for 80 years, and nobody knows what it was,” says Carlton Reid, author of the forthcoming book Bike Boom. Reid, who’s been a cycling journalist and historian for 30 years, rediscovered the network while researching his book. Now he’s teaming up with an urban planner to reveal the full extent of Britain’s historic cycleways.
Before starting research on the book, Reid knew of the existence of a handful of ‘30s-era bike lanes. But when he started studying the decade’s road-building policies, he found archival maps showing that as new arterial roads were built, they all had cycleways installed beside them. “Every one I looked at showed that there were cycleways built,” he said. “It was clear that there were far more than anyone had understood.”
These bike highways were nine feet wide and surfaced in concrete, and they ran along major roads for miles. According to Reid’s research, the Ministry of Transport was inspired by newspaper reports of similar lanes in the Netherlands and contacted the Rijkswaterstaat, its Dutch counterpart. The head engineer of the Rijkswaterstaat sent the Brits “these incredible exploded diagrams of how they built cycleways next to the road and the railways and how they separated the traffic,” says Reid. “The Brits, in effect, were ‘going Dutch,’” decades before that phrase became a mantra among cycling enthusiasts who long for infrastructure as good as Amsterdam’s.
In the 1930s, cycling in Britain was at its peak, and cyclists far outnumbered motorists. As in America, it was British cyclists who first pushed the government to build smoothly paved roads between cities. Those roads, though, were catnip to motorists, too, and “motorists, if they wanted to use their cars and go fast … clearly had to get cyclists off the road.” These bike highways were intended in part to separate cyclists from the main rush of traffic and clear the way for drivers.