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Safe Streets through the Ages: The Good Roads Movement

Safe Streets through the Ages: The Good Roads Movement

Did you know that the bicycle recently turned 200? The bicycle has gone through years of evolution, invented and transformed by a number of inventors in various countries. However, many look to 1817 as the creation of the first bicycle. Known as the hobby horse or the velocipede, it was invented by Karl Drais, and had a saddle, a steerable front wheel and was made entirely of wood.[1] The next few decades of bicycle inventions brought about pedals, chains, and brakes—bringing about a mechanism similar to the one we know today. By 1869, bicycles had rubber tires, meaning one was able to ride it in a variety of landscapes, making it increasingly popular.

League of American Wheelman logo (source: Wikimedia).

League of American Wheelman logo (source: Wikimedia).

L.A.W. & the Good Roads Movement

1880 marks the birth of bicycle advocacy with the advent of the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.), founded by Kirk Munroe and Charles Pratt. Now known as the League of American Bicyclists, the LAW began as the only organization for cyclists in the US and worked hard to ensure that they were represented. The League spent its time lobbying for better highways and roads, starting what became known as the Good Roads Movement. Bicycles at the time were often banned from sidewalks, which further fueled the Wheelmen’s campaign for better roads. Their most important publication was The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer (1891)[2], which discussed the impact better roads would have on the lives of farmers and families. While the Good Roads Movement later became a means of activism for new motorists who also needed improved transportation infrastructure, the League of American Wheelman and its Good Road Movement gave the country its very first bicycle lane, Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, which began the journey to safe street infrastructure that is seen today. The parkway was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, originally a scenic corridor[3] for horse and carriage rides, had the country’s first bicycle path added to it in 1894, with the help of Albert H. Angel from the Good Roads Association.

Ocean Parkway (source: Wikimedia).

Ocean Parkway (source: Wikimedia).

The Sidepath Movement

Another movement developed alongside the Good Roads Movement was called the sidepath movement. Unlike the Good Roads Movement, which combined the interests of a variety of road users, the sidepath movement focused on bicycles in particular, passing a bill that made it so any major roadway was required to have a path specifically for bicycles, that ran alongside it. While the plan was user-funded from bicycle licenses and by taxing bicyclists, the movement was short-lived as funding and support faded or transferred to the broader Good Roads Movement.  Minnesota, New York, Oregon and Massachusetts were few of the states that developed a number of sidepaths before the movement faded. A nine-mile bicycle path from Pasadena to Los Angeles California personified this movement with a successful start, funded by a $0.15 toll, which later failed and became a freeway.

California Cycleway, Pasadena, CA (Source: Wikimedia)

California Cycleway, Pasadena, CA (Source: Wikimedia)

The Second Bicycle Boom

The Ford Model T and the popularity of automobiles took bicycles out of the spotlight for decades until the 1960s when the United State experienced a second bicycle boom. Schwinn began to mass produce bicycles and their popularity grew along with an increased interest in fitness and environmentalism. “At the height of the boom in 1973, 15 million bicycles were sold in the United States”. [4] Bike sales were soaring and in the very same year 42 states passed 60 bills into law, a total of $120 million for bikeways.[5] Many bicycle advocacy organizations formed during these years are still around today such as Transportation Alternatives, which began as Action Against Automobiles, and the Washington Area Bicyclists Association. Although this bicycle boom ended in a similar fashion to the previous one, bicycles has become a staple of childhood and inevitably interest grew once more.

Bicycle Infrastructure Today

More recently, the bicycle has been experiencing another surge of popularity, with many planning departments having bicycle and pedestrian specific departments. Bike share programs and bicycle lanes are improving access to this self-propelled form of transportation. Even with cities taking new initiatives, it will be important for bicycle advocates to find creative ways to get new people on bicycles for transportation to keep improvements happening and avoiding the busts that have happened in the past. In 2010, New York City built a protected bicycle lane that saw a 300% increase in ridership, showing the need for bike-specific infrastructure to encourage people to use this form of transportation. In 2011, the National Association of City Transportation Officials published The Urban Bikeway Design Guide in order to standardize the development of bicycle lanes. As for funding, most recently, Oregon passed a $15 flat tax on all bicycles over $200 with wheels larger than 26 inches—the funds from this tax will go directly into bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects.

Schwinn Sting-Ray, one of the most popular bicycles of the 1960s (Source: Wikimedia).

Schwinn Sting-Ray, one of the most popular bicycles of the 1960s (Source: Wikimedia).

New Jersey has been working to add bicycle infrastructure around the state, both at the state level with the Department of Transportation, and at the local level in municipalities. Check out our reports for case studies on successful implementation projects.

[1] http://www.ibike.org/library/history-timeline.htm#chronology

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Good-Roads-movement

[3] https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/ocean-parkway-malls/history

[4] http://re-cycle.com/History/Schwinn/Swn7_70s_Boom.aspx

[5] https://www.curbed.com/2017/6/28/15886810/bike-transportation-cycling-urban-design-bike-boom