Revisiting the past

Joe Dunckley has been doing a lot of history recently.

In a similar vein, I found this extract from a new paper by Colin Pooley (one of the authors of the Understanding Walking and Cycling report) fascinating and depressing in equal measure.

Nationally over 20% of all journeys to work undertaken by men in the 1930s and 40s were by bike, and during these decades cycling was the single most important means of travelling to work for men. Women were less likely to cycle than men but even so approximately 10% of journeys to work by women were by bicycle in this period. Overall, in Manchester 16.3% of all journeys to work (by men and women) were by bike in the period 1920-39, and 18.6% in the period 1940-59 (Pooley and Turnbull 2000; Pooley et al 2005). There was considerable debate in the national press in the1930s about the regulation of cyclists, the excessive number of road accidents and the provision of dedicated road space for those travelling by bicycle.

These issues came to a head in December 1934 when the first dedicated cycle lane in Britain was opened by the Minister of Transport, Hore-Belisha. This was a 2.5 mile stretch of 8ft 6in wide concrete cycle path alongside a section of Western Avenue in Middlesex (now the A40), provided for the ‘greater convenience and safety of cyclists’ (The Times, December 15th 1934, p9). The Minister called the road a ‘perfect example of arterial road construction’ in which ‘The two cycling tracks which had been provided gave effect for the first time to the principle that classes of traffic should be segregated in accordance with the speed at which they travel. Such segregation assured the comfort and enhanced the safety of vehicles of every class’ (The Times, December 15th, 1934, p9).

Other similar schemes were also under consideration at this time – for instance on the new Coventry by-pass (The Times, December 12th 1934, p11) and also in initial plans for a new north-south route through Lancashire, though the road was never completed in this form (The Times, December 5th, 1934 p11; Pooley, 2010). However, cycling organizations saw the provision of segregated routes as an assault on the rights of cyclists to use the road and the National Cyclists’ Union in particular objected strongly to the cycle paths. Their fear was that the use of cycle paths would be made compulsory for cyclists and they expressed the view that ‘The only way to deal with road problems … was to remove the cause of the danger, namely excessive speed, having regard to prevailing conditions and inefficient driving, and not by depriving any class of road users of its rightful use of the highway’ (The Times, December 15th 1934, p9). The Minister responded that ‘He did not know why it should be considered less reasonable to provide cycle paths for cyclists than to make pavements for pedestrians’ (The Times, December 15th 1934, p9).

The safety of cyclists, and their potential conflict with motorists also arose in other ways, including concern about cyclists in the new Mersey Tunnel (opened 1934) where they were accused of poor lane discipline and of slowing the flow of traffic (The Times, December 24th 1934, p6) and with regard to their use of rear lights (rather than reflectors). There were regular press reports on road traffic accidents involving cyclists with cyclists accounting for 18.4% of fatalities in 1933 (1,324 deaths). Although at the time this was viewed as excessive (The Times, December 15th 1934, p9), it is almost exactly the same as the number of trips made by bicycle (reported above). For comparison in 2009 there were 104 cyclists killed in road traffic accidents on British roads, representing 4.7% of all road fatalities (DfT 2010). Given that only about two per cent of trips are made by bicycle today it could be argued that the 1930s were relatively safer for cyclists than 21st century roads.

These issues were debated throughout the 1930s and in 1938 the National Committee on Cycling in a memorandum on the Report of the Transport Advisory Council on Accidents to Cyclists stated that ‘it does not feel that any practicable scheme for segregating cycle traffic can materially affect the safety of cyclists. It is pointed out that almost half of the accidents to cyclists take place at cross-roads where cycle paths are impracticable, and that cycle paths are only possible where cycle traffic is comparatively light. All new and reconstructed roads of sufficient width, it is suggested, should have lanes marked off primarily for cycle traffic. Where a cycle path already exists, an experiment might be made of throwing the path into the present highway, while marking off a suitable strip as primarily for cycle traffic’ (The Times, November 21st 1938, p9). Thus in this period the merits of segregating (either completely or partially) cyclists from motor vehicles were hotly debated with the main cyclists’ organisations resolutely against segregation. These views have continued to inform thinking on cycle lanes to the present day with the CTC still arguing strongly for the right of cyclists to share safe road space rather than beings segregated into dedicated cycle lanes (

No comment.

Thanks to Jim Gleason


I have tracked down the December 15th 1934 article from The Times, on the opening of the cycle tracks along Western Avenue and Hore-Belisha’s response to the National Cyclists’ Union’s protest about them, referenced in this passage. It really is quite remarkable.

The Minister of Transport replied yesterday to the objections of the National Cyclists’ Union to the provision of tracks for cycles on important roads.

Earlier in the day Mr. Hore-Belisha had performed three ceremonies in connexion with road schemes carried out by Middlesex County Council. The ceremonies… consisted of cutting ribbons to open new experimental tracks for cycles, a section of Western Avenue itself, and the institution of automatic traffic signals at a crossing nearby.

The cycle tacks are 8ft 6in wide, and extend for about two and a half miles from Hangar Lane to Greenford Road. They are made of concrete and cost approximately £7,000.

Later –

During the ceremonies a representative of the National Cyclists’ Union issued a statement outlining the union’s objections to cycle paths. Although it was not suggested in official quarters, the statement said, that the use of cycle paths should be made compulsory it was likely that attempts to do so would be made. No attempt should be made to take away the rights enjoyed by all vehicles using the highway.

The union then voices their opinion on the correct way to deal with problems faced by cyclists on the road, as quoted in Pooley’s paper – the familiar refrain of addressing poor driving.

The Times reports Hore-Belisha’s response as follows-

In some other countries cycle tracks were not only usual, but popular, and he had hoped that they would be given an unbiased and friendly trial here. But he had heard that their cycling guests had circulated a statement that they were at present holding a watching brief. It appeared that they had made up their minds, however, that the cycling tracks were an assault on their privileges and an attempt to deprive them of their rightful use of the highway.


He did not know why it should be considered less reasonable to provide cycle paths for cyclists than to make pavements for pedestrians, and he had not yet heard any suggestion that the provision of pavements for pedestrians was a measure of the deprivation of the right of the pedestrian to use the King’s highway. He asked for a reasonable consideration of this matter. The evidence before him showed that accidents to cyclists were increasing, and confronted with such a problem the nation would applaud the enterprise of the Middlesex County Council. He hoped that the example would be followed by authorities in other parts of the country.

We’re still waiting.

And video –

This entry was posted in Cycling policy, Department for Transport, Infrastructure, Road safety, Subjective safety, Transport policy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Revisiting the past

  1. monchberter says:

    I think this is a fantastic article and really shows that we really haven’t progressed in the UK on how best to accommodate cycling with motorised transport. If anything, it looks like that the government, in trying to be reasonable, and not forcing through a solution either way just made things worse by a lack of decisiveness. Cycling organisations are far from innocent either!

  2. What is particularly depressing is that in the 1930s, motor traffic was both lighter in terms of density but also in physical size yet the government were prepared to build good cycle facilities. Now, when things are significantly worse on both points, not only do we have problems bulding the facilities but we still have a vocal minority of reactionary cyclists who think mixing it with lorries and buses is prefarable to cycling away from them. One can only hope that the CTC survey starts to change how that particular body presents the argument.

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