Roads Were Not Built for Cars

I’m writing a book about roads history and will be focussing on the period 1880-1905, which saw the Bicycling Boom and then – pop – the start of Motoring Mania.

You can learn more about this free e-book in this pitch:

The book will be free to download online. I chose this publication model in order to get the book seen by as many eyes as possible. You may know that Victorian cyclists did an awful lot to rehabilitate the use of roads – and helped to get them sealed, too – but this isn’t terribly well known outside of cycling. I’d like to change that. Producing a print book would make me more money but it restricts readership.

The book sprang from the ‘history of the Road Fund’ research I did for I then happened upon characters such as William Rees Jeffreys, an official with the CTC who started his 50 year career in getting better roads in Britain as a cyclist and who never forgot his roots.

In a 1949 book he wrote: “Cyclists were the class first to take a national interest in the conditions of the roads.”

Researching deeper and I found Rees Jeffreys wasn’t the only cyclist to have made a lasting impression on highways. In the US, the Good Roads movement was a nationally significant political force and without 30 years of campaigning it’s fair to say motoring wouldn’t have hit the ground running when it came to infrastructure.

If I can rehabilitate some of this history, and turn just a few peoples’ heads, I’ll be happy.

Mass motoring was soooo last century

Mass motoring was soooo last century

You don’t have to be a statistics boffin to see the flaws in this projection. Clearly, the UK’s love affair with motoring is tailing off. It has reached its peak and it now appears to be on the classic downward bell slope.

However, the RAC Foundation which uses the graph in its new report ‘Keep The Nation Moving’ – has ignored the downward slope and plotted a weird v-shape to make the graph go sky-wards. Why? To lobby for the building of more roads (and for road pricing to pay for some of it).

The graph was based on this similar graph from the Department for Transport:

Dft Motor Vehicle mileage graph

It was the RAC Foundation which added the weird v-shape projection.

On either graph, look at the early 1970s. Traffic demand flattened out, and this was in a major league global oil crisis. The latest figures don’t show a flattening out of demand, they clearly show a reduction in demand, and the drop started before the recession.

If the graph continues on that bell slope (we probably need another two or three years to be absolutely sure) we won’t need more and more roads. Roads are incredibly expensive to build and – long-term – even more expensive to maintain. If it’s likely we won’t need them, why build them?

Why can’t the DfT – and RAC Foundation – see what’s starting to become apparent in this graph? Mass motoring was soooo last century. We’ve reached ‘Peak Car’ and ‘Peak Asphalt’; ‘Peak Oil’ has either been and gone or is just around the corner. We shouldn’t build yet more roads, we should be investing in ways to get even more people out of cars, on top of the ones who have already decided bumper-to-bumper congestion isn’t for them.

Government transport departments are notoriously bad at predicting the future. In the 1820s, the stagecoach ruled, no Government department predicted the rise and rise of the railways. In the early 1900s, no transport minister said the future would belong to the motorcar. Trains were the future and that’s where the majority of spending was placed. Motorists had to fight tooth and nail to get funding for roads (a fight made easier by 30 years of work by cyclists, of course) and, as I document on, motorists paid for some road improvements via road tax and the Road Fund. This ended in 1937 and from then on everybody – most of whom were not motorists – started paying for roads, via national and local taxation (bit of a coup for motorists, hey?)

Today, the DfT and Government ministers – again – can’t see the writing on the wall. They assume the Car will be King for ever. History says this will not be the case: stagecoaches were replaced by trains; trains were replaced by cars. Wise transport planners and politicians would be planning for ‘what next’? Instead, as the graph shows, there are very few wise folks in charge of transport planning.

The policy wonks at the RAC Foundation are not dolts, they do see some of the writing on the wall. In the latest report, ‘Peak Car’ is introduced as a concept but rapidly dismissed:

“Intuitively [Peak Car] is plausible. It is impossible to envisage a time where all an individual’s waking hours are spent behind the wheel of a car. The thirst for more travel will be quenched long before that. This is an area which requires much more study.

But, significantly, ‘peak car’ does not remove the impact of ten million more people – who between them will drive four million more cars – in the UK in little more than two decades’ time. Whichever way you look at it, the result will be: more congestion.”

The RAC Foundation even realises there are transport options which don’t involve privately-owned metal boxes taking up public space, but it’s “other people” who need to get out of their cars, not “us”:

“Of course if a sizeable number of us found an alternative to using our cars, then our worries about the jams and their consequences – including the impact on our collective carbon footprint – would evaporate. We could spend our time, trouble and money addressing other issues. It is crucial that we encourage people to substitute their car use with something else where possible, but the evidence suggests that while such measures can reduce demand for personal motorised travel, they are not enough to stem the tide of congestion.

“Realistically, it is difficult to envisage many trips longer than five miles being transferred away from the car to walking or cycling.”

Subsidy for driving

And the RAC Foundation – like other parts of the roads lobby and like (former) Transport ministers – always stresses that railways are “subsidised” while spending on roads is “investment”, and motorists “pay for the roads”.

“Railways and buses – on average – cost the taxpayer money in subsidy: 15p per passenger mile travelled on the train;67 6p per mile per passenger on the bus. By contrast, drivers of cars and lorries contribute a net 7p per mile to the Exchequer in fuel duty and vehicle excise duty alone (excluding VAT). Even if public transport were an answer, would it be one we could afford?”

Costs of driving

The RAC Foundation also appears to be in favour of taxation opt-outs. All motoring taxes should be spent on motorists:

“There is no sign of government accepting the logic of ring-fencing a higher proportion of road tax revenue, particularly in the present economic circumstances. In part, the continued inability of 34 million drivers to get a fairer deal is a symptom of the lack of both a single, coherent consumer voice for motorists and a regulator to ensure that motorists get the service from the road network that they have paid for. There continues to be no formal recognition that road users are paying a great deal in return for the use of an asset – and, in contrast to the situation with our other utilities, far more than it costs to provide that asset.”

Why do Government’s oppose such ring-fencing? Because if motoring taxation was ring-fenced, all hell would break loose. Interest groups of all creeds and colours would start demanding “their” tax contributions should only go to fund “their” projects. Society does not work that way; cannot work that way.

There are no taxation opt-outs: married couples without kids cannot strike out the amount of tax that pays for schools; pacifists cannot strike out the amount of tax that goes on defence spending. And motorists can’t successfully demand that the money they give to the Government is given straight back to them in the shape of smoother, less congested roads, or more of them.

Smoother, less congested roads would be wonderful for all road users, not just motorists, and such infrastructure – a shared national resource – is paid for by all taxpayers, not just motorists. The public highway is, by definition, for the benefit of the public, not a sub-set of the public.


I’m interested in this stuff because I’m writing a book on the history of roads (and the forgotten contribution cyclists made to the roads of the UK and the USA). In the UK, only 1 percent of roads were specifically built for motorised vehicles. Add motorway-style trunk roads into the mix and you get 13 percent of UK roads which are mainly motorised vehicles only.

The majority of roads were not built for cars.

In the 1880s, cycling bodies in the UK and USA were the first bodies to push for road surface improvements. In the UK, the Roads Improvements Association paid for road trials of surface treatments, including asphalt and organised the first conferences on roads. The RIA was started as part of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. In the US, cyclists were even more influential. US presidents used to attend the AGM of the League of American Wheelmen.

Motorists clamour for the blackstuff but they need to thank cyclists for its adoption.