In recent years, London cyclists have fought hard to get properly segregated cycle lanes. 80 years ago, they were noisily opposed to the idea.
1934 was a landmark year for road innovations. Minister for Transport Leslie Hore-Belisha had recently introduced the first Belisha beacons to improve pedestrian safety. Soon after, he stood on Western Avenue to cut the ribbons on a two and a half mile twin cycle track, connecting Hanger Lane to Greenford Road. Made from concrete, 2.5 metres wide and costing around £7,000, this was an ambitious experiment. Segregated lanes were the great new hope for safeguarding the lives of cyclists; 1,324 had been killed on Britain’s roads in the previous year alone.
“The challenge presented by the figures of cyclists killed and injured is so formidable,” said Hore-Belisha later, “that I would be guilty of dereliction of duty if I did not do something to try and protect them.”
Unfortunately, cyclists didn’t like the idea of segregated lanes. In fact, they held open protests and sent frequent deputations to the Ministry of Transport to oppose the notion.
What’s the good of them?
A chief concern was one of personal liberty. Lobby groups such as the National Cyclists’ Union feared that riders would be compulsorily forced to use the lanes, which would “curtail their rights on the King’s Highway”. As one newspaper sardonically countered: “If pedestrians had adopted the same attitude when pavements were first built and had succeeded in their demand that they should continue to share ‘the right of the road’ there would probably be no pedestrian left by now.”
Some argued that cycle lanes — even segregated ones — gave a false sense of security. Accidents might be more likely to occur where the cycle tracks cut out, such as at road junctions. Many also feared the introduction of a cycling tax to pay for the infrastructure.
From the view of the cycle clubs, separated paths were not needed and not wanted. Instead, attention should be focused on improving the habits of motorists, and punishing those who caused death and injury through careless driving. As one angry letter writer to the Yorkshire Evening Post put it:
“The only motorists I am afraid of are the learners and the drinkers. I have had experience of the former and, so far (touch wood), only heard of the latter. A cycle path would not save me from either, so what’s the good of them?”
Protests and counter-protests
This opposition led to many demonstrations, including a mass cycle ride along Western Avenue — on the road, rather than in the dedicated lanes. In the north, pickets were placed at either end of another early cycle track on the York to Malton road, to coax cyclists into asserting their ‘democratic right to the highway’.
Miss Pamela Laycon of Harrow got so vexed with petulant cyclists that she staged her own counter-protest. “I thought I would retaliate on behalf of motorists,” she said. “I drove down the cycle tracks at about 15 miles an hour, and when the police stopped me they said I would be summoned for driving dangerously, negligently, and without reasonable care.” Because no signs prohibited motorists from using the cycle tracks, Miss Laycon was never summoned to court. “I am rather disappointed,” she said. “…my whole object was to get the motorists’ point of view ventilated.”
What happened next?
Cycling associations continued to grumble about the cycle lanes, but they seem to have been in a vocal minority. A survey in July 1935 found that 80% of cyclists along Western Avenue were happy to use the segregated paths. The government now considered making segregated lanes a central plank of its roads policy. By 1938 there were 120 miles of off-highway cycle track in the country. Cyclist opposition could still be found in press reports as late as 1944. In this year, a representative of the Ministry of War Transport sought to reassure the Pedal Club that cycle lanes were not only safe, but would improve in years to come:
“There will remain the road intersections, but we hope that at the more important road junctions we shall have two-level roundabouts by which cyclists and pedestrians will each have their own means of passing in complete safety wholly segregated from the motor traffic on the road.”
After the war, the ongoing opposition to segregation, the decision to focus transport budgets on a national system of motorways, and lingering austerity all conspired to stymie the construction of further schemes. Cycle provision was no longer a priority. London missed its chance to develop a system of segregated cycle lanes, as is commonplace in cities like Amsterdam.
Today, things have very much swung the other way. Most cyclists are supportive of segregated routes — at least when they’re well implemented. Indeed, dogged lobbying has led to many proposals for such schemes in London. Plans are now undergoing study to introduce lanes around Vauxhall Gyratory and Bridge, with Dutch-style roundabouts and the “Mini-Holland” scheme, plus a ‘Crossrail for cycling‘ that would transform the capital’s pedal provision.
We should not judge the cyclists of 80 years ago too harshly, if at all. Their opposition to segregated lanes came in a very different era, when motor transport was barely out of its infancy, and the rules of the road were still being established. The arguments and details of campaigns might change over the decades but then, as now, cyclists only wanted greater safety on the streets.
Note on sources: many contemporary newspaper articles were used to compile this piece. As most are behind subscription paywalls (chiefly, the British Newspaper Archive and Times Digital Archive), we haven’t linked them up, but here’s one freely accessible article from 1934 that sets the scene. If you’re interested in any the particulars of the article, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on the source.