The bicycle paved the road for automobiles

Michael Giberson

From Inventing Green, where WIRED writer Alexis Madrigal is blogging his research notes for a forthcoming book The History of Our Future, a discussion of how bicycling may have given the internal combustion engine an early leg up in its competition against steam and electric-powered automobiles (and eventually made the roads unsafe for bicycling). Here is the start:

The bicycle, quite literally, paved the road for automobiles. The explosive popularity of the human-powered, two-wheeled vehicle sparked road construction across the Western world’s cities. The League of American Wheelmen was a major vector for the political will necessary to build better roads with more than one million members (out of a mere 75 million people) at its peak. Sure they engaged in silliness like racing and bicycle polo (!) but at heart, the group was a potent, progressive social force that inadvertently helped bring about its own end by getting roads paved, thus making long distance “touring” possible in automobiles.

Later in the post Madrigal passes along a selection from the League of American Wheelman’s pro-pavement propaganda, The Gospel of Good Roads, in which, as he puts it, “the state of American roads is compared, through a long and hilarious anecdote, to a drunk-ass husband.”

Recently Madrigal has blogged windmill catalogs and the dangers of steamboat travel, explored the work of 19th-century utopian John Adolphus Etzler, reported on just how many buggy whip makers there used to be in Louisville, Kentucky, and tossed a shout out to the American Wind Power Center and Museum.

Fabulous images accompany many of the posts.

Great stuff.

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5 thoughts on “The bicycle paved the road for automobiles

  1. I kind of doubt it.

    In the late 1800’s bicycles were toys for the better off. It wasn’t until the roughly 1910 that bicycles became seen as something a middle class person might ride. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that they became common for children. Bicycles have never been a major form of adult transportation in America. Most streets in European cities where most bikes were ridden had been paved for centuries so I doubt much effect occurred there either.

    Bicycles don’t need paved roads as badly as cars do. Neither do they present enough economic potential to justify paving roads. Roads in dense urban areas where a lot of people would ride bikes were often paved with bricks or stone long before bikes showed up. The real push for widespread paving came from the need to move heavy cargo long distances from railheads. There was a sharp uptick in the size of horse drawn cargo wagons during this time. These wagon required long stretches of paved roads.

    The great paving boon in the U.S. did not start until the 1920 and in most cases it was states paving roads outside of towns and cities. Bicycles had long ceased to be a major consideration then as compared to cars.

  2. Your arguments seem sensible, but here is another historical book blogged that credits the League of American Wheelmen for “good roads” political agitation (apparently backrolled by a Massachusetts bicycle manufacturer).

    Of course just because they advocated for better roads, and subsequently roads were improved, doesn’t quite establish causation. I haven’t read the book, but I hope the evidence is stronger than that.

  3. There’s a substantial body of economic and technological history to support Madrigal’s point. See, for example, the excellent discussion of the development of automobiles and the internal combustion engine in Vaclav Smil’s _Creating the Twentieth Century_.

    Smil is an outstanding historian of technology, and in that book he does a great job of highlight the complementarities between the development of the bicycle and the development of the automobile. The complementarity goes well beyond roads to include metal alloys for the body and the engine, pneumatic tires, and shared knowledge about gearing.

  4. Oh, and Shannon, as a cyclist (and economic historian) I would have to disagree with your argument that cars need pavement more than bikes. Especially the early, rudimentary bicycle designs, which were prone to instability that was exacerbated by uneven and unpredictable road surfaces.

  5. There was a lot synergy between automobiles and cars on the technological level. Indeed early cars looked like motorized three and four wheel bicycles more than they did motorized carriages. However, the common use of bicycles did not precede the common use of cars by more than a few years. Moreover, the main point was the contribution of bicycles to roads.

    I don’t think the idea that early bicycles required paved roads more than early cars is strictly true. As noted above, the first cars where basically heavy bicycles. Their increased weight and mechanical complexity made then a less robust technology than bicycles. Having more power to cross rough surfaces did you little good if the power train could be shaken apart by a minor pot hole.

    Beside what I intended to convey was that bicycles require far less paved area and much less investment per unit of area in total to function as a transportation system. A bike path a meter wide and a kilometer long is very useful. The bed for a bike bath need only support a few dozen kilograms per meter. By contrast that same path is useless for a car. A road to carry a car must be much longer, much wider and with a much stronger bed. So, when you compare the amount total effort spent on roads, that required by cars, even early cars, would dwarf that of bicycles.

    Also, missing from this discussion is the controlling role that cargo hauling has on transportation infrastructure. (This is usually missing in all transportation discussions.) We usually talk in terms of moving people but the need for heavy duty, reliable roads for moving cargo swapped every other consideration. Even today, roads are banked and bedded primarily for trucks of all sizes. This is true even of small apparently lightweight suburban streets. They have to be strong enough to support garbage and fire trucks if nothing. For civil engineers, cars, motorcycles and bicycles are mere afterthoughts in the design process especially when it comes to structural density.

    The same was true a hundred years ago. People didn’t commute back then. The vast majority of people either walked to work or used rail based transport. Roads existed primarily to move cargo in wagons. Priority in paving went to heavy-use roads that carried wagon born cargo and roads and streets that moved people around came second.

    In Europe, military considerations dominated all transportation decisions and had since Roman times. Following the Franco-Prussian war France in particular embarked on a hard road building frenzy so they could fight Germans easier.

    So, it is fair to say that bicycles contributed to the development of the modern road system but I don’t think its fair to say that the scale of that contribution was very significant. Much stronger forces were driving along the development of modern paved roads than bicycles.

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