Forgotten network of 1930s cycleways uncovered using Google Street View

Historian Carlton Reid has pinpointed existing cross-country cycle routes that could be given a fresh lease of life as superhighways for electric and pedal-powered bikes.

Britains forgotten past as a pioneer of world-class cycle superhighways has been resurrected by a historian using Google Street View.

Carlton Reid, an author and campaigner who is also executive editor of trade magazine BikeBiz.com, identified at least 280 miles of 1930s Dutch-style cycle track that are potentially available to be brought back into use as official intercity lanes for pedal-powered bikes as well as their electric counterparts.

This could take the form of waymarked ‘Schnell Routes’ similar to those being rolled out in Germany to help commuters move around quickly without polluting the environment.

The fact that many of the hidden cycleways identified by Reid run alongside busy arterial roads is likely to make them unattractive to most cyclists, but some of the routes are situated in residential areas, where they are often now treated as private roads with cars parked on them.

Reid told E&T: “The beauty of this is that, firstly, the space is already there – because that’s one thing people say: ‘Oh there’s no space [for cyclists]’.

“The second thing is it makes this incredibly cheap in transport terms. You know, remodel one tiny junction and you’ve splashed £2million straight away, whereas with this, with a few million pounds you can actually bring back to life, if not the long distance routes, certainly the residential ones.”

Reid unearthed the full extent of the historic cycle network during research for a book to be published next month. He also launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to enable him to continue his research.

He pinpointed the cross-country tracks using digital tools, but he has also visited a few close to his home in north-east England.

“There’s one in Sunderland which blew my mind,” he said. “It is the gold standard of cycle infrastructure engineering which bicycle advocates say that, if only we had it, we could be a cycling nation. It’s easy to build protected cycling infrastructure along a straight road, the problem is with the junctions. Here in Sunderland there was a protected arm - fully protected from the roundabout. I was like, hang on, this is what we say that only the Dutch can build, but we were doing this 80 years ago.”

He added: “I’ve been a cycle campaigner for the best part of 30 years and I had no idea we had so much of this relatively high-quality separated infrastructure dotted around and nobody else knew about it.

“People locally might think, oh we’ve got that thing, but because it’s only one stretch they didn’t connect it with all the other programmes around the country.”

Rifling through archival material turned up documentation relating to the giant government cycle-lane building programme which took off just prior to the Second World War.

Reid said: “Between 1937 and 1940 the Ministry of Transport would only give local authorities road-building grants – these were sometimes 75 or 90 per cent grants, so massive grants – if they included high-quality cycling infrastructure in their plans.

“This was why these routes were built. The local authorities were probably pissed off about it. They didn’t want to build these things, but they would only get the money if they put them in.”

Meteoric rise of the family motor car and expansion of Britain’s arterial road and then motorway network meant many of the cycle routes quickly fell into disuse or were turned into service roads, hard shoulders or simply another lane for motorists. Money for the trans-UK cycle routes quickly dried up as ministers’ priorities shifted.

John Dales, an urban planner specialising in transport who is collaborating with Reid on his research project, said: “One of the things that is quite legitimately raised about British traffic engineers and highway engineers is that we don’t really know how to do this stuff because we’ve never done it and we’ve always had to look abroad.

“What’s fascinating about these [cycleways] is that actually, piecemeal as they were, we have done it.

“Trying to recover these tracks, these paths hidden in plain sight, is a really terrific opportunity.

“Who knows how many of the 280 miles are genuinely in a position of being brought back in? But let’s say it’s just 100, which I think is highly likely, that’s 100 we haven’t got at the moment in effect, but also 100 that could become 150, 200 really quickly by joining them up to the other stuff that’s going on.”

A map showing the location of the historic cycleway routes across the UK can be viewed here.

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