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The Future Of Cities Is Hidden Beneath Their Streets

From the lost bike highways of England to the forgotten trolleys of the American South, some cities are looking to the past to plan the future.

Modern urban infrastructure is failing–just look at the miles and miles of crumbling highways, aging bridges, and bad traffic. That’s partially because of the sheer number of people moving to urban centers, putting more and more cars on the road and straining public transit systems.

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Some believe the answer to this infrastructure problem is bicycles, but finding the space for bike lanes along already crowded thoroughfares can be challenging. The historian and bicycle advocate Carlton Reid is proposing an alternative in his native United Kingdom: The miles of lost cycleways that date to the Britain of the 1930s–some of which are buried beneath today’s streets.

Reid isn’t alone in excavating the past for answers about the future. As many urban centers attempt to make themselves safer and greener, more cities are turning to history to rediscover their older selves–digging into a time before the car reigned supreme, when cities were more walkable, bikeable, and livable.

Excavating England’s Lost Bike Highways

In a new project that launched on Kickstarter in April, Reid is proposing to locate and, if needed, excavate miles of old cycleways, and link them up with the U.K.’s existing modern cycle infrastructure. “What you get from official bodies and planners is we can’t provide for cyclists because we don’t have enough space,” Reid says. “But this project is proving that not only do we have the space, but we’ve had it for 80 years.”

Reid writes about his discovery of the extensive network of bike lanes in his recent book Bike Boom, which looks at the history of cycling as transportation in the U.K. from 1900 to 1980. He devotes one chapter to the ’30s, and his discovery of the hidden bike lanes that date to that prewar era before cars had entirely taken over as the primary mode of transport. While Reid says it’s difficult to know why the government started investing in cycle infrastructure between 1934 and 1939, he has two theories: one, cyclists were “dying like flies” with the new numbers of cars on the road; and two, government officials wanted to get the bicycles out of the street so they could drive faster in their cars. “They thought, let’s protect them and give them their own space, and that pleases everybody,” he says.

In order to force local governments to comply, Reid says, the Ministry of Transport instituted a simple rule: Anyone who wanted to build a road with grant money also had to build bicycle lanes. “It was arm twisting. It was blackmail,” Reid says. “We had no idea the Ministry of Transport was so far ahead of its time.”

[Photo: Courtesy Bike Boom]
After spending countless hours looking through records of road building material from local counties’ archives, the Ministry of Transport in London, and old local newspapers, Reid would scour the area where he thought there might be an old cycleway and look for the telltale sign: old concrete, a much rarer sight now that the vast majority of British roads are paved in asphalt. “I‘m very much a concrete nerd now,” he says. 

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If he finds old concrete, he looks for the types of roads they’re built on and the age of the road. If the cycleway is in a city, he looks for any municipal housing that might be nearby. That’s because the houses that were built for working class people often had cycleways, since the working class would take bikes while the middle and upper classes would have cars–a fascinating historical detail of the class divide baked into infrastructure.

Of course, not all the cycleways are recognizable–and that’s where the money from Kickstarter comes in. Reid hopes to map out where all the cycleways are, including ones that may be buried, to find all the routes that might be usable again. “Some of the roads could have been buried or widened and long gone,” he says. “That is the case for some in London, which have been buried under eight-lane highways. But there are so many that are still there, and people have no idea that they’re still there.”

Ultimately, Reid’s plan is to link up the old bike paths with modern ones, and he’s paired up with John Dales, an urban planner and the director of Urban Movement. While the Kickstarter money (now at nearly $21,000, 233% of their goal of $9,000) will fund the duo’s research for the next six months or so, Reid hopes that the number and ardor of their supporters (there are 633 as of this writing) will be an arguing point when they try to convince the government to fund the maintenance and connecting of the old and new paths.

The Ministry of Transport’s brief but radical cycling policy ground to a halt with the onset of World War II, when road building stopped and money was directed toward the war effort. When the war was over, infrastructure development continued in the form of building housing for returning soldiers. Reid says the government did not pick up road building until the late ’50s, when cycling was already on its way out.

Century-Old Lessons From Cities Past

There’s a good chance the U.K. isn’t the only country with older cycleways that have fallen into disrepair. Reid says that he was recently cycling on a trip to Cologne, Germany, where he came across a bike path that fit all the markers he’s come to look for. As far as he knows, no one’s dug them up yet, but there’s potential for other bike advocates to look into similar projects in their home countries.

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[Photo: Courtesy Bike Boom]
Reid isn’t alone in looking to older, pre-car infrastructure for answers to the urban infrastructure dilemma. Across the pond in North America, biking was hugely popular in the 1880s and 1890s. As the car began to gain ubiquity, the debate about how to keep cyclists safe began, as well as a push for more space on the roads. But it’s unclear whether the U.S. or Canada was as forward thinking as the U.K. government about building actual bike lanes–as many cities are doing in spades currently, since they can improve the economyslow climate change, and take some of the pressure off the roads and public transit systems.

But in the U.S., another type of pre-car infrastructure is enjoying a bit of a resurgence: The trolley. In Atlanta, trolleys were a main way to get around from 1871, when the first streetcar opened, to 1949, when the last streetcar went out of service. Amber Rhea, an architectural historian at the Georgia Department of Transportation, writes of what happened next in the Southern arts magazine Burnaway:

“One by one, the lines were ripped up or, more often, paved over or adaptively used, leaving behind their imprint on the built environment–which, as time marched on, became indecipherable to generations familiar only with automobile travel, now scratching their heads at seeming ‘weirdness’ in the landscape.”

But now, the city has adopted the idea for the 21st century. The new Atlanta Streetcar opened in December 2014. And in Dallas, a similar revitalization of pre-car infrastructure has occurred as well. There, the first trolleys had mule-drawn cars in 1872, and the electric system ran from 1890 to 1956. It reopened again in 2015.

As cities continue to struggle against their dependency on cars, looking to the past for inspiration doesn’t seem quite so backward-thinking.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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