There’s been a lot of positive talk the last few years about bike highways such as the approved to be built in London or the ones built in the Netherlands. These are very great pieces of cycling infrastructure and are/will be valuable thoroughfares for their communities. With these exciting projects occurring across the pond, many lament the fact that North America in particular is lagging behind. But to gain some perspective on the cycling situation North America is in right now, I thought we could dive a bit into the history of bicycle highways for a bit.
One of the first bicycle highways ever, which I will define as a continuous separated road designed for cyclists over a long distance, was actually built in the year 1900 in America. The California Cycle Way was an elevated wooden cycling highway, designed to run the nine miles between Pasadena and city centre of Los Angeles. This ambitious project was to be built over the unstable dirty roads that crossed the landscape at the time and would provide a smooth, quick route into the city. The only problem was it was only initially built to one sixth of the proposed length. This caused problems for its financial sustainability as the route was not as useful as it could have been had it been constructed in full. With high public support and being the best route into the city, the California Cycle Way could have been so much more than it turned out to be. Over the years, the route fell into disuse and was pulled apart and sold. At its time of debut though, it was a marvel of cycling engineering and forward thinking. Papers in Britain were calling for similar routes inspired by the California Cycle Way to be built for their cyclists. Which is most ironic considering how the current London proposal is spurring North American cities to pursue their own cycle highways.
Another interesting bicycle highway, was the Coney Island Cycle Path, which was a 5.5 mile limestone route designed for cyclists. Built in 1895 it is also an early example of forward thinking bicycle infrastructure and was ridden by thousands. It is actually still in use today, but is currently paved with asphalt.
Other paths built in cities like Rochester, Chicago, and Minneapolis appeared during the period between 1890 and 1910. Spurred on by the adoption of cycling by upper class people and before the mass adoption of the car, North America was home to some of the best cycling infrastructure in the world. Something that seems impossible when one looks at the state of cycling routes today. However the mass adoption and craze over automobiles in the coming century was enough to dismantle all the progress North America had made during that period. So as North America looks jealously over to their European rivals constructing their large bicycle highways, they only have themselves to thank when they see how far behind they are.