FreightWaves Classics: Thank you cyclists for today’s highways?
The Good Roads Movement was a widespread effort to build and improve the condition of American roads in the late 1800s, which lasted until the National Highway System was put in place by the federal government in 1926.
Interestingly, the movement was not started by the first users of automobiles or trucks, but by cyclists in the 1870s. However, the effort grew considerably after automobiles began to proliferate.
American Wheelmen League
Bikes were introduced and gained popularity in the United States for two decades after the Civil War ended in 1865.
The League of American Wheelmen advocated for improved roads to make cycling easier and more fun. Bonnes Routes Magazine was started in 1892 to further the cause of the organization and promote road improvement more widely. By 1895, the publication had over a million subscribers.
Farmers propel the movement
The league booklet, The Gospel of Safe Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer (1891), focused on why better roads would serve American farmers, making it easier “to get crops to market, families to church, and children to schools.”
In 1892, 1,000 people gathered in Chicago to start the National League of Good Roads. This led the federal government to establish a highway survey office in 1893. The office was to investigate possibilities and materials to improve the country’s roads, which at the time were mostly dirt. Up until then, improvements beyond the simple dirt road went no further than laying wooden planks, bricks or gravel on the earth, which may or may not have been leveled to some extent.
Motorists add their weight
During the first decade of the 20th century, automobiles were starting to become popular, especially in major cities across the country. “Motorists” – those who made, sold, bought and / or drove in automobiles joined the Good Roads movement. After all, for those who rode a bicycle or car, the country’s poor roads meant their vehicles struggled to be used.
While many automobiles were in use in a fairly small geographic area, some drivers attempted to venture into the countryside or drive from city to city – which was no small feat at the time. …
Henry Ford’s Model T was the first mainstream American car. Introduced by Ford in 1908, it caused huge growth in the number of automobile owners. Therefore, there was an equally huge demand for roads that would allow users of bicycles or automobiles to use them without constant accidents and breakdowns caused by road conditions.
Because most of the roads were dirt, many turned into quagmires when heavy rains occurred. Ruts and other obstacles made driving on the country’s roads difficult and often perilous.
Interestingly, even many of the country’s railways were in favor of better roads, as better roads were seen as a stepping stone to additional business opportunities.
Who was the “father of good roads?” “
There are two men who are considered to have earned this title. The first was Albert A. Pope, who made bicycles and automobiles. However, most consider Horatio Earle to be the man who won the title.
Earle was a bicycle dealer and salesman in Michigan who became the state’s first highways commissioner. In 1909 Earle was responsible for laying the first mile of concrete sidewalk in Wayne County (the county in which Detroit is located). While this proved that dirt roads could be paved (and therefore be more durable and used more), the cost was generally prohibitive.
Meanwhile, the Good Roads organizations continued to grow across the country. One of these organizations was located in Oklahoma and was headed for a time by Cyrus Avery, known as the “Father of Route 66”.
As the number of automobiles (and early trucks) continued to increase, business owners and their associations joined civic organizations to support improved roads. Whether the reason for advocating for better roads was to boost trade or to defend public safety, the movement grew.
Bicycles (and, to a much greater extent, automobiles) have led to an increase in travel between neighboring towns. This has led to businesses that have benefited from local road travel between cities, which has generated more pressure for “good roads”.
In the 1910s, there were around 250 “highways of good roads”. However, most of them were still dirt roads, or dirt and gravel if travelers were lucky.
The proliferation of vehicles meant that more members of the public began to favor the use of taxes for paving roads. In some places, political careers began to depend on supporting better roads.
As noted in previous FreightWaves Classics articles, one of the earliest and most famous “Good Roads” was the Lincoln Highway, which was the first transcontinental “highway” in the United States. These previous FreightWaves Classics articles pointed out that the Lincoln Highway was anything but a freeway – especially west of the Mississippi River…
Nonetheless, the Lincoln Highway began in 1912 and was built to promote national tourism and commerce. He also made known the need for federal participation in road construction.
The Lincoln Highway began in Times Square in New York and ran west to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The idea for the freeway was developed by Carl Fisher, an auto enthusiast and businessman who made automotive headlights and owned what many consider to be America’s premier car dealership. Fisher had gained fame in 1911 with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500.
The Lincoln Highway was named after President Lincoln, who was one of Fisher’s heroes. As part of the advertising strategy to generate support for Better Roads, statues of Lincoln have been placed along the road in towns along its route. The highway became the country’s first national memorial to Lincoln. The highway had powerful supporters, including President Woodrow Wilson, former President Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison.
Federal Aid Roads Act
The Good Roads movement was very successful in 1916. The United States Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act, which provided matching funds for paving roads in states with road services. President Wilson signed the legislation into law. This was followed by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, which provided funds to pave up to 7% of a state’s highways. Unfortunately, the legislation did not contain any language on linking freeways between cities or states, but it was a start.
The situation led the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture to appoint a board of directors of state and federal highways in 1925 “to develop a national highway system from existing roads and a national signage system, culminating in the National Highway System of 1926. ”
With its largely successful goals, the Good Roads movement collapsed.