An Urban Cycling History

In order to understand more deeply the present situation of urban cycling, and the potential ways in which its future can be influenced, it is necessary to also examine cycling history, starting from the mid-twentieth century. The counterculture of the 1960s, and subsequent energy crisis of the early seventies, made this era particularly pivotal. It also saw the publishing of an influential report by Colin Buchanan, titled Traffic in Towns. This warned of the potential damage created by use of the motorcar, which was rapidly rising in popularity at the time.


It is impossible to spend any time on the study of the future of traffic in towns,” said the report’s steering group, “without at once being appalled by the magnitude of the emergency that is coming upon us. We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great potential destructiveness [the motor vehicle], and yet we love him dearly. To refuse to accept the challenge it presents would be an act of defeatism.”

Traffic in Towns – Colin Buchanan, 19631


His dramatic language stressed the need to mitigate the effect of the motorcar through restricted access, and the policies that this report legitimised saw the creation of a lot of the pedestrianisation that we now see around town centres. However, arguably, it also led to the accommodation of cars at other points outside the centre, and so in consequence was actually used to bolster Britain’s car culture. In the Netherlands however, the very same report was used as a warning not to build just for cars, and thus fostered the emergent urban bike culture. Back in the UK, as cars gained momentum over the following forty years, they increasingly made other methods of transport obsolete, and since then, as we have been building a society that relies on motorized transport, the cycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible choice of transport to a toy or fringe-dwellers choice.


cycling history

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This is well-illustrated by this chart showing the percentage of journeys conducted by different forms of transport from 1949 to 2006, showing how levels of cycling have fallen dramatically. Annotations and analysis by David Hembrow.

In order to adapt to the motorcar, the urban form has shifted in its entirety. The patterns of development have moved from human-scaled to vehicle-scaled. No longer is the typical town centre a densely packed warren of shops and culture where all the essentials can be gathered, but has in many places been dispersed over a network of dual carriageways leading to out of town retail sheds and McDonalds on roundabouts; a sea of motorcars through which the lone determined cyclist must wade. This, along with political change and the exponential growth of technological change, means that speed has become central to our lives, and has thus also created a dispersal whereby people’s lives have become stretched out over greater areas of space. One’s support network now might spread over hundreds of square miles, or into a global system, rather than restricted to a couple of streets as it might one day have been.  This urban landscape, characterized by great speed and great distance, does not lend itself to living ecologically.

With this in mind, we might see an increase in cycling as the ideal symbol for a ‘return to the future’, representing the saviour of the modern city and a reaction to the evils of modernism and the motorcar. As a human-scaled and human-driven machine, the bicycle, if mainstreamed, will help promote a return to the production of walkable, equitable, people-focused communities. However, what is needed for this to occur is continuous investment, and a recognition of the role that cycling can play in creating liveable communities and places.



1. Buchanan, C, 1963. Traffic in towns: A study of the long term problems of traffic in urban areas. 1st ed. Great Britain: HMSO.