California once imagined a future without cars with this bike superhighway

The beginnings of the cycleway. Wikimedia Commons

Drivers in Los Angeles spend an average of 90 hours a year stuck in traffic. But back in the 1890s, California imagined a different future for the city’s streets.

The state planned to build a for-profit, six-mile bike-only highway only for bikes that would stretch from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles. It was the brainchild of Pasadena resident Horace Dobbins, who began construction after city approval in 1897.

Three years later, it opened as an elevated tollway that collected 10 cents per biker, or about $US2.50 in today’s money.

Only 1.3 miles of the cycleway were actually built. The city tore it down a decade later since it never made a profit.

The California Cycleway’s planned route. Google Maps

The cycleway may sound like a far-fetched idea today, but at the time, most Americans moved through cities by foot, historian and author Peter Norton told Business Insider. City folk weren’t yet sure if they should adopt cars.

“Many experts and ordinary people agreed that cars didn’t really belong in cities,” he said. “They made a lot of sense in the country, but in the city, they demanded too much space, drove pedestrians off the streets, and injured too many people.”

The California Cycleway likely failed because it was meant for recreation, rather than for efficient commutes, according to Norton. For those who rode bikes as an inexpensive way to get around, the toll seemed steep. The timing of the construction was also unfortunate; the Cycleway was built just as recreational cycling was going out of fashion.

Local cycling clubs and activist groups like the League of American Wheelmen competed against powerful auto manufacturers and wealthy car owners.

“The future was not so much a natural evolution, but more a struggle for control,” Norton said.

The League of American Wheelmen circa 1880s. Wikimedia Commons

Today, most city infrastructure is still planned around the needs of cars. But many cities (especially European ones) are trying to change that by building extensive bike lanes and improving public transit. Oslo recently announced that it will ban cars from its city center by 2019, and Madrid plans to do the same by 2020.

The city of Copenhagen is also building 26 cycling superhighways that will span 186 miles, while Xiamen, China opened a suspended cycleway for a monthlong trial in early 2017 that allows for 2,023 bicycles at a time.

Although it’d be a giant feat, Norton said a similar cycleway could work in California and elsewhere in the US.

“The sheer madness of America’s lavish energy consumption and public health disasters have compelled people to look for good alternatives, and there are plenty,” he said.

The country may just get one in the coming years. The East Coast Greenway Alliance is working on a
2,900-mile bike path that will link Maine to Florida. Today, it has about 850 miles of trails. By 2020, the organisation plans to add 200 more, and have 95% of the trail done by 2030 — which would make it the largest bike trail in the US.