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How Gilded Age Bicyclists Paved the Way for the Modern Highway System

The Good Roads Movement of the late 19th century began as a grass-roots crusade to improve roads for bicyclists. By the 20th century, it had turned into a national effort embraced by the automobile industry, railroad tycoons and presidents.

Women riding bicycles on a dirt road in the late 19th century. (Wikimedia commons)
While American streets today might need a patched pothole or a repaving, their quality far exceeds that of 19th-century roads. Throughout the 1800s, most roads in America – particularly in rural America – were composed of gravel or dirt. They turned to mud in spring and were lined with potholes in summer. The result was slow travel at best and impassable conditions at worst. Most roads were privately owned and maintained, lacking any funding from federal, state or local government.

Beginning in the 1870s, a grass-roots movement known as the Good Roads Movement began to advocate for improved rural roadways. These activists were not drivers of horse-drawn carriages or stagecoaches. They were bicyclists.

The late 19th century saw the rise of an American craze for bicycles. Cyclists (often called “wheelmen”) sought to improve rural roadways by smoothing country lanes for bicycle riding. National cyclist organizations, particularly the League of American Wheelman (LAW), advocated for better quality, safer roads.
Founded in 1880, the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) advocated for state and federal legislation that would protect the interests of cyclists. LAW became a national organization in 1892, and quickly began to publish Good Roads Magazine. The monthly magazine touted the importance of improved roadways through text and image. Within three years of their first publication, Good Roads Magazine had one million readers. (
Cyclists argued that improved rural roads would not only help riders, but also farmers. With reliable roads, farmers could more easily get crops to market, while rural families could stay better connected to schools, churches and urban centers. LAW and other Good Roads Movement organizations collaborated with farmers as well as journalists, engineers, business owners and politicians. They advocated for road repairs, pushed for education in road building for rural areas and demanded government funding for all of these improvements. Many states formed their own Good Roads associations, which worked toward these changes at the local and state levels.

With the rise of mass-produced vehicles like the Ford Model T in the early 20th century, more people than ever began driving automobiles. These new drivers became acutely aware of America’s poor road conditions. As a result, automobile interest groups like the American Automobile Association joined the Good Roads Movement. Railroad companies also supported the construction of better roads, believing that automobiles would open opportunities for people to access and use railroads.
With the popularization of the automobile in the 20th century, the car industry began to advocate for government leaders to improve roads. Unpaved roads and potholes led to many automobile accidents, as seen in this 1911 image of a Ford Model T stuck in a muddy road. (
With Good Roads associations at the state and national level, and with backing from multiple industries, state and federal government began to act. In 1891, New Jersey became the first state to pass a law to develop road-building projects. Two years later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched an assessment of the quality of highway systems in the country. In 1916, President Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act, the first bill to provide national funding for improving roads throughout the United States.

It took longer for the Good Roads Movement to achieve one of its final goals: a national, government-funded system of roads. In 1926, the federal government developed the National Highway System, which created the first unified numbering system for American roads. This system helped lay the foundation for President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, from which developed the Interstate Highway System that Americans drive on today.

The Good Roads Movement accomplished a majority of its goals, particularly those that benefited the growing automobile industry. But many of its objectives around bicycle transportation remain unfulfilled over 100 years later. Today’s bicycle safety advocates are once again pushing for improved and safer road conditions for cyclists, taking up the same causes as the 19th-century wheelmen.
Emma Newcombe has a Ph.D. in American and New England Studies from Boston University.
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