This post originally appeared at The Infrastructurist back in June 2010, as an adapted excerpt from The King’s Best Highway. That fine site is now defunct and all its links broken, so to preserve the post’s posterity, I’ve copied it here in its original form.
The Office of Road Inquiry, seedling of today’s Federal Highway Administration, emerged from a feverish push to secure federal road reform known as the Good Roads Movement. In 1927 the Ford Motor Company took credit for this movement in the press. Such a claim raised few flags at the time, and it no doubt raises none today. Everyone knows the Model T changed the country forever. The notion that better roads followed a better car makes a lot of sense, which is precisely why it makes a great platform for revisionist history.
In actuality, the creation of the Office of Road Inquiry was authorized by Congress in February 1893. That’s more than half a year before Frank Duryea built what’s generally considered the first modern American gasoline car, and a full decade before Ford’s company even arrived on the automotive scene. In short, it wasn’t the promise of cars that inspired federal highway reform as we know it today.
It was the promise of bicycles.
With the exception of the National Road, the federal government didn’t concern itself with highway construction until the very end of the 19th century. Highways had long been local concerns, and most locales still subscribed to the colonial New England method of road upkeep: once or twice each year all the town’s men gathered on a few-mile stretch of dirt road with amateur tools—and, quite often, some alcohol—in hand for the occasion.
This inadequate approach persisted through the Civil War. In 1868 the Department of Agriculture released a report following a survey of the nation’s highways. “There is probably no public interest in which sound and intelligent legislation is more needed,” the department declared, “than in the enactment and revision of our road law.”
Strange as it seems today, the reason for the widespread neglect of common roads was the quality of the country’s railroads. Although “the railroads have not really lessened the importance of the wagon road,” wrote J.W. Jenks, a leading political economist, in spring of 1889, “they seem to have done so.” Steam engines ruled that day. Maybe electric engines would rule tomorrow. But some railroad engines, it seemed, would rule forever.
This flawed thinking was so pervasive that even the smallest request for road funding triggered sharp reactions by federal lawmakers. When a congressman from Texas noticed the line item that eventually led to the Office of Road Inquiry, for instance, he moved to strike it rather than please “a lot of ‘cranks’ in this country who are asking the Government to take the supervision of the dirt roads.” (Replace “dirt roads” with “health care,” and such a cry sounds painfully recent.)
The chief “crank” was an innovative businessman named Albert Pope. Largely forgotten today, “Colonel” Pope was an American entrepreneur of the first order. Pope first laid eyes on the velocipede—the ancestor of the modern bicycle, with a large front wheel and a small rear one—in 1876. During the two decades that followed, Pope’s Columbia bicycles not only popularized riding in the United States, but in many ways ingrained the idea of independent travel into the nation’s psyche.
Pope fought laws banning bikers from streets and parks, spending $8,000 alone to gain access to Manhattan’s young Central Park. As a riding culture emerged, Pope financed the publication of touring guides that fed the growing urge for suburban retreat. Soon city slickers shed crowded streets for weekends in the wilderness. Courtship habits changed, and fashion soon followed: ladies donned bloomers to keep from getting their gowns tangled in bike chains, causing a stir by exposing a then-scandalous bit of leg.
Several contemporary publications spoke of Pope’s cultural impact, but the boldest words were put forth by the 1900 U.S. Census. “It is safe to say that few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions as the bicycle,” the Census read. “Colonel Pope bears the undisputed title ‘Father of the American bicycle.’ ”
As bicycle outings surged in popularity, riders everywhere shared a common burden—hazardous roads. Soon Pope began speaking across the country about the need for good roads. “The high point to be aimed at,” he said back in 1889, “is the recognition of the importance of the whole situation by the national government.”
However logical such thinking seems now, it took years to convince federal lawmakers of their role in highway reform. Pope started magazines like Good Roads to bring the movement into the public eye. He donated $6,000 to M.I.T. for a new “highway engineering” program. Eventually he sent Congress a petition endorsed by powerful friends, including President Benjamin Harrison. Writing in Harper’s, Nathaniel Shaler of Harvard, head of the country’s first specialized road program, called Pope’s petition the last key step “to arouse the people to an understanding of the burden which their ill-conditioned highways impose upon them.”
On March 3, 1893, his final day in office, President Harrison signed the bill calling for the Office of Road Inquiry into law. Federal road reform had crossed the point of no return. Progress was slow, however. The office was given an initial budget of $10,000—a sum that could have paid to construct about three miles of road at the time. That is, if the office had been allowed to use its funds to build roads at all, which it was not. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1916 did authorize funds for building roads, but only in rural communities.
It wasn’t until 1921 that significant funds, to the tune of $75 million, were committed to improving highways across the country. By then the automobile, led by the Model T, was dominating the world of personal transport, and Pope had been dead some twelve years. It was only a matter of time before Ford’s car was hailed as having “started the movement for good roads everywhere.” Sure enough, those words appeared in 1927 in the Hartford Courant—hometown newspaper of Pope’s Columbia bicycle factory, no less.