Roads Were Not Built For Cars by Carlton Reid – Book Review


You may recognise the name of the author from his popular website I stumbled upon this particular website when looking for the facts about road tax after being  shouted at from a white van (like most cyclist will have been at some point) about cyclists not paying road tax. As I’m sure you’re aware there is no such thing as “Road Tax”, if however this is news to you, may I suggest you visit the aforementioned website before reading the rest of this book review.

Road tax is just one of the many modern myths or misunderstandings that surrounds road use today, and this book sets out to set things straight, starting with the title! 

The book is absolutely packed full of interesting facts, quotes and thought provoking points that will not have occurred to most people living in the “age of the motorcar”. The research required to write this book must have been incredibly time consuming, and a wealth of notes are provided on the web to provide further proof to this body of work. The book is basically a presentation of facts, with each chapter/section presenting a theme. A little dry in parts, as thorough factual books can be, the persistent reader is rewarded with some very engaging content. A book like this has to be comprehensive to display as much evidence as possible, and does this very successfully, putting the points across clearly and effectively.

So what is the book about? Roads; the history and social influence that has led us to the car dominated society we live in today. The title is a deliberate talking point, but the book is not anti car; as might be first assumed, it is more: “This is where we’ve come from, don’t forget it, lets all get along”. It sets straight some of the myths we’ve come to think of as true on today’s roads, but when you actually think about them the truth is obvious. If all road users, car/lorry drivers, cyclists and pedestrians read and digested the information in the book the streets that we live amongst would be a nicer and safer places to be. However the people most likely to read the book are probably cyclists, who already feel marginalised by the current car dominated roads. Perhaps I was born in the wrong century, but when bicycles ruled the newly laid smooth tarmac roads I think I would have felt right at home, though I would probably have been labelled a “Scorcher”.

The book focuses on both English and American road development, and society’s response from both countries through the cycling era and into the motoring era. The following is an intriguing quote from the book which illustrates the main theme well:

“We’ve built ourselves a motor-centric society and we can only imagine a slightly different future: more roads, dotted with faster, sleeker motor cars, perhaps powered by electricity but still car shaped. 18th-century folk thought canals would last for ever. 19th -century folk thought the same about turnpikes, and then trains. “People of to-day … were born in a railway world, and they expect to die in one,” said H.G. Wells in 1901.”

There is another key theme running through the book also, and that is of bicycles. How they paved the way for the car with new technology, road surfaces, speed, and the idea of personal transport. It really is a fascinating history that deserves to be read.

With much of the language being quotes from upper-class society in the late 19th century there is a good range of vocabulary, with a few of the words not being in common use today. Many of the electronic formats (Kindle, iPad etc) will have a look up function for words like “plebeian”. Overall the book is very professionally written and presented.

I do not wish to spoil the book’s contents so I will not begin reeling off a list of my favourite bits of trivia from within its pages (of which there are many). I will however say that it contains thought provoking content about: the future, the past, freedom, transport, Hitler, rewriting history, road rights, road deaths, road surfaces, cars, Sir Henry Thomson’s warning about car drivers becoming “flabby” in the late 1800s, horse urine, carriages, Romans and bicycles.

This book is not a light holiday read, nor will it inspire you to pedal harder or achieve cycling greatness; it is not that kind of book. It is a bit like watching QI (the BBC program staring, until recently, Stephen Fry) with the theme of the show being transport, roads and bicycles. Many of the answers are not what you expect, and that’s what keeps you reading. It’s the kind of book you’ll read and want to keep for future reference. I read the iPad version which contained additional photos and video content. The main interest however lies in the words, so for me I would have been happy with any of the formats. The first edition of the book was self published after being funded by Kickstarter, the new second edition is published by Island Press. All formats can be purchased from with freshly printed 2nd edition hard and soft backs now available (be quick though, as these paper versions do sell out pretty quickly!)

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