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In 1900, Los Angeles had a bike highway — and the US was a world leader in bike lanes

Los Angeles' partially-completed California Cycleway, in 1900.
Los Angeles' partially-completed California Cycleway, in 1900.
(Pasadena Museum of History)

Copenhagen is one of the world's best cities for biking, with more than 200 miles of bike lanes and two of just a handful of bike superhighways built worldwide. Meanwhile, of the top 20 most bike-friendly cities in the world, only one is in the US — while 17 are in Europe.

But what most people don't realize is that way back in 1900, Los Angeles began construction on the world's first bike highway. During this bike-crazed era, cities across the US built the earliest precursors to today's protected bike lanes — and the country as a whole was briefly at the forefront of global bicycle infrastructure.

At the time, the bicycle was largely a leisure toy for the rich, and as part of the Good Roads Movement, these riders campaigned heavily to pave existing roads. In some places, they also pushed for bike-specific paths and routes.

Soon afterward, though, the automobile replaced the bike as their recreational vehicle of choice — and it eventually became the country's main mode of transportation. Almost as quickly as they were built, most of these bike routes and paths were converted into roads, dismantled, or allowed to fall into decay.

New Jersey's Bicycle Railroad

The Hotchkiss Bicycle Railroad was a two-mile rail designed for specialized bikes.

(Burlington County Historical Society)

Before the modern bicycle (technically called the safety bicycle) came along, New Jersey inventor Arthur Hotchkiss came up with a very different kind of idea for making bike commuting practical: the bike railroad. His 1892 invention was essentially a fixed metal track that riders could pedal specialized bikes along.

He soon convinced inventor and manufacturer Hezekiah Smith to finance and built a prototype — a two-mile rail stretching from the latter's HB Smith Machine Company in Smithville, New Jersey to Mt. Holly, the home of many of the company's employees. Smith and Hotchkiss spent $10,000 on the track and charged workers two dollars for monthly passes, which allowed them to get to work in roughly six minutes.

One of the bikes used on the Hotchkiss Railroad.


The specialized bikes themselves were fascinating. Riders sat on a low seat just above the rail and pumped a lever, rather than pedaled, to push the bike along. The rail was a single track, so travelers coming from opposite directions had to avoid a collision by sorting out who'd get off.

The track was an interesting novelty, but it never really took off. Most cyclists opted for the increasingly comfortable safety bicycles that were soon hitting the market, and though a few similar tracks were built in the UK, the idea died off within a few years. The New Jersey Bicycle Railroad fell into disrepair and was eventually dismantled.

The Coney Island Cycle Path

(Carlton Reid)

In the mid-1890s, America's bike craze took off in earnest. And in 1894, the Coney Island Cycle Path became one of the world's first bike-specific routes. The 5.5-mile, crushed limestone route was laid in the median of the existing Ocean Parkway, connecting Brooklyn's Prospect Park to Coney Island.

"Opened in mid-summer, the Coney Island Cycle Path was an instant success. So successful, in fact, that the path’s crushed limestone surface had to be repaired within a month of opening, and the pressure of numbers caused the path to be widened," writes Carlton Reid, author of the fascinating book Roads Were Not Built for Cars.

(New York City Parks Department)

The path was mostly used for recreation and brought crowds of cyclists out to Coney Island during the summer months. Controversy eventually struck when so-called "scorchers" — daredevil cyclists who rode at high speeds — began to hit crossing pedestrians, leading to a 12 mph speed limit, enforced by police.

Still, the path remained popular, and unlike the other projects on this list, it's still largely intact — though it's now paved with asphalt:


The sidepaths of Rochester, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles

The success of the Coney Island Cycle Path spurred cyclists in Upstate New York to push for local governments to build similar bike-specific routes that would run alongside roads, funded by tolls.

The idea was that by building these relatively smooth, sometimes paved paths — often called "sidepaths" — next to rutted country roads, cyclists would demonstrate the benefits of road investment to teamsters and farmers, who'd then support the campaign for paved roads in general.

(Sidepaths Magazine)

As this fascinating pamphlet from the League of American Wheelmen puts it, "every cycle path is a protest against bad roads, a sort of public notice that the public wagonways are unfit for public travel."

The sidepath trend spread, and by 1900, writes historian James Longhurst, ordinances mandating sidepaths had passed in cities including Rochester, New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis. The League also built paths in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Long Island, and Los Angeles. The Santa Monica Cycle Path, completed in 1900, ran 18 miles from the city to the beach:

The start of the Santa Monica Cycle Path, in Los Angeles.

(USC Libraries)

These routes were distinct from sidewalks and were intended specifically to segregate bikes from horse and carriage traffic with a few feet of grass or other buffer. More than anything, they resemble today's protected bike lanes, which are set off from roads with bollards, parked cars, or other physical barriers.

A sidepath next to a road in Monroe County, New York, with cyclists standing in front of a toll gate.

(Rochester Historical Society)

As the bike craze began to fade during the early 1900s, though, these sidepaths fell into decline. They were also a victim of the Good Roads Movement's success: within a few years, many roads were widened, covering up the sidepaths with pavement. With few cars on the roads, this created better riding conditions for cyclists.

Obviously, this changed over time. But while the protected bike lane concept began to resurface in Europe in the 1970s, it didn't come back to North America until 2007, when New York City's Ninth Avenue sparked interest in the concept again.

The California Cycleway

The start of the California Cycleway, in Pasadena, with a tollbooth shown at the bottom. California Digital History Collaboration

The cycleway crosses over Bellvue Drive in Pasadena.

At the height of the 1890s bike craze, Los Angeles businessman and cyclist Horace Dobbins tried to build something truly audacious: a bike highway. The California Cycleway, as it was originally designed, was an elevated, tolled bike expressway running six miles from Pasadena to Los Angeles, the region's two biggest population centers. But it was never finished.

By 1900, Dobbins did get 1.3 miles of smooth wooden boardwalk built. As Good Roads Magazine put it in 1901, "the surface is perfectly free from all dust and mud, and nervous cyclists find the track safer than the widest roads, for there are no horses to avoid, no trains or trolley-cars, no stray dogs or wandering children."

The cycleway crosses over Bellvue Drive in Pasadena.


Riders were charged 10 cents for a one-way trip or 15 cents for a round-trip journey. In theory, further construction would have been financed by these tolls.

But that didn't happen, as limited ridership — and right-of-way objections from streetcar owners — stopped further construction. If the cycleway had connected Pasadena and Los Angeles, it might have attracted more riders. But it wasn't useful in its truncated form and came a few years too late to capitalize on the bicycle boom. By 1910, the cycleway was torn down entirely.

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