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What Was the Good Roads Movement?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Good Roads Movement was an American populist movement which started small, and ultimately spread to a nation-wide level, and its benefits can still be felt today. As you might imagine from the name, the Good Roads Movement was dedicated to improving the condition of roads in America, especially in rural America, and it was spearheaded by cyclists, although automobile drivers also jumped on the Good Roads bandwagon. The movement lasted from approximately 1880 to 1916.

Roads in turn of the century America were not a pretty sight, especially in rural areas. The vast majority of roads were unpaved, turning into muddy pits in the winter and potholed washes in the summer. These roads were extremely difficult and uncomfortable to travel on, no matter what sort of transportation one used, and they were also poorly marked, making it difficult for people to get around. Road maintenance was a haphazard affair, making it difficult to predict what the condition of the roads would be like from place to place.

Cyclists in the United States pointed to the relatively well maintained and pleasant roads of Europe as an example, and agitated on a local level for improved roads in their areas. In addition to making travel rapid and more pleasant, advocates in the Good Roads Movement also felt that better roads would bring more privileges and amenities to rural areas of America, perhaps stemming the tide of relocation from rural farms to the city.

As the Good Roads Movement spread from community to community, it began to acquire a national scale. In addition to advocating for better roads and more regular maintenance, members of the movement also agitated for government funding of roads, arguing that good roads were simply essential for the health of the country and the economy. Members of the movement also lobbied for bicycle paths to make travel safer for cyclists, along with more organized traffic laws to make sharing the roads easier for all.

You often hear the rise of the automobile credited with the emergence of good roads in the United States, much to the frustration of historians. The Good Roads Movement in fact owes its inception to the bicycle, an immensely popular method of transportation and recreation in turn of the century America, and some its most notable figures were cyclists. Ironically, after all their contributions to the state of American roads, cyclists today in the United States often fight for space on the roads, and find themselves neglected in new road and street plans.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By David09 — On Feb 23, 2012

@MrMoody - There is another reason to improve the highway system – weather. On the roads conditions get a lot worse during inclement weather. If you have potholes and cracked roads all over the place, I think that the condition gets even worse.

Couple that with the fact that most of our roads and highways are over fifty years old, and you can see that we have a ticking time bomb. How long will it be before we start experiencing major disasters that will jolt the national consciousness on this issue?

By MrMoody — On Feb 22, 2012

@Charred - We need more bicycle paths where we live. Our city is a small metropolis where we have a lot of people who choose to bike to work.

Bike paths in my opinion are not a luxury – they are a necessity. Enabling cyclists to have access to these paths is needed to make it safer for them to bike to work. You don’t want cyclists on the main roads, if you can avoid it at all.

By Charred — On Feb 21, 2012

@NathanG - I don’t know. But our nation has needed highway road improvement for a long time in my opinion. I know that the government has passed some stimulus measures to direct money towards these infrastructure projects.

I only hope that a lot of money has been properly spent and that we are in fact building our roads again. Do you realize how dangerous it is to drive on crumbling roads? We don’t have an excuse for this. If Europe can do it, as the article points out, we can too.

By NathanG — On Feb 20, 2012

The city where we live must have more potholes in its roads per square mile than any city in America. It seems that there are always crews on the roads; construction is always taking place here or there. While they are doing so they reroute traffic until the work is done.

Why is there so little emphasis on good roads? I guess I should really ask why it takes so much time, since it’s obvious that something is being done, but it’s so late in my opinion.

Is it possible that city and state governments think that there are so many other things that are more important, that roads get pushed down the list of priorities?

By KaBoom — On Feb 20, 2012

I always thought the current state of our highway system was because of all the road construction that took place during the Depression. How interesting that the idea of the government maintaining the roads actually took off around 1880!

This also sounds kind of like a safety issue to me, but from what I understand, people weren't always so obsessed with public safety as they are now. But I feel like poorly marked and potholed roads are a recipe for a lot of accidents to happen!

By indemnifyme — On Feb 19, 2012

@SZapper - Good point. I'm actually really surprised that bicyclists were the first to lobby for road construction. As the article said, most people think that highway and road improvement started because of cars, not bicycles. I know I for one never learned about the Good Roads Movement in history class.

I also agree that most roads aren't cyclist friendly these days. I see bicycle lanes in some cities every now and then, but they're usually not laid out in a particularly bicycle friendly way. I know I wouldn't want to ride a bike on some of these "bicycle lanes."

By SZapper — On Feb 18, 2012

It's hard to imagine this country with unpaved, terrible roads. The government, at both the state and local level, puts a lot of money and manpower into building and maintaining our highways and roads. I imagine this is probably a direct result of the Good Roads Movement.

I actually agree that having a good highway system and easy to navigate roads is good for our economy. How could you transport good and services across the country if the roads are terrible? You couldn't! Also I imagine less people would drive from state to state for vacation if the roads were unpleasant.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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