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History Overview

The history of road transport is built on two separate but interwoven threads: that of wheeled vehicles and their users and that of the public roads they run on. The former, of course, set the pace: the development of vehicles has been one of restless innovation while that of roads of grumbling adaptation. The former, exposed to the harsh light of progress. clamour for more and better roads The latter, peering through the gloom of restricted funds, plead for patience and restraint. And so it goes on today.

Although it would be interesting to trace the history of the wheel and the road from its beginnings this site takes up the story at the point where the Romans, mainly for military reasons, developed their extensive road system and the roadbuilding techniques that underpinned it. Afterwards, for well over a thousand years, road building languished and wheeled traffic was almost entirely replaced by pack animals and walkers. Bridges, fortunately, continued to be built and maintained mainly by the religious orders. Their suppression during the sixteenth century by Henry VIII and the land grab that followed was catastrophic, since those who enriched themselves and their descendants were not strong on philantropy. Today, their equivalents would view such gestures to the public good as creeping socialism. In those days they didn’t need excuses

About five hundred years ago, growth in intercity trade in the UK began to shake things up: the volume of goods to be transported outran the capacity of pack animals so wagons and coaches began to ply the roads. Or what passed for them. Travellers talked about crossing that belt of stiff clay eighty km and more wide, separating London from the North, in the same terms as sailors talked about rounding Cape Horn. Defoe, wrote in 1724: …After you are pass’d Dunstable… you are in the deep Clays, which are so surprisingly soft, that it is perfectly frightful to Travelers, and the Wonder of Foreigners….,”, Vehicles virtually disappeared in the mud. Teams of oxen had to be got to drag them out.

From then on weather was joined by the terrible roads it engendered as subjects of bitter complaint to which government, hoping really that the problem would just go away, responded with inapplicable laws about maintaining roads locally and as a last resort, more laws to force people to use less damaging vehicles. All were supremely ignored. In any case, it took another two hundred years to figure out how to build durable roads. These were then integrated within a network of toll roads which, when management and employees were not too corrupt, provided durable all-weather service between major cities.

In France things were different, as they tend to be. They defined a rational core road network during the eighteenth century, although rather too centred on Paris for all tastes, built solid roads, and put in place systematic maintenance structures, but based on forced labour (corvées). This measure was highly unpopular among a population who rarely went anywhere, since they usually did not even speak the same language as the people just down the road. In fact, travellers were urged to keep to the main roads, since if they strayed off, they could not ask for directions.

The history sections will be mainly concerned with self-propelled vehicles, which only became possible as a result of innovation in the use of steam as a driving force.  Steam-powered vehicles first came on the scene in the late 1820’s in the UK, but failed, through no fault of their own, to fulfil their promise. The railway provided rapidly growing mobility for goods and people for almost the entire 19th century until the truck, powered by the internal combustion engine became sufficiently reliable to challenge it. For better and for worse the marriage between the motorcar and the 20th century has endured the first hundred years. They have, perhaps, lived beyond their means but are at last beginning to realise it. We can hope for a more sober and mature relationship from now on.

Finally, we apologize for a strong bias towards transport in the British Isles.The author grew up with it and its what he knows best. Contributions of similar pages on transport history in Continental North America or Europe would be very welcome.