‘But you don’t pay road tax!’

Fed up of that old one but never know how to respond when you hear it? Rob Ainsley looks at the facts and figures and finds that it’s motorists who should be doing the apologising.

The cyclist is ‘a guest on roads that are paid for by motorists’. So said the motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson in The Sun last July. Every cyclist has heard similar accusations countless times, whether yelled at traffic lights or asserted in pubs.

In fact, the opposite is true. In law, cyclists have right of way on roads; motorists must use them under licence. They are the ‘guests’. And, as established figures show, cyclists subsidise motorists.

Road tax is a misleading misnomer

What misleads many drivers is ‘road tax’.

Car owners pay £65-£170 per year, depending on the model, to use their machines on the roads. But it’s a misnomer. ‘Vehicle Excise Duty’, its official name, goes directly into government coffers and does not ‘pay for roads’. Arguing that cyclists therefore have less right to use the roads is like arguing that smokers should take precedence for medical treatment, because non-smokers don’t buy cigarettes and therefore ‘don’t pay hospital tax’. (In any case, some cyclists do pay ‘road tax’, because they also have cars even if they don’t use them all the time.)

‘Whatever motorists might think at the pump, the truth is that they are freeloading’

Moreover, whatever motorists might think at the pump, the truth is that they are freeloading. Government figures show the inflation-adjusted cost of driving has dropped steadily since 1980: it fell by 5% between 1997 and 2003.*

Running a typical** car costs around 35p per mile, says the AA. But a Leeds University study estimates that motorists only pay a third to a half of what they should, given the cost to the exchequer in terms of congestion (£20bn per year according to the Confederation of British Industry), accidents, maintenance, pollution, and so on.

In short, every mile a motorist drives, taxpayers subsidise: 21p outside London, up to £1 inside. (The available figures are pre-Congestion Charge. But a rough calculation shows that even drivers who pay the Charge every day only reduce their effective subsidy to what they would receive outside London.)

The cost of a year’s cycling

For comparison, my bike travel in 2004-05 worked out about 11p per mile. (Around 5500 miles costing £590 or so – and that’s pessimistic, tax-return figures.) And if anything, cycling has hidden national benefits, not costs, in making us healthier and less of a drain on the NHS. With a tenth of the subsidy a London motorist gets, I could run my bike for free. Smug? No, just annoyed.

We also have to pay the Highways Agency to maintain motorways and many trunk roads which we’re not allowed to use: the 6000-mile network gobbles up at least £500m annually. Transport for London has an annual cycle budget of £24 million – but that’s under 0.5% of its total budget of £5bn.

What’s the (real) damage?

The roads we cycle on are maintained by council tax. Motor vehicles do most of the damage, but grab most of the budget – to which we all contribute, drivers or not. Anyone who’s surfed the treacherous tarmac breakers of Waterloo Bridge will know how bus wheels quickly ruin the surface. The accepted international rule is that the cost of damage done by a vehicle to a road is proportional to the fourth power of the axle weight. In other words, repairs incurred by a car weighing say 900kg don’t cost the council 10 times those of someone on a bike weighing 90kg: they cost 10x10x10x10, yes 10,000, times as much. (And a bus weighing 9,000kg does 100 million times as much damage.)

So if we were to set a fanciful ‘road council tax’ which fairly reflected the repair costs we incur, then if the car driver paid £200 annually, the cyclist would contribute 2p. I’d gladly pay a quid in advance for the next 50 years just to shut up those drivers who yell at me at traffic lights. Not as much as I’d pay to shut Mr Clarkson up. But there is hope yet. In a PR stunt last Christmas, the Lib Dems gave him a thoughtful present: a bike. See you at the traffic lights, Jeremy?

* In that time the cost of train travel rose by 3% and that of bus travel rose by 8%.

** Cost under £10,000 new, for up to 10,000 miles a year.

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This article is reprinted from ‘London Cyclist’, April/May 2006, the membership magazine of the London Cycling Campaign.

Rob Ainsley