“Cyclists don’t pay road tax, they shouldn’t be on the roads; roads are for cars.”

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It’s not just right-of-Genghis-Khan taxi drivers who spout such piffle. Sensible and otherwise sane motorists also like to trot it out. “Why should my road tax pay for cycle facilities or bus lanes?” is another common complaint.

Yet road tax doesn’t exist. Hasn’t done since 1937. Those little perforated discs pay for Vehicle Excise Duty. VED for short. It’s not a road tax, it’s a car tax, a tax on vehicles with motors. (Not all vehicles subject to highway rules and regulations have motors; bicycles, for instance).

Vehicle Excise Duty is based on the level of a vehicle’s tailpipe emissions. The bigger and more carbon-wasteful the car, the more the car’s owner pays for a VED licence (perhaps it should be renamed Vehicle Emissions Duty?).

Cars which spew less than 100g/km CO2 don’t pay any VED so should motorists be seeking road bans for the VW Golf BlueMotion or the Toyota Prius because, just like bikes, they are “tax avoiders”?

Scot Cops' Road Fund Boo-Boo

Scot cops’ VED boo-boo: “You must have a valid road fund licence”
iPayRoadTax.com was so-named because very few people know the difference between Vehicle Excise Duty and road tax. Even MPs, Government departments and police forces don’t always know the difference, as the screen-grab above shows. Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary even mention the ‘road fund’, an entity that has been pushing up the daisies for the best part of 70 years.

Every citizen has the right to use public highways for free; and that includes motorists, equestrians, wheelchair users, pram pushers, pedestrians and cyclists. Vehicle Excise Duty does not pay for roads and nor does it assign any greater rights for VED payers to use those roads.

Many motorists fume when held up for a millisecond on “their” roads by a vehicle that doesn’t apparently contribute to the upkeep of said roads. Cyclists, it’s often voiced, are ‘tax-dodgers’. In fact, the majority of adult cyclists in the UK also own cars. They just choose not to use them for every journey. Motorists ought to applaud such two-wheeled altruism: less cars on the road means less congestion for all.

If VED doesn’t pay for the roads, what does? That’ll be general taxation and council tax. So, even cyclists who don’t own cars are paying for the roads, and for road services. This gives cyclists no more right to the roads than motorists. We’re all equal in law. As general taxation pays for all roads, cyclists pay for a type of road they can never use: motorways.

Asphalt nation
Motorists may be surprised to learn that the tarmac they so love wasn’t spread on the UK’s dirt roads for the benefit of cars. In fact, it was lobbying from 19th Century cyclists – who wanted smoother surfaces to ride along – which hastened the black-topping of Britain.

The country motorised rapidly during the post Great War period and successive Governments ploughed cash into slapping tarmac on Britain’s ancient network of highways. It wasn’t until the 1950s and beyond that lots of new roads were created. Prior to that, existing roads were given weather-proof surfaces but they had long been used by pedestrians, carts, horses and, from the 1870s onwards, bikes, and only much later still, cars.

To pay for the tarmac, the Government created the Road Fund in 1910. Money from this pot went direct into road improvements. This is called ‘hypothocation’, a posh word for ring-fencing, when a charge goes direct to a cause it’s said to be fund-raising for.

While the Road Fund monies went direct into the road improvement pot, not enough money was raised to pay for all the commissioned improvements. For a start, there weren’t that many paying customers. Then, just like now, road ‘improvements’ were heavily subsidised from the public purse.

Cyclists, it can now be seen, are not interlopers on roads paid for by the motorist. Some people might even argue that cycling ought to be State-subsidised: using a bike reduces congestion and pollution; bikes and their riders are featherweights, causing negligible wear and tear on road surfaces; and cyclists are healthier so, with less degenerative diseases, are less of a burden on the NHS. Paying cyclists to cycle? It’s not such an odd concept, after all, motorists are subsidised to drive. Motorists may feel beleaguered because of fuel price hikes, congestion and a crumbling road infrastructure but, in real terms, driving has never been so cheap. The true costs of motoring are never met by motorists directly. Fuel duty and vehicle excise duty doesn’t go anywhere near to ‘paying for the roads’.

The 1920s Road Fund, paid into only by motorists, was abolished because there were fears – well founded fears, it turns out – that motorists would believe the paltry sum they paid each year was the whole amount required by the State and this therefore gave motorists more right to use the roads than those users who didn’t pay. The politician who, in a parliamentary debate in 1926, had the foresight to realise this was a Toad of Toad Hall worldview was a certain Winston Churchill. In 1937, when he was chancellor of the exchequer, he abolished the Road Fund (quick, somebody tell Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary).