“Cyclists don’t pay for roads!” 1890-style

Thanks to some research I did for iPayRoadTax.com on the history of the long-gone Road Fund I discovered the cycling back-story of a number of key officials in the world of early motoring. This led to the creation of Roads Were Not Built For Cars, a soon-to-be-published history book on cycling’s critical contribution to both roads and motoring.

While thumbing through an 1890s bike mag, I spotted a concept that would be taken up with relish in the 20th Century: that cyclists don’t pay for roads. Today roads are paid for via local and national taxation. Back in the 1890s, roads – in both Britain and the US – were paid for by local taxation only.

When cyclists sallied forth out into the countryside, resurrecting use of roads that had lain dormant since the advent of the railways, there was a great deal of suspicion from rural ratepayers of these urban peacocks. But, as cyclists didn’t damage the roads they rode over, the suspicion didn’t boil over into suppression. (It was a different story for the first motorists, they ripped up the road with their “slaughtering, stinking engines of iniquity”. )

In the 1890s, cycling was the transport and leisure choice of the elite in society. It didn’t become ‘poor mans’ transport’ until the late 1920s. Cyclists of Britain and the USA used their position in society to agitate for better roads. Britain had the Roads Improvement Association, founded by the Cyclists’ Touring Club and the National Cyclists’ Union in 1886. America had the well-funded Good Roads campaign organised by the League of American Wheelmen.

Cyclists were the first to push for central administration for roads, which would later relieve local ratepayers of the full burden of maintaining ‘national’ roads. While most newspapers of the period were very supportive of the cyclists’ agitation for better roads, a columnist in the Gazette of Cincinnati, Ohio, expressed displeasure, claiming cyclists didn’t pay for roads:

“Our bicycle friends are still hammering away on the subject of good country roads, and have enlisted in their cause journals other than those devoted to the bicycle interest. Good roads are very desirable, but wheelmen should consider that they cost money in construction and maintenance. How much, by the way, do the wheelemen contribute toward country road improvements?”

An 1890 editorial in Bicycling World, the weekly journal of the League of American Wheelmen, pointed out that cyclists were ratepayers, too:

“As to the share of taxes paid by wheelmen, we are not aware that riding a wheel or being a member of the League exempts one from paying taxes, and we have no doubt but that there are many cyclists who pay just as much in taxes as does the writer of [the article].”

To be fair to the Gazette author, there were a lot more urban cyclists than rural ones, and it was largely the urban ones agitating for better roads, but the 1890s spat shows that who pays for what has been a road-related bone of contention for many years.

  • Mavis

    The so-called “vehicle tax disc” does not have the word tax on it but the perforated part we tare off does yet that part is not displayed on a windscreen.
    Some forms and post-offices have a notice saying “you can tax your vehicle here” or words to that effect. However, the disc we display is actually a “licence” so when we use our motor-vehicles on the roads of Britain we can only legally do so when it is licenced. It is not a tax.

  • Mavis

    Follow-up: DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency), !.

  • Phil

    Correct :-)

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  • Scott

    I believe we all pay for the roads. Via Council Tax. Is that not what pays for the emergency and public services, including the upkeep of public highways. Is this incorrect?

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