Think-tank’s Head of Transport says cyclists are “low-value”, don’t pay for roads and “delay traffic”

Let me introduce you to Richard Wellings. He has a PhD in transport and environmental policy. Dr Wellings works for the libertarian think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. He’s the IEA’s Deputy Editorial Director, and Head of Transport, too. He was educated at Oxford and the London School of Economics. In short, he’s bright. Which makes the views espoused on his Twitter account and his personal website all the more worrying, especially as his views are listened to by the powers-that-be: he has appeared before the transport select committee, for instance, and is lauded by MPs, including Angela Leadsom, the MP who last year wanted to bring in a ‘dangerous cycling’ bill.

Here’s a combination of some of today’s tweets:

“Removing underused cycle and bus priority measures will increase efficiency of the network… • Uneconomic cycling priority measures…impose major time losses on motorists. • Another problem is that cyclists fill up gaps in traffic due to slower speed, delaying motorists at junctions. • Maybe cyclists should pay to use cycle lanes – can’t see why taxpayers should be forced to subsidise them. • Cycle priority measures waste valuable road space and delay traffic. Often they cater for a tiny number of cyclists.”

#bikeboom pic negates almost every wonky stereotype about people who ride bikes in London
And cycle lanes should be grubbed up not because they are famously crap but because the vast amount of money spent on them (!) is wasted on uneconomic losers: “Lots of cycle lanes are barely used. Vast amounts of money and road space wasted on a tiny minority of (often low-value) users.”

Low-value users? Does he really think cyclists are paupers? He should stand at a road junction in central London one morning and count the number of carbon bikes that pass (bikes very likely owned by folks who choose to leave at home their Mercs, BMWs and Audis). He should read ‘The British Cycling Economy’ by an academic from his old stamping ground, the London School of Economics.

He probably doesn’t think that cyclists are paupers, he probably means cyclists are road users who are using such simple machines they can’t be charged much to use the public highways which he wants to be corporate owned. (Wonder what he thinks about pedestrians, you know, those pavement freeloaders)?

Dr Wellings is in favour of road pricing, is a climate change sceptic, equates environmentalism with socialism (his favourite metaphor is the Soviet bread queue), and his works barely mention non-motorised road users, such as pedestrians or cyclists.

In his opinion, British cities have not been greatly modified to accommodate motor traffic. Far from it. According to Dr Wellings “strict planning regulations have prevented British cities from adapting to cars.” He and a co-author wrote this in Towards Better Transport from 2008. He and his co-author reckoned “government policies force [British people] to live in cramped cities, in many places still heavily reliant on unsuitable Victorian streets. Indeed, new housing developments continue to be built next to major roads and motorways, although there is no shortage of agricultural land for development.”

That agricultural land would be the greenbelt, then.

He believes trains and buses are “subsidised” but that spending on roads is “investment.”

“Unfortunately, since public transport is subsidised, the cost to taxpayers has been very high: the annual subsidy of buses, trains and trams, which account for a small fraction of passenger travel, is in the region of £10 billion.”

Dr Wellings wants Britain’s highways to be privatised and is no fan of anybody who thinks motorists ought to slow down a bit:

“A free market in transport would mean ending the state control and ownership of roads. Decisions regarding the deployment of speed cameras would be the responsibility of private road owners. These individuals would have to consider customer preferences for both speed and safety. Thus private road owners would probably focus on the wants of motorists rather than the demands of the road safety lobby. Since slower roads could mean a reduction in profits, as drivers switched to alternative routes, it seems likely that private road owners would avoid arbitrary reductions in the speed limit……There is no necessary role for government in the provision of speed limits or to ensure that motorists are registered, insured and trained. Moreover, road owners would…have a strong incentive not to introduce measures that were unpopular with drivers.”

He also sympathises with the view that ‘road tax’ has paid for existing roads many times over: “Drivers may feel, with some justification, that they have already paid the construction costs through their motoring taxes.”

He uses the term ‘road tax’ interchangeably with vehicle excise duty even though he knows full well that ‘road tax’ was abolished in 1937 (he knows this because he’s familiar with the standard reference work on the subject, The Motor Car and Politics in Britain (1971), by William Plowden. Intellectually, Dr Wellings knows that VED is paid to the treasury and is not ring-fenced for any specific expenditure but his heart takes over at times and, rather amazingly, he allows himself to write that vehicle excise duty is “spent addressing the externalities motorists impose on pedestrians, cyclists and bus passengers and on discouraging drivers from using particular routes through traffic calming measures.”

That’s right. To Dr Wellings, the £8 billion raised by VED each year doesn’t go into the consolidated fund to be spent on everything, it’s spent on pedestrians, cyclists and traffic calming measures. Who knew?


Taxes and Charges on Road Users, a 2009 report by the Transport Select Committee, said hypothecation is “the establishment of a direct link between specific taxes or charges and specific expenditure. For example, taxes levied on alcohol might be earmarked for spending on hospitals. In the UK there is no such link for taxes.”

The report said:

“the Government opposes the idea of hypothecation of tax revenues. It argues that decisions about revenue raising and spending should be kept separate for two main reasons:

• if all income were to be hypothecated, it would create severe difficulties for those services that could not readily raise revenues, such as schools, hospitals, police and defence; and
• inefficiencies would result. For example, if a large sum was raised from road users, hypothecation would dictate that it was all spent on roads (or possibly other transport modes, such as buses), even if the public priority was for more investment in, say, education.”

So, the taxes raised from motoring do not go to facilities for motorists. If they did, the taxes raised by alcohol sales could be used to build bigger pubs. And married couples without children could ask for their taxes not to be spent on schools; and pacifists could ask for their taxes not to be spent on Trident nuclear submarines. Taxation doesn’t work this way. You’d think a transport economist would know this.

Road tax doesn’t exist. It’s car tax, a tax on cars and other vehicles, not a tax on roads or a fee to use them. Motorists do not pay directly for the roads. Roads are paid for via general and local taxation. In 1926, Winston Churchill started the process to abolish road tax. It was finally culled in 1937.

The ironically-named helps spread this message on cycle jerseys. Car tax is based on amount of CO2 emitted so, if a fee had to be paid, cyclists – who are sometimes branded as ‘tax dodgers’ – would pay the same as ‘tax-dodgers’ such as disabled drivers, police cars, the Royal family, and band A motorists, ie £0. Most cyclists are also car-owners, too, so pay VED.

  • Cab Davidson

    Basically he’s a motoring extremist.

  • NikChadd

    Typical self centred libertarian viewpoint I’m afraid.

  • Stephen Brandwood

    I’ve been to big cities where cars can flow more easily, usually because the cities are relatively new and built with wide roads. The result is lots and lots of noise and endless pedestrian crossings. You can no longer just walk around at your leisure like you can throughout those car-unfriendly back streets of London. Cities with parks, pedestrian areas, markets and back alley shops make awesome places to live and visit.

    So in response to  “strict planning regulations have prevented British cities from adapting to cars,” – Thank goodness for that!

  • Kim

    Sadly people like he are taken far to seriously and never held to account when the policies they promote fail. It is the rest of us who have to pay the price of the incompetence of these fools.

  • Mark Brewster

    Richard Wellings cannot even be called an arrogant ass, as that would insult arrogant asses.  To place a value on PEOPLE by the speed+expense of their mode of transportation is myopic in the extreme.  It speaks of a naive belief that NO ONE WOULD CHOOSE TO CYCLE, they are only ‘condemned’ to it.

    I would enjoy pedaling past Mr. Wellings’ funeral procession, and I am 10-15 years his senior. (Passing bodily fluids onto his grave would be gratifying, as well.)

  • Anonymous

    Low value? What does that mean? We don’t earn much or contribute much to the economy?  Or we are just crap on his shoes?

  • Anonymous

     Totally agree, Taipei is one example I have been to many times. The noise is constant but that is partly a cultural thing, I actually find the roads a bit safer than in the UK. As Carlton knows himself, Taiwan has some great cycle paths too.

    Side streets and back alley shops are also in abundance, thankfully some areas are now being returned to pedestrians.

    I’m really starting to think that the campaign to pedestrianize Oxford Street would be an great national example of how this sort of move provide economic and social benefits to a community.

  • Frazer Goodwin

    Youre wrong – he’sd not bright at all – just a clever clogs and there is a BIG difference between the two!

  • toby

     ”Maybe cyclists should pay to use cycle lanes – can’t see why taxpayers should be forced to subsidise them”… Does being a cyclist mean we don’t pay tax? Willing to be corrected on this but I thought road infrastructure within towns and villages is mainly paid for from the Council Tax pot and any of us over 18 would (I hope!) be paying for that anyway.

  • carltonreid

    Quite. Rail privatisation hasn’t worked out terribly well and the last time there was widespread road pricing in the UK all of the private companies eventually went belly-up. Wellings touches on the failure of the turnpike trusts in his writings, but doesn’t think there’s anything to learn from this failure.

  • carltonreid

    Roads are paid for by income tax and council tax. Anybody who pays these taxes, pays for the roads of GB. Motorists pay vehicle excise duty. This goes to the treasury, not the Department for Transport. Ring-fencing of taxation doesn’t happen in the UK, apart from things such as the TV licence.

  • Sutty

    He may be  brainy but not bright. Perhaps he would prefer all those cyclists to leave their bikes at home and get in their cars instead, most of them have at least one. Hope he lives in Milton Keynes, would suit him perfectly, and he should never leave it.

  • Andrew

    I bet Mr Dwellings lives on the M25, and likes nothing better than a Sunday morning walk along the hard shoulder. Personally, I’d gladly pay a cycling tax if it meant we got better facilities. The present system treats cyclists like second-class citizens where some paint on the road is seen as provision enough.

  • bazzargh

    Wellings is supposed to be a transport economist so should have heard of the Downs-Thomson paradox:
    This is the paradox that building more roads doesn’t decrease congestion, and holds wherever the large majority of peak time commuter traffic is via mass transit (as in London, where the figure is over *85%* – see ). What happens instead is that changes in capacity leads to mode change – train users shift to cars and vice versa, and reaches equilibrium when the rate of travel is the same via each mode.

    The paradox isn’t just a myth, or an artifact of mathematical models; studies have observed the predicted reduction in rail passengers and increase in traffic in, for example, in the creation of new motorway routes into Sydney. (

    Wellings argues that regulations should be removed and ‘the market should decide’ – but he seems to ignore this very pertinent example of the way the market decides in his own speciality.

    Also of note: he argues for ending rail subsidies (no doubt making more attractive the toll roads espoused in his book – sponsored by toll road provider Serco). This would price more people onto the roads. That figure again: 85+%. The congestion in London now is caused by under 15% of commuters. Does he think that pushing more of them onto congested roads is sensible? He’s ignoring not just the elephant in the room, but the herd of them on the train.

  • carltonreid

    Induced demand is pretty much mainstream. And the guy who first mentioned it – in 1960s – was a rampant petrol head not a tree hugger. 

  • Anonymous

    Think-tanks are notorious for employing experts to lend credence to deceitful and misleading piffle. One has to remember that the very raison d’etre of think-tanks is to separate vested interests from their opinions and to promote those opinions as sanitised and authoritative ‘policy’ to governments.

    It may be useful to remember what Upton Sinclair famously noted:
    ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’

  • LoveloBicycles

    He doesn’t look like a libertarian to me, he looks like an anti-biker. A libertarian would recognise that the bicycle is one of the most libertarian of machines, unregulated, untaxed, unlicenced. Frankly with all his talk about low value and cyclists holding up motorists I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. Does a bicycle courier in London think ‘I could get there quicker by car if only it wasn’t for all the other cyclists holding me up.’? 

  • carltonreid

    It seems to me that libertarians want the sort of liberties that are great for a wealthy minority but not so good for the majority. Road pricing would likely be great for fat guys in BMWs and Audis who will be able to afford to travel at peak times on peak routes. 

    And the stuff about being able to speed everywhere, with no restrictions whatsoever, may be liberating for a few motorists, but incredibly dangerous and restrictive for any other road users. Except, of course, if the only road users in mind are motorists. Not so much liberty for all, liberty for a sub-set. Libertarianism doesn’t seem very egalitarian.

    But then again I like Soviet bread queues.

  • Kim

    When he said  “a tiny minority of (often low-value) users.” was he talking about cyclist such as Allan Sugar? Or does Lord Sugars “value” change depending on which mode of transport he is using?

  • JD

    And many cyclists (me being one of them) also pay VED anyway. Given that my car is 16 years old, I am still paying £200+ per year, which will be more than many of the complainers in their super-efficient, BlueMotion machines on reduced VED due to reduced emissions.

    The whole argument is broken at a fundamental level, even if we accept the absurd notion that motoring taxes pay for the roads.

  • LoveloBicycles

    Like I say, he doesn’t seem to be much of a libertarian, just a quack. Follow his tax hypothecation to its logical conclusion and we should be charging pedestrians for their pavement use, a fee for any person to enter the public highway. Then you get into the realms of externalities of transport choices, at which point you probably decide that you want to charge drivers even more and that cycling is a benefit to society by reducing healthcare costs so cyclists and pedestrians should be given tax credits. As I say, not a libertarian or at least only one type of libertarian, just an idiot. 

  • 3rdWorldCyclingintheUK

    Yep, that’s why places like Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portland, etc etc are such economic failures and Britain is such a success.  Er, hang on….

  • Jonny

    What an utter tool.

  • litterscarce

    Its extraordinary :)

  • Edith McCluster

    God forbid he may classify ‘hauliers’ as being something possibly done via barge/canals… dry/ambient/tinned goods that aren’t reliant on speed. Could take good percentage off roads and create new industry. I disagree therefore that he’s ‘bright’. He, like all pro-car politicians etc will never alienate greedy consumers as they give them power and prestige.