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.