Should cyclists stump up for a ‘seat at the table’ tax?

Over on, there’s an animated debate about a proposed 12 percent federal excise tax on bicycles (or perhaps just bicycle tyres). It’s proposed this excise tax would be ring-fenced and spent only on bicycle infrastructure. But that would mean many cyclists being taxed twice. While each US state is different, the funds for road building come from roughly the same sources across the US (ditto for the UK): property and income taxes pay for roads.

Some bicycle advocates on that story want cyclists to pay “something” to mollify motorists who say cyclists are “freeloaders” or “tax-dodgers.” We’d be listened to, our rights would be respected, if only we paid some cash, just like motorists. The argument seems persuasive to many people, but let’s look deeper.

Logically speaking
Motoring taxes are not ring-fenced for spending on roads, they go into general Treasury coffers, the ‘Consolidated Fund’, and have done so since 1937. Ring-fencing of taxes is generally considered a bad idea. For instance, if motoring taxes had to be spent on improving conditions for Britain’s motorists, it would be just as logical for cigarette taxes to improve the comfort and convenience of Britain’s smokers.


Payment for damage
If cyclists – or their bicycles – are to be taxed, it would be only fair to have a scale of charges. Payment ought to be by size, vehicle axle loads, mileage driven and carbon dioxide emissions. So, HGVs would pay through the nose for the damage; cars would be stiffed because of the high mileage and emissions; and bicycles, which cause next to no road damage, would pay the least because they are the transport equivalent of Brazil’s pygmy geckos, lizards so light they can stand on water.

HGV and woman cyclist

Axle to grind
The payment-by-axle load argument has been developed by Rob Ainsley over on

The standard figure is that damage to roads is proportional to the fourth power of the axle weight. So a rough figure suggests that a car, which weighs about ten times as much as a cyclist (say 1000kg versus 100kg) should pay 10x10x10x10, or 10,000 times as much in ‘road tax’. So if a car pays £100 a year, the cyclist pays 1p. I’d happily pay my next 50 years’ ‘road tax’ now if it would shut up those certain motorists.

Currently, Vehicle Exise Duty is not paid by those cars which emit less CO2 than 100g/km. However, under a fairer Road Fund system – where cyclists paid too – these cars would have to pay for the infrastructure damage they cause.

The most carbon efficient car on the road today puts out 98g/km carbon. Cyclists also emit CO2. Badger, over on the forum, worked out that the average cyclist emits between 1.5 and 3.0 grams of carbon per kilometre. But, as GrahamS points out, “unless you’re eating coal, the carbon that you release doesn’t come from ‘stored’ carbon. It comes from carbon that is already part of the system so, arguably, breathing is carbon neutral.”

Not so sure on methane output, especially as the average tree-hugging cyclist – according to the average Daily Mail reader – is a lentil-lover. Zero BED

The 2009 Transport Select Committee report, Taxes and Charges on Road Users, calculated the total taxes and charges on UK road users as £48 billion per annum. The report quoted the typical annual expenditure on roads as about £8-9 billion.

In the same report, the Department for Transport estimated that the average marginal external cost of driving a car an additional kilometre is 15.5 pence allowing for the congestion (estimated at 13.1 pence per kilometre), infrastructure, accidents, local air quality, noise and greenhouse gases. This compares to 3.6 pence per kilometre paid in fuel duty and VAT.

However there are other costs to society as a result of our existing car-dependent transport patterns. In 2009 a Cabinet Office Strategy Unit report on urban transport attempted to quantify the costs of our existing urban transport patterns. Working with the Department for Transport, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), they arrived at the costs shown here:

Costs of driving

The figures are based on the best available evidence sources, adjusted to 2009 prices. Where there is uncertainty or disagreement, they have stated the likely range as shown in lighter shading in the bars. The conclusions changed policy makers’ understanding of the situation. Previously, congestion had been thought to represent the majority of transport’s external costs to society. Now the combined costs of accidents, air quality, physical inactivity, greenhouse gas emissions and noise at £27-38 billion per annum represent 71-78 per cent of the total.

The total cost for the English urban areas is estimated at £38-49 billion. Given that the Cabinet Office’s report states that this covers 81 per cent of the population, scaling up the appropriate impacts gives an estimate of £43-£56 billion for the whole of the UK.

It is important to note that the report makes no attempt to quantify the external costs of negative social impacts, despite referring to reduced social cohesion and interaction as a result of traffic. Yet research in Norway estimated that the cost of community severance (the ‘barrier effect’ due to transport infrastructure such as busy roads) is greater than the estimated cost of noise and almost equal to the cost of air pollution.

The Cabinet Office report also excludes the impacts of noise pollution on health, productivity and the ecosystem and does not attempt to quantify ‘quality of life’ impacts of the built environment. However it acknowledges that all these areas could represent significant additional costs, mentioning for instance an additional £4-5 billion for noise impacts on health and productivity alone.

Alternatively, estimates of the marginal costs of road transport provided in a report commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions result in a higher total cost figure of £71-95 billion (in 2006 prices). This excludes the costs of physical inactivity and other as yet un-monetised costs such as severance effects and loss of tranquillity. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Natural England, the monetary values for landscape and loss of countryside have not been calculated.

The Campaign for Better Transport extrapolates from the Government research on marginal external costs to reach a total cost of externalities of £70 billion–£95 billion per annum at prices for 2006.

The Sustainable Development Commission, a non-departmental public body (2000-2011) responsible for advising the UK Governments, concluded:

“So it would appear that the overall costs imposed on society by motoring outweigh the revenues obtained from motorists, probably very substantially.”

And the externalities of driving costs don’t include noise pollution (£3.1bn); air pollution (£19.7bn – not including CO2); water pollution (between £1bn and £16bn); or obesity (£2bn).

Subsidy for driving

But there are other, hidden subsidies, too. Donald Shoup, Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA in the US, estimates that providing free off-street car parking in the US cost a whopping $386bn in 2002 (in the same year, the US government spent $349bn on defence). As UK town planners operate to similar rules to their US counterparts – in that any major development has to have a set number of parking places, most of them unfilled but there ‘just in case’ – UK drivers get similar parking subsidies. No doubt it’s in the magnitude of many billions of pounds.

Fair’s fair. If cyclists were ever asked to contribute cash to get a “seat at the table”, to have a say in transport infrastructure decisions, any payment they made for the provision of excellent cycle facilities ought to be offset by the cost savings made by cyclists for the benefit of the economy. Going on just some of the externalities, we could be due for a rebate of somewhere in the region of £50bn. Such a rebate isn’t far-fetched. In Norway, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration pay for employees to cycle to work instead of driving. In Copenhagen the city calculates that for every kilometre a citizen on a bicycle rides, society earns 1.22 kroner [25 US cents]. For every kilometre a citizen drives in a car, society pays out .69 kroner 89 [13 US cents].”

In the UK, there is already a kind of excise tax on bicycles. A very small percentage of the money we spend in bike shops (except Halfords) is given to the Bike Hub fund. This part-pays for the Bike It cycling-to-school programme; Bike Week; the New Ideas Fund; and Disclaimer: I sit on the Bike Hub committee and I edit

The Bike Hub cash is a voluntary levy, collected by the industry organisation, the Bicycle Association. There are no known plans for a US-style excise tax on bicycles or bike equipment but should one be proposed it’s worthwhile being armed with the information above about the likely detrimental effect on cycling.

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, and can not, ever 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.