‘Charge cyclists road tax if they want to share roads with motorists’

Telegraph 'Road Tax'

Yesterday, over on Quickrelease.tv, I asked what is it about the internet and the internal combustion engine that makes some folks so callous? A number of thoughtless commenters had peppered a forum with ugly comments following the death of a cyclist at the hands of an inattentive motorist. The forum commenters were all American, but motor-myopia is global.

Old joke: What’s the most dangerous part of a car? The nut behind the wheel.

Here in Britain we have our fair share of nuts behind wheels. ‘KeepCalm’, a TelegraphOnline habitué, is one of them. Dunno where he’s from, but I wouldn’t want to cycle in front of him. He believes – like way too many drivers do – that cyclists should only be allowed on roads when we pay ‘road tax’, a duty abolished 73 years ago.

In a pre-election debate about transport, the Daily Telegraph website asked: ‘How can we make British cities more cycle-friendly.’

Getting more Britons cycling would help to improve fitness, to reduce congestion and to ease fears about dwindling oil reserves and climate change. But many people in urban areas are worried that it is unsafe to cycle and that bicycle theft is rife. How can government help make cycling safer and more pleasant in British cities?

KeepCalm’s suggestion was to “Charge cyclists Road Tax if they want to share roads with motorists.”

I’d be a lot friendlier to cyclists if I thought they were paying a share of the costs of the roads they are using. Why should we have to pay all the road tax as well as the additional driving costs incurred by having to swerve and brake around cyclists?

KeepCalm wants cyclists off the roads, and on to footways:

Why can’t we ask cyclists to share the pavements with pedestrians rather than the roads with motorists? Removing cyclists from our busy roads would be welcomed by every motorist.

Sure, KeepCalm is a loon – thanks to the indecision over the current hung parliament, he wants a military coup in the UK – but he has a driving licence and is out there somewhere. Most motorists are not as extreme as KeepCalm but many view cyclists as irritants, slowing their progress, blind to the fact it’s other motorists slowing them down, not slim, easily-passed two-wheelers.

Part of the problem with road aggression from motorists is clock-watching, a desire to be somewhere sooner than it’s probably possible, but there’s also a great deal of selfishness involved.

Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins nailed this point in December last year:

Of all human activities that bring out the selfish in mankind, nothing compares with travel. The externalities of travel economics should be on every school curriculum. We see mobility through our own eyes alone, with no view of the similar demands of others. I am a free and independent spirit innocently enjoying the right to roam; you are a travel-mad lemming who thinks he has a God-given right to tarmac, train or plane just when I am there. Get out of my way.

Everybody thinks it is cars, trains and planes that cause gridlock – when in reality it is people.

Travelling must bear the global externalities that it imposes on other users of the planet. There is no absolute right to roam. There is no free trip.

Cyclists can be selfish too, of course (not all red light running is done for safety reasons) but a selfish cyclist has the propensity to do little harm. It’s a question of mass: cyclists don’t have much of the stuff, motorists have lots, and lots of mass, travelling at speed, equals danger. Not enough motorists drive in such a way to minimise their impact on the road, on congestion and on squishy sentient beings.

Selfishness is hard-wired in motoring, it seems. And you don’t have to be a bicycling Bolshevik to believe this.

Here’s what Maxwell Gordon Lay has to say on the subject:

The car’s high speed, particularly relative to walking, creates an aggressiveness that must be constrained. Certainly it has not been possible to rely on the self-restraint of the individual motorist, whose motoring decision-making is usually singularly self-centred.

Lay is a former Executive Director of the Australian Road Research Board and was Chairman of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria. In his book Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and the vehicles that used them, Maxwell Gordon Lay also has a lot to say about roads funding, but more from him later.