“Would cyclists be better off if we paid road tax?”

IMAGE: After a bicycle tax, what's next? A footpath tax?

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Back in July we published an article titled 6 problems with “Cyclists should have to pay road tax”, however the sporting/sportif cycling website Stickybottle.com has a different view which it published yesterday.

It argues that a “road tax” for cycling could amount to a “change of status” giving cyclists some kind of unexplained extra right to be on the roads, that it would “strengthen the cycling lobby”, and that it would lead to “improved facilities” — but there’s too many fatal flaws in the article.

Paying, “just like everybody else”

Stickybottle.com argues that if cyclists paid a “road tax” that “We would have paid to be there, just like everyone else,” but this just isn’t the case.

There is no such thing as road tax. The amount that motorists pay does not cover all the direct, hidden and external costs of motoring and the impact that mass motoring has on society, the economy, human health, and the environment.

The costs extend way beyond road building and maintenance. There’s also obvious external costs such as pollution, noise pollution, road deaths, roads policing, planning, encouraging one-off housing etc. There is a lot of denial about the extent of the health cost of motoring — from inactivity to particulate matter pollution — none of which are going away with electric cars.

But the costs of mass-motoring extends far further — every park, public and private building etc built or extended usually needs more parking — it’s why there was the recent Department of Housing plan to remove minimum parking space number for apartments gained far wider approval than most of the department’s other suggestions.

If you had enough time on your hands and a qualification in forensic accounting, you’d be years researching the costs motoring has on everything from councils to the Department of Education, the OPW, Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection etc etc etc.

Danish researchers found that car trips cost society €0.15 per km, while cycling trips earn society €0.16 per km (due to factors such as health savings).

Not practical, and it just would not make any sense 

Adding tax to the point of sale was one suggestion. “What if ‘road tax’ was, for example, added to the cost of all adult-sized bikes sold in Ireland?” the article ponders.

I don’t know how to put this other than say that it would be daft for a Government to add a tax to bicycles when cycling is getting a tax break (via the Cycle to Work scheme) to encourage cycling.

With the Cycle to Work scheme still in place this would add a double unfairness to those who can’t access or don’t benefit from the Cycle to Work scheme (ie the low-paid, employees of any companies that just don’t run the optional scheme, students, the unemployed, the retired etc).

If anything, Ireland needs to follow the lead of Sweden which is giving a grant of up to 25% of an electric bicycle up to around €1,000 — a similar grant for electric cargo bikes exists in Oslo, while a lower one can be found in France.

Logic failure 

Adding bicycles to the motor tax system would be even greater folly. But let’s just run with Stickybottle.com’s idea and that brings us to arguments that don’t fit together.

“The tax could all be paid in one chunk or perhaps paid in instalments over a number of years,” Stickybottle.com argues. They don’t explain how this would be done, but the “easy” way to do this is add bicycles to the motor tax system, rather than creating whole new system.

The electric motor cycle tax rate is €35 per year. A normal bicycle would have to be charged under that rate or at the most around that rate. The article doesn’t give an amount but around or under the electric motor cycle rate would fit with them saying “One assumes the tax would be very minor”.

Now that in turn is a problem — the low amount undermines two of what seems to be central arguments of the article that (a) paying a “road tax” would gain respect and (b) that it would help improve infrastructure.

The argument from people that “cyclists don’t pay road tax” would just switch to “cyclists don’t pay an equal level of road tax”, thus they don’t have an equal “right” to use the roads.

All of this ignores that fact that even if the “road tax” argument didn’t exist, motorists or others who have issues with cyclists or cycling would still have those issues. They would just use different arguments.

But it would improve infrastructure, right?

As for the improvement of infrastructure — that argument fails on two fronts. Motorcyclists pay but are hardly provided for and rural motorists pay but are left with often sub-standards roads (they don’t pay half enough compared to the extra millage, especially rural dwellers who work in towns and cities).

The link between funding and an improvement in infrastructure is a poor one regardless. Without an improvement in standards and mindsets, we will continue to get sub-standard infrastructure even as funding is increased.

“It would strengthen the cycling lobby”

Stickybottle.com says: “Any group of road users paying a fee to be on the roads would have effectively bought their way to the negotiating table when transport budgets and policies were being set. That would strengthen the hand of the cycling lobby. At present very few policy makers truly see the health and transport benefits cycling could bring.”

This is basically saying let’s ditch some of the most powerful arguments for cycling just to make a token gesture to people who mostly have illogical reasons for disliking cycling.

It also takes a far too pessimistic view of policy makers and lacks an understanding of the realpolitik reality that even good things have to be fought for on an on-going basis.

What is termed as “bikelash” happens elsewhere and it is likely that such “public hatred of biking culture is actually a natural part of its evolution into the mainstream”, as outline on CityLab.

In our experience the opponents of cycling are usually just more vocal than the majority who are generally supportive but need a bit of a nudge. More and more politicians and others open up to cycling as they are shown or see the benefits.

“Road tax” for cycling fails on all grounds

Let’s just be clear on this: The road tax arguments fail on all logical grounds. Bicycle tax as outlined by Stickybottle.com would be a tokenistic  gesture to people who will never be satisfied by such a gesture.

As this website concluded earlier in the year: If you’re still not convinced, you probably have an irrational problem with cycling. An add-on to that is that it’s wishful thinking to think that those people will change their minds based on tokenistic gestures.

Some people need to accept the idea that some of their friends, family and colleagues who use “road tax” arguments — however calm and reasonable they seem — are still as illogical as radio host George Hook or a random motorist who rants about tax after they nearly knock you down.

ALSO READ: 6 problems with “Cyclists should have to pay road tax”

8 Comments

  1. I have called for a rethink on motor tax to factor in the externality costs into the setting of appropriate tax bands.
    The very first change I would make would be to bring in axle-weight into the calculation. Road damage is an approximate power of 4 of the axle weight.
    I would also deploy the EuroNCAP rating for each vehicle into the calculation. Those with a poor rating towards VRUs would face a higher tax.

  2. Great response Cian. It is a ludicrous proposition which would playing into the hands of those who rant about cyclists not paying ” rego”. As most people who use a bike in Ireland also drive the argument that people who are not using their cars for a particular journey should pay another form of tax loses coherence when given even a moment’s thought. It is the same as arguing that pedestrians should pay a separate tax which would go towards the cost of providing footpaths.

  3. Leaving aside the minor quibble that there’s no such thing as road tax, the question that should be asked is not “Would cyclists be better off if [cyclists] paid road tax?”, but “Would Ireland be better off if cyclists paid road tax?”.

  4. I pay ca. €2k p.a. motor tax.
    Why should I have to pay on the double by paying me tax to leave my car at home and another to cycle.
    That’s just daft!

  5. “Road Tax” is thus named – erroneously – because it began in 1920 in the UK (of which Ireland was still legally part) as a scheme for funding dedicated motor roads like the “autostradi” which were already being planned in Italy, and also for upgrading existing roads to motor-vehicle standards. The money derived from the “Road Fund Licence” (as the annual tax disc was called) was to be placed in a special pot and then handed out to county councils for road improvement schemes. However, in Britain the money proved to be so tempting for successive Chancellors that the Road Fund was raided, budget after budget, until by the early 1930s it had effectively been subsumed into general taxation, which was why Winston Churchill abolished it in 1936 and replaced it with a straight revenue-raising tax called Vehicle Excise Duty, though the colloquial name “Road Tax” endures to this day. In Ireland – by then independent – the Road Fund Licence survived in name until 1952 when it was replaced by the present Motor Tax.

    If anyone is tempted to think that a special bicycle tax for funding cycling infrastructure might be a workable idea, they should bear in mind that such dedicated taxes – “hypothecated revenue” is the technical term – have a pretty dismal history, nearly always ending up being absorbed into general taxation after a few years. The only example that I can think of where a special tax has continued to be spent on the service for which it was introduced is the TV licence. Likewise, taxing bicycles – small, numerous and easily hidden off-road – has always proved fiddly and disproportionately expensive for the few countries which have tried it, like Holland between the two world wars. The nearest thing to it that existed in contemporary Europe was the Swiss compulsory bike-insurance scheme – effectively a tax – which involved buying a little sticker called the “vignette” each year for about ten francs. That was ended in 2011 because the administrative costs were so high in relation to the money raised.

  6. I’d be happy to pay something reasonable IF it would silence the complaint about cyclists not paying “road tax” but as was already pointed out, it wouldn’t. There is ample evidence of this from the FPNs for cycling offences. Those who wished to complain simply switched over from claiming that “cyclists never get done” to complaining that the number of tickets handed out (it was on track to be a thousand last year) is a pittance and they could catch that many every morning (no doubt on their drive in to work).

    At least FPNs have some benefit in that they target the badly behaved cyclists and hopefully improve things. Any prospective cycling tax would be ignored by the same people who don’t use lights and cycle on the footpath and the charge would fall proportionally heavier on the already well behaved. Experience in other countries indicates that most of the money raised would be soaked up by the effort of collecting it. Of course it seems clear that most proponents of this tax don’t really want ‘fairness’ or improvements to infrastructure they want to punish cyclists and hopefully reduce their numbers. I’ve seen people argue that if a bicycle tax costs too much to administer the solution is just to increase the tax until it is cost effective.

    The mention of the TV licence is an interesting one. Is this the most hated tax in the country? Certainly a lot of people complain about it because they can see directly what it is buying and they don’t approve. I’m well aware that I am already paying for cycling infrastructure through my direct taxation but if there was a separate budget for cycling infrastructure paid through cycling taxes then I guess I’d be more concerned about mixed developments like the supposedly expensive cycle lanes that also include water main improvements or cycling infrastructure that is very poorly thought out like the roundabout in Rialto.

  7. @Eric
    “most proponents of this tax don’t really want ‘fairness’ or improvements to infrastructure they want to punish cyclists and hopefully reduce their numbers”

    I’ve always wondered about this. Is there an actual end goal in the minds of cycling opponents? Do they really want the 37000 or so people who cycle in Dublin every day to go back to (mostly) driving? Really?

    Perhaps a national cyclists-drive-to-work day and the resulting gridlock that would entail would be a useful way to illustrate that more people cycling is very much in the interest of those who will only ever drive.

  8. @Sticky Bottle
    A ‘cycle-tax’ is a ridiculous idea. Aside from all the other points, it wouldn’t even achieve the supposed aim of getting ‘respect’ from the motoring lobby. As Cian points out, it’d just become a case of “cyclists don’t pay anywhere near enough as motorists do, and therefore we can continue to treat them as rats on the road”.

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