COMMENT & ANALYSIS: The idea that people cycling a bicycle should have to pay “road tax” is common in media commentary in the UK and Ireland, but it is wrong. Here’s six reasons why:
1. There’s no such thing as “road tax”
If you’re paying “road tax” you’re being scammed. You should report the scam to your local Garda or police station, and then contact Revenue or HM Revenue & Customs as soon as possible to pay them your unpaid Motor Tax or Vehicle Excise Duty (we’ll just refer to both as motor tax).
2. Why tax something with so many benefits and only minor negatives?
Why would you tax cycling? Cycling is good for the mental and physical health of individuals and has cost savings for the health services.
When more people cycle rather than use cars there’s a reduction in air pollution, including pollution which has an impact on the public health and on climate change. There’s also a reduction of noise pollution, which makes places more pleasant and reduces the mental health effects of noise.
When investment is made in safe and attractive cycling networks for all ages and abilities, the above benefits are amplified and there’s added benefits such as freedom of mobility for everyone, from children to teenagers to people with limited mobility who can use cycle paths.
3. Motoring taxes do not cover all of the costs of motoring
Motoring taxes — motor tax and fuel taxes — are not ring-fenced for road building. But even if they were, the taxes would not cover all of the direct and external costs of motoring. Some evaluations of motor tax vs national spending on roads have some years shown that motorists pay their way, but these are simplistic and, for example, do not cover all road construction and maintenance by local councils or all state subsiding of motoring, from social welfare to staff and political travel allowances.
The cost of motoring does not stop at building roads. External costs include the cost of congestion, the cost of injury and death from collisions, the cost of inactivity, the health costs of air and noise pollution, the environmental costs, poor planning and so on. An EU-wide study by the Dresden Technical University, which looked at 2008 data, put the price tag for just some of these external costs at €3 billion in Ireland and £48bn in the UK.
4. Most cyclists are motorists too
A Twitter poll by Cycling Ireland showed what most people who cycle know — most cyclists are also motorists. For commuting or leisure, when people choose to leave their cars at home for some journeys they are still paying the set fee for motor tax but have almost zero impact on wear and tear of the roads and lowering their position impact to zero also.
The truth is: as motoring tax does not pay for all the costs of motoring (see above), everybody pays for those costs via additional taxes such as property tax, VAT and other taxes.
5. Tax has no relationship to law breaking
Amazingly, the issue of cycling tax for road use is often brought up in conversations or media coverage of cyclists misbehaving or breaking the law. The problem with this is that law breaking is not offset by taxation — paying motor tax does not give motorists the entitlement to break speed limits or run red lights, and is certainly not a licence to kill or injure thousands of people a year.
6. There’d be too many problems with a cycling tax
An electric car is taxed at a rate of €120 per year in Ireland (€35 for motor bikes) and £0 in the UK. Under the current system based on emissions, a bicycle owner using their bicycle on our roads would be due to be pay €0 in road usage tax based on emissions.
If the whole system was changed to one based on likely damage to roads (ie the weight of a vehicle etc), then bicycles would still be rated at so close to €0 that it doesn’t matter.
A nominal tax amount, like €/£5 to €/£30, would likely hardly cover the administrative and policing effort needed or have very little left over. And once you get the police involved you have to ask: What age of child will the police be enforcing a tax on? If there’s a cut-off point, what is it? And how do children under that age prove their age?
If you’re still not convinced, you probably have an irrational problem with cycling
Please, do yourself a favour: Realise it’s irrational (bicycles do far more good than harm) and then get over it.
Well said, Cian.
The “irrational problem with cycling” you mention really puzzles me. It obviously exists, but where does it come from? Is it that cars turn drivers into sociopaths? I know I stopped driving in town about 10 years ago because I was turning into a bitter person, but how does that individual problem (being subconsciously aware that you are a ‘prisoner’ of a car that is stuck in traffic) turn into a manic hatred towards a group of people that found their way out?
Yes. It’s mostly just resentment.
In Belgium the government has introduced a Bike-to-Work payment to people who cycle to work rather than use their cars. It is set at €0.23/km travelled from home to work.
Irish commuters who cycle and thus free up road space and don’t degrade the environment should be paid for their good citizenship.
I want that Belgian system, just worked out at €1500 per annum
So true, especially the last part. The problem is that a lot of people DO have an irrational problem with cycling. This is why not a single thing you have said will convince a certain, depressingly large, segment of society. These people are convinced that their motor and fuel tax is paying for the entire country. That they are virtual heroes by benefit of paying their car tax and are unfairly put upon by the expectations to share the road with cyclists, obey the speed limits and not park wherever they like.
To address Stephen’s question, I think people get psychologically locked in to using the car for everything. They convince themselves that it is NECESSARY to drive everywhere, that it is NECESSARY to be able to park within 100m of your destination, that it is NECESSARY to drive at least 50kph in the city centre. Any proof that this is not true must be aggressively countered, even if the argument against makes no sense. So normal people don’t cycle every day, only tree hugging freaks and lycra louts who don’t have real people jobs and real people requirements. Responsible people don’t cycle because they ‘know’ that cyclists are the biggest hazard on the road and cause congestion.
Yes, that is ludicrously stupid, but a lot of people are willing to believe anything that backs up their emotionally pre-determined decision no matter how stupid it requires them to be.
I agree with Hugh too that a lot of it is down to resentment. Some motorists stuck in bumper to bumper traffic in their usual 30 minute, 5k commute see cyclists go past and are jealous. They think they should be the ones to go the fastest because they think they have paid for the privilege. Every time you see a non-cyclist demanding that cyclists jump through hoops for the privilege of using the roads (road tax, licences, special clothing, special safety gear) there is a very good chance the real reason they want this is to make life a little bit worse for cyclists. Share the misery that is driving in a big city and maybe put off a bunch of people that might otherwise cycle. If they are going to be miserable, they everyone else should be too.
I agree – I see no reason to tax bicycles, but I don’t think reason is necessarily what governments take into account when deciding what to tax. The principal reason for a tax, I think, is to bring in revenue. Bricks and windows used to be taxed for example and what good reason, other than revenue, justified that? If there were enough bicycles to tax I could see taxing them being considered and there would be, no doubt, no shortage of anti-cyclists advocating for a tax with all the usual arguments . If it were to happen it would probably start as a nominal annual registration fee.
I’m always amazed when seemingly rational people call for our tax burden to be increased, as if we don’t pay enough tax already. I could never get over what seemed like normal people celebrating the introduction of the sugar tax in the UK.
The only European country which has ever taxed bicycles was the Netherlands, between 1924 and 1941. The “Rijwielbelasting” was an annual charge of 2.50 guilders – about half a workman’s daily wage – and was on the bicycle not the rider, so that a little copper disc had to be fixed to the frame each year. The tax was purely for revenue-raising purposes, but turned out to be extremely fiddly and expensive to collect because there were so many exemptions such as those for schoolchildren and for public employees. There was a great deal of cheating and evasion – unusually for the Netherlands, where people have always been conscientious taxpayers – and the whole scheme was widely detested as unjust: rather like taxing pairs of shoes. A particular grievance during the Depression was that the unemployed got their tax disc for free – but with a hole punched though it to rub in their shameful condition, plus which they were forbidden to ride the bicycle on Sundays! When the Germans occupied Holland in 1940 they simply let the tax lapse: the only thing they ever did that won them any popularity among the Dutch public.
France taxed bicycles in theory from 1893 to 1958; but it seems that in practice the charge wasn’t levied because it was simply too much administrative bother for too little public benefit.
It’s not that complicated. Taxation should be about more than collecting money. It can be used as a deterrent to certain environmentally damaging or self-destructive behaviours, and in those cases, such as the sugar tax, an alternative to paying exists; eat less sugar, and improve your health while you are at it.
For example, I’d be ok with a road tax that included bicycles to be introduced as long as:
1. Existing unrelated Motor Taxes were maintained as they are vehicular taxes not road taxes.
2. Road Tax calculation was based on the impact of the vehicle on the road network (so factors such as weight of vehicle and miles driven would be the basis of the tax) and impact on the environment.
Under such a scheme, bikes would pay next to nothing while motorists, rightly, would pay far more towards the enormous impact of their dependence on driving.
I’d have no problem either with a bicycle tax that funded the building and maintenance of proper segregated cycle tracks – though I suspect that it’d be very complicated and expensive to collect. But the history of such special-purpose taxes – “hypothecated revenue” as they’re called – is not encouraging. The original British Road-Fund Licence was introduced in 1920 to finance the building of special dedicated motor roads of the kind that were already being planned in countries like Italy. The money raised was supposed to be paid into the National Road Fund: but after a very few years successive Chancellors of the Exchequer found the money pot too tempting not to raid at each budget, and by the late 1920s the whole thing had been subsumed into general taxation, which was why Churchill ended the scheme in 1936 and replaced it with Vehicle Excise Duty (…though the colloquial name “Road Tax” unfortunately stuck, with consequences which linger to this day). The UK’s first dedicated motor road didn’t get built until 1959…
So far as I’m aware the only hypothecated revenue which remains dedicated to its original purpose is the TV licence fee.
To be honest it was more of a “be careful what you wish for” response to those who call for a road tax on cyclists than a real proposal. If a road tax was formulated to include cyclists, but was calculated on the basis of actual impact, drivers would face a huge tax increase I am certain they would not welcome. Much as if all cyclists gave up on our lousy dangerous cycling infrastructure and returned to their cars, there would be 10000 more cars on the road in Dublin and traffic would grind to a halt.
Your argument regarding the serious implementation issues with a tax on bikes are completely valid and are the main reason they will never happen. Interesting potted history of Vehicle Excise duty to boot!
Another great one Cian – hits all the critical points and the ultimate one at the end … antipathy to cycling and cyclists is usually based on irrational, illogical, emotive reaction. Keep up the great commentary.
When are they going to start paying us for cycling to work and generally reducing the impact on the road and environment, All car drivers need to supplement this by increases fuel prices so that the cyclist can benefit there healthy choice,
The more i think about it, it’s a Fecking great idea, Every motorist has to supplement the cyclist, They’ve been looking at this all wrong :-D
If cyclists have to pay road tax, does this mean that the behaviour of motorists towards cyclists will change? I don’t think so.