Sunday, 10 January 2016

Tax on bicycle-ownership; even the Nazis got rid of it!

We live in a precarious time age. “It is all about money, money”. At the same time, numbers of cycling participation are on the rise and as a result, also the call for better cycling conditions. These two cycling movements seem to infuriate various small-minded people around the world who can’t think beyond the safe confinements of their own car. Whether they are a politician, celebrity, a “letter-writer to the editor-pages” or just a grumpy old man, there is that claim again: “cyclists should pay road tax!”

The people who shout this forget that they don’t pay road tax either, as such a thing doesn't exist.  Whether you drive, cycle or walk on the public highway; nobody pays road tax! People get taxed on car-ownership and the tax rate is based on engine size, fuel type and the amount of C02 emissions. The DVLA (The British Driver andVehicle Licensing Agency) publishes these rates via tables and the Department for Transport itself responses generally that “if we required cyclists to be register and carry number plates we’d have to do the same for pedestrians”. Cycling campaigner Carlton Reid runs a dedicated website to fight the claim that cyclists should pay road tax, supported by lots of evidence against the short-sighted ridicule of the claim.

To illustrate this, I thought it might be fun to make a calculation for tax on my own bicycle, based on the fees I pay for my vehicle, just to see how much I had to pay for my bike if it was indeed to be taxed. By doing so, I will be completely ignoring that my bicycle doesn’t generate harmful CO2 emissions, doesn’t have an engine and doesn’t need fuel. So let’s forget all these things and have a look at my own car.

Now; my car is an environmental time bomb! It weighs 2260 kg (gross weight), has a 2.5 Turbo Diesel engine and was built in 1996. Not exactly what you expected from a cyclist who “doesn’t pay road tax”?  Well, here is the surprise for “road tax”-campaigners; most people who ride bikes own cars and pay taxes too! If you see a cyclist on the road, chances are high this person made a deliberate, practical choice not to drive, but to cycle on that particular journey. And, hey; that is good for the environment, good for personal health, good for the wallet (no fossil fuel burning) and good for those still driving, as there is a car less clogging up the roads at that moment!

So why do I have such a tank to take the road? Well, there are various reasons, but one of the reasons is that this vehicle can take my family unit and all our bikes to a place where we want to go on a bike ride. Stop there. From a Dutch perspective, this sounds odd; why would you go in a car to be able to cycle? This is what a road network with hostile cycling conditions does to a “Cycling Dutchman”. I never owned a car when I lived in The Netherlands, but as everything in Britain seems to be designed for driving only, I had to up my game; sad isn’t it?

My latest DVLA-bill states £230 vehicle tax for a full year, so let’s now compare the impact of my car to the impact of my bicycle on the road network and calculate my bike tax proportionally. I think we all agree that weight should be a factor, as the heavier something is, the more it will wear out the road surface. The average bicycle weighs under 15 kg, so the average bicycle is 150 times lighter than my car, which creates a “bicycle tax” of £1.53 per year per bike.

Another factor to take in is that a car does much more annual mileage than a bicycle. The estimated average mileage per car in England was 7,900 miles in 2014. To come up with such a figure for bike riding is harder. Bicycles get mostly used for journeys of three miles or less, so let’s take a three mile one-way commute for five days a week, fifty weeks a year. That gives us a total mileage of 1500 miles. If we also allow 40 miles per weekend for twenty weekends a year (sunny leisure rides), this will add 500 miles to our grant total, bringing the mileage per bicycle to 2000 miles per year. Most bikes will get much less use, but let’s take this figure of 2000 miles. Comparing it to the estimated average mileage per car in England, I come to the conclusion that my proposed bike tax rate has to be reduced further with the factor of 3, 95. My £1.53 rate of the previous paragraph comes then further down to £0.39 per bike per year!

The next factor we need to talk is the occupancy of public space. With a bicycle, you simply need much less space than with a car. I can simply demonstrate this with a picture of 8 bicycles chained up together, taking less than half a space a parked car would need. I could now simply divide the figure of the previous paragraph by 16, but let's be generous. To keep myself safe when cycling on the road, I am sometimes forced to claim the whole width of the lane, but my bicycle is still about twice as short as a car. I think it is justifiable to reduce my subtotal of the previous paragraph by half. So, if “bicycle tax” was to be introduced, a fair tax rate, in proportion with current UK vehicle tax rates, would be less than £0.20 per year per bicycle. Don’t you think we are saddling up Mr Tax Man with a hopeless and unprofitable job?

Funny enough, in the cycling paradise of The Netherlands, exactly such a ridiculous bicycle tax was in effect between 1924 and 1941. In the book In the City of Bikes, American author Pete Jordan vividly describes how impractical this tax was. Bike owners had to pay three Dutch guilders per year at the post office. In return they received a copper plate, imprinted with the current tax year, to be affixed to the bike and replaced annually. Immediately after the tax was introduced, thieves started to pry the plates from bikes and counterfeiters produced fakes, all to be sold on the black market.

At the same time, eagle-eyed police offers were needed to enforce the tax. They were posted at busy cycling junctions during rush hour and faced an impossible task. Those who didn't cough up the required fee (or the discounted fee on the black market) could simply escape from the police checks by walking the bike, telling the officials to be on his or her way to the post office to pay the tax. The whole thing was just a farce. When the highly effectively organised Nazi powers took charge of the lowlands during WWII, one of the first things they abandoned was this much-hated bike tax. Given the facts that the Nazi regime invented the Autobahn, was promoting driving as the means of transport for the future and actually detested the Dutch cyclists (see again Jordan's book), this was pretty surprising. The Nazis were far too practical to keep something ineffective like this going!

It is also interesting to have a look at why the bike tax in The Netherlands was introduced. In the book In the City of Bikes, it is also explained how the Dutch discovered the bicycle as means of transport in the early 1920s, perhaps comparable in the same massive way how Londoners have re-discovered the bicycle in recent years. Videos of mass-cycling in Camden today provide images not far off from the cycling crowds in Amsterdam’s Leidse Straat in 1924 (see picture). Although the total number of cars in The Netherlands was very low, the image of “cyclists being in the way of drivers” started to appear in Dutch media and in Dutch policy making circles. Today’s “cyclists-should-pay-road-tax”-claim seems to go with the same emotional sentiments as in the Dutch 1920s. Also, these claims made by minorities seem to receive a similar out-of-proportion attention by media and authorities.

Infringing cyclists’ rights by authorities on demand by an influential minority became common in The Netherlands of the 1920s. For example, in 1927 it was officially proposed to ban cycling from Amsterdam’s most popular shopping street, just to make way for on-road car parking. One Amsterdam cyclist responded: “Despite all our democratic airs, a delusion is now developing in the heads of our authorities and of ourselves; the idea that ten cyclists are less important than a single motorist. Therefore, cyclists of Amsterdam, unite. It is about time!” The person who wrote this probably won’t have lived to experience the Dutch cycling revolution of the 1970s (see picture), but his/her words are still very valid today, even if it was to fight a couple of small-minded people shouting loudly for “road tax for cyclists”.

Let's be frank, we all love the convenience and luxery of our cars, but the burden motorised traffic has on our society and planet is enormous. Harmful emissions are an important contributor to global warming and are also bad for human’s health. Just look at the interactive air map of London to see in how many places the PM10 particle pollution is beyond the annual set limits. According to Asthma UK, one in five British homes has someone living with asthma. 

Also, the driving culture is a main contributor to inactivity and obesity. The Association of Directors of PublicHealth expects the nationwide expense on obesity-related health issues to be £20 bn per year by 2020. The UK has one of the lowest levels of children walking or cycling to school in Europe, with shocking percentages of pedestrian road fatalities. I am not even writing about traffic noise affecting mental health and the amount of public space our “King Car” absorbs in town and city centres. The ability to keep a road network with so many cars on the move comes with an enormous public expense. These costs are never show in full when comparing it with the cost for the creation of good facilities for walking, cycling and public transport. In summary, taking in all factors, whether we like it or not, if there is one means of transport which should be taxed, it is the driving

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