The Times' cycle safe campaign is highlighting some important topics but will it be subsumed by the duff stuff?

MP calls for all new bicycles to be fitted with lights [UPDATED]

Julian Huppert, co chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, created the following Early Day Motion supporting the #cyclesafe campaign being run by The Times:

"Believes that cycling is an extremely efficient form of transport which is good for health and the environment; supports successive Governments’ commitment to encourage the use of bikes and reduce the number of cyclist-related accidents; notes with concern that the number of cyclists killed on Britain’s roads rose by 7 per cent between 2009 and 2010; notes that a disproportionate number of cycling accidents involve vans and lorries; supports The Times’ ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ campaign; and calls on the Government to take further action to improve cycling infrastructure and reduce the number of casualties on our roads."

Hopefully it will get more MP sign-ups than the EDM created by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP for Islington North. Corbyn’s Early Day Motion "welcomes The Times campaign for cycle safety" but, then, goes off at a tangent by calling for regulations to "require all new bicycles to be fitted with lights at the point of sale". 

Cyclists who ride at night are legally required to fit and use lights. Night cyclists who value their lives use flashing LEDs, but that doesn’t stop SMIDSY – ‘sorry, mate, I didn’t see you’ – from inattentive motorists. 

Corbyn’s EDM is an example of how The Times’ campaign risks veering off into odd directions with possible unintended consequences. While many bloggers and bicycle campaigners are applauding the support of a mainstream newspaper, others are worrying that the message that will remain, once the campaign has finished, will be that cycling is incredibly dangerous (so best not to cycle, then), needs to require a licence fee, and that cyclists are to blame for injuries and deaths if they don’t wear protective equipment.

In Saturday’s newspaper, Chris Boardman voiced some of these concerns: 

"I don’t want people to see cycling as a dangerous mode of transport. It isn’t but it could be a lot safer, and acting to make it so right now, while it has almost fashion status, will see numbers explode. We are at a tipping point, a crossroads, a moment where we could easily become the next Amsterdam, reducing pollution and congestion as well as improving health and quality of life.

"For me, the core issue is road hierarchy. While I am glad to see more and more cycling infrastructure going in, the philosophy behind its design seems to be: get the cyclist out of the way of the car.But the thinking behind road design needs to be: how can we make life easier and safer for cyclists?"

Newsreader Jon Snow said "the UK has never needed the bike more" and said he would welcome a licensing fee for bikes "if it meant that separated cycle ways were provided as my right." 

He added: "The dominant creature on the urban road is the single-occupancy car. One person in a motorised 60 sq ft metal box. And what are we cyclists — one person on a thin strip of tubing with two wheels. One has the power, the presence and the rights; the other is deprived of all three. Is that equality under the law? I would willingly pay a licence fee for my bike if it meant that separated cycle ways were provided as my right."

In today’s newspaper, this theme is continued, with the newspaper saying £100m "should be set aside to finance cycle infrastructure across Britain," paid for by 2 per cent of the Highways Agency annual budget. Paying for cycle infrastructure in the same way that infrastructure for cars and trucks is paid for – out of national coffers – is the correct way, but The Times then brings a licence fee for cyclists into the equation: 

"Some British cyclists say they would be willing to pay a nominal sum to maintain cycle facilities. [And a poll by] an insurance comparison website, found that 12 per cent of drivers thought that cyclists should pay additional road tax."

Motorists don’t pay for roads via "road tax". Motorists pay vehicle excise duty, a tax on emissions. Low emission cars pay zero VED, and low emission cyclists would also pay zero VED.

Some commentators on twitter have welcomed the chance to pay bicycle licensing and bicycle excise taxes. If cyclists paid a bit of cash each year it would get motorists "off our backs…and we could say we pay for roads," is one argument.

However, adult cyclists who pay income tax and council tax already pay for roads. Bicycle infrastructure – like infrastructure for cars – is paid for by general and local taxation, not ‘road’ tax. Motorists may feel they get no benefit from bicycle infrastructure they wrongly assume they’ve paid for via ‘road’ tax but there are lots of examples of tax payers’ money going on amenities only a portion of the community will benefit from. Schools, for instance. Child-less tax-payers pay for facilities they’ll never use. Hospitals: stay healthy and you’ll never get the benefits from your tax money. Motorways: cyclists aren’t allowed on them, but adult cyclist tax-payers still pay for them.

Nevertheless, asking cyclists to pay a token amount – a pedalling peppercorn – is something that some cyclists are ready to sign up for. Being able to wave a piece of paper proving there’s been a payment is something many cyclists would welcome. 

But critics point out that “paying our way” with usage fees or taxes creates a pot of cash that, were it to be ringfenced for bicycle infrastructure, could become seen as the only pot of cash for cycling. The fund would never be big enough.
What happened in the US last year is instructive.

In Maine, USA, legislators wanted to impose a 2 percent surcharge on new bike sales. State lawmakers said proceeds from this new tax, mooted in March 2011, would go toward a Bikeway Construction Fund.

According to Nancy Grant, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, about 10,000 bikes are sold in the state each year. “If the average price of a bike is $400, the total funds collected would be $80,000. That would hardly cover the engineering and design costs of a typical bike/pedestrian project, much less the construction. Subtract the cost of administering this tax, and there’s even less,” she said.

Jerry Porter, manager of the bike shop inside of Ski Rack Sports in Bangor, Maine, asked why the bill targets just cyclists because bikeways are also used by runners, joggers with baby strollers and dog walkers, as well as others. “I don’t know why they’re targeting us,” he said. “We’re already paying taxes as it is.”

And, back in the UK, cyclists already pay some cash. The UK bicycle industry has a levy fund. It’s called Bike Hub: a fraction of the money spent in bike shops goes into this fund and helps pay for pro-cycling programmes such as cycling-to-school initiative Bike It, the Bike Hub smartphone navigation apps, and Bike Week.

Paying for infrastructure is a whole different level of funding and requires tax-payer’s cash: just as road building and maintenance requires tax-payer cash.

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