I’ve been enjoying cycling to work lately. It’s only about 3 miles from the new flat, so easily do-able. (The old one was 7 miles away. I suppose that’s also do-able in theory, but not for someone as lazy and unfit as me 😉 ). It’s got more enjoyable since I replaced practically every part of my rusty old bike that could be replaced. Previously, going uphill made me feel like I was going to die of exhaustion, going downhill made me feel like I was going to die if something pulled out in front of me because the brakes weren’t very good, and going along on the flat made me realise I must in fact be dreaming because, as you quickly discover once you start cycling, there aren’t any flat bits in Edinburgh.
Since I started cycling, I’ve noticed 3 things:
- There aren’t any flat bits in Edinburgh. No really, there aren’t. Even the streets that seem pretty flat when you’re driving or on foot turn out not to be once you have to cycle on them. (I know I mentioned this already, but it seemed annoying enough to be worth mentioning twice).
- People really don’t expect cyclists to stop for them at zebra crossings! When I approach the crossing near my work in the car, people step out in front, expecting me to stop (quite rightly). But when I cycle up to it, they come to an abrupt halt on the pavement and look nervous, then look amazed when I actually do stop to let them cross. They smile and wave and thank me as if I’ve done them a great favour.
- At the smallest mention of cycling, some people will start practically frothing at the mouth and immediately coming out with “They should have to pay road tax!”, “They should be prosecuted when they go through red lights!!”, “They should have to pass a test!!!”, “They should be fined for riding on the pavement!!!!”. And so on.
It’s probably evil of me, but it amuses me no end when people get worked up about stuff like this. Their reaction just seems out of all proportion to what provoked it. What on earth, for example, would be the point in charging cyclists road tax? What material difference would it make to anyone else? I could be a smart-arse and point out that motorists don’t pay “road tax” either, they pay Vehicle Excise Duty, or that the roads are funded through general taxation rather than anything specific to road users. Instead I’ll just point out that the level of tax paid is now based on emissions per kilometre, and cyclists don’t cause pollution so it seems completely fair and reasonable to me that they don’t pay the tax. Zero-emission (and very low emission) cars don’t have to pay it either.
Going back a few years, the criteria was engine size. Pushbikes don’t have engines so there was no reason to charge them under the old rules either. Even if you based the tax levels on amount of wear and tear caused to the roads I’d be surprised if the damage caused by pedal cyclists was even measurable at all compared to what cars, lorries and buses do. It’s probably more on a par with the wear caused by pedestrians and no-one seems to be suggesting charging them to walk on the pavements or cross the roads. In fact I’m struggling to see any sort of reasonable objective criteria that would justify charging cyclists road tax. Emissions doesn’t work, engine size doesn’t work, wear and tear doesn’t work… maybe “how much they piss off Jeremy Clarkson” would, but that’s about it.
Don’t get me wrong… I’m a frequent driver myself and I know how easy it is to get wound up by people (pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers alike) doing stupid things on the roads. But I don’t feel the need to demand that whole groups of road users be punished through legislation just for annoying me. Yes, it’s irritating to see cyclists sneaking through a red light or along a pavement when you’re stuck in a jam, and maybe it seems like a double standard that they can usually get away with it and you can’t. But you have to get some perspective. Cars are massively more dangerous than bikes are – a recklessly ridden bike is annoying and sometimes inconvenient, but a recklessly driven car can be terrifying and life-threatening. Driving a car through a pedestrianised area, or going through red lights, or driving after a few drinks can very easily land innocent bystanders in hospital or worse. That’s why you need to pass a test before driving a car and why breaking those rules will get you fined or banned. Doing the same things on a bike, while inadvisable, is pretty unlikely to cause serious harm to anyone except the cyclist themselves. That’s why you DON’T need to pass a test before riding a bike and why the rules are not enforced so strictly. It seems quite reasonable to me.
Besides, would you really want all the traffic laws to be enforced strictly all the time? For fairness you’d have to enforce them at least as strictly against cars. Some people would claim that the laws are already enforced with an iron fist against the poor beleaguered motorist, but it’s easy to see that that’s not quite true. If you drive at 31MPH in a town, or 71MPH on a motorway, do you always get a ticket for it? No, although it’s technically illegal, in practise you almost never get a ticket until you’re over the limit by quite a generous margin. If you park on a pavement or on a double yellow line in a quiet residential street but aren’t actually causing an obstruction, do you always get fined? Again, no… I’ve done it plenty of times and never been fined yet. The truth is, motorists get away with a lot of minor infractions that are theoretically against the rules but in practise aren’t likely to hurt anyone. Seems fair enough then if cyclists do too.
In the end, forcing cyclists to pay tax and pass tests, or punishing them for every trivial, harmless technical violation would just discourage people from cycling, and that would be a bad thing. Cycling has a lot of advantages… it’s healthy, it’s non-polluting, it saves fuel, it cuts congestion, and it’s much safer for other road users. We should be encouraging it, not discouraging it, because everyone benefits indirectly if more people cycle.
And anyway, if you’re still convinced cyclists get much better treatment, there’s an easy solution… bikes aren’t that expensive… come join us ;).