Published: December 2022
Let’s cut to the chase: road tax doesn’t exist. The upkeep of roads is paid for from general taxation.
It never takes long for the 'road tax' debate to come up in relation to cyclists. An argument often put to cyclists is: why should they be on the roads when they don’t contribute to their upkeep whatsoever? Well the thing is, car drivers don’t pay road tax either. In fact, nobody does…
You may also be interested in:
Wait, if road tax doesn’t exist then why do I have to tax my car?
The thing that people are referring to when they talk about road tax, is actually named Vehicle Excise Duty (VED). For the vast majority of vehicles on the road (and basically every car), the amount of VED is linked to the vehicle’s carbon dioxide emissions and, last time we checked, bicycles don’t emit any carbon dioxide.
VED raises around £7 billion a year for the UK Government. This is paid into the general pot of taxation money held by the government which pays for the roads. If you pay any form of tax in the UK, you are effectively contributing to the upkeep of the roads.
The highest amount that a driver of a CO2-emitting car can be taxed for VED is £2,365 and the minimum they can pay for a car is £10. If you own a vehicle that emits any CO2 whatsoever, you will be required to pay something. If you own a zero-emission vehicle, like an electric car, you won’t be paying tax either (for now anyway…).
Cyclists are not the only road users that are exempt from Vehicle Excise Duty. If cyclists are singled out as 'tax dodgers', then the same would apply to drivers of electric cars, disabled drivers and many other exempt groups too.
It’s also worth noting that around 85% of cyclists in the UK are also drivers, so they are more than likely to be paying Vehicle Excise Duty anyway!
But, road tax did once exist, right?
Vehicle tax was first introduced in 1888, and then in 1920 a specific duty was added which applied to motor vehicles. At the time, all of the money raised from this duty was paid into a 'Road Fund' which is where the phrase “road tax” originates. In 1937, the 'Road Fund' was officially ended and instead all the money raised was paid into the general pot of money owned by the government. So, 1937 was the last time that the saying “cyclists don’t pay road tax” had any weight to it.
So, next time someone tells you that cyclists don’t pay road tax and therefore have no right to be on the road, you can politely inform them that neither do they. You can tell them that, as a matter of fact, road tax was abolished in 1937 and replaced by a tax related to a vehicle’s carbon emissions instead.
How else could we tax cyclists to use the roads?
The reality is that it’s quite difficult to justify a fair and proportionate tax on bicycles to use the road given their lightweight and zero emissions. One alternative which is sometimes cited is that ‘road tax’ should be based on road maintenance costs with each user paying their ‘fair share’ according to the damage their vehicle does to the roads. This seems fair.
The issue here is something known as the ‘fourth power law’. This says that damage to roads is proportional to the fourth power of the axle load of the vehicle. In principle, if you double the weight on an axle, the vehicle does sixteen times the damage to the road.
So let’s say a cyclist plus bicycle (100kg) is charged £10 a year to use the roads. In that case, a Nissan Qashqai weighing 1,500kg would have a load per axle that’s 15 times greater than the bicycle. Applying the ‘fourth power law,’ that means the car does 50,000 times the damage to the road compared to the bicycle. Or to put it another way, after 50,000 crossings of a road the bicycle would cause as much damage as the car would driving over it once. The commensurate charge for the Nissan Qashqai to use the roads would be £500,000 per year.
We’re sure there are other ways of coming up with a way to tax road use but you can see that it’s not easy if proportionality is the guiding principle...
We're in favour of safe and sensible road use by all road users here at Pedalsure, whether you're a driver, cyclist, motorcyclist or all three! For the cyclists out there we offer Excellent-rated cycling insurance to protect you and your bicycles against theft, damage, personal liability and more. Get a quote today.