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Scottish govt plans to boost cycling by… taxing cyclists

Joined up government: How to encourage something by taxing it?

Scottish civil servants have suggested a road tax on cyclists in Scotland in a document whose principal aim is to boost the numbers of Scots on bikes. The idea is contained in the Scottish Government's draft Cycling Action Plan (CAP) for Scotland – public consultation on the draft plan has just closed. The centrepiece of the plan is a Government target that by 2020, 10 per cent of all journeys in Scotland are by bike.

The CAP does not say how the Scottish Government would square the circle of encouraging more cycling by taxing people who ride bikes. Nor does the draft proposal address the issue of double taxation. Scots who pay council tax or income tax will already have contributed to the upkeep of both local and national roads, and Vehicle Excise Duty (road tax) is not an entry fee to use the Queen's highways which belong to everybody (well, the Queen technically) and are paid for by everybody, it is merely a contribution towards the amount of wear and tear a vehicle causes – and not a full one either.

Given that the wear and tear caused to the roads by a bicycle is virtually nil, were cyclists to be charged on the same basis as motorists, the cost of collecting the tax (like the old dog licence) would be far greater than the revenue raised. If cyclists were to be charged on a different basis… stand back and wait for the inevitable explosion.

Indeed that explosion has already come, with Scottish cycling and green groups being loudly vocal in their opposition. A number of the cycling organisations that contributed to the plan also say that the road tax proposal was slipped in at the last minute without their knowledge. Peter Hayman, the CTC's representative in Scotland, and a CAP board member, is reported as saying that the road tax proposal was not in the draft version that he saw before it went off to civil servants for final preparation, and he has attacked the proposal as being "completely impractical".

Whether a road tax on Scottish cyclists will ever see the light of day has to be extremely doubtful – such measures have been proposed before and have failed to pass a basic reality test along the lines of how would it be implemented and enforced without costing far more than it could ever hope to raise?

The Scottish draft plan makes no mention about how such a tax would be collected from cyclists but, according to a report in Scotland on Sunday, civil servants favour a licensing system, with bikes having number plates, administered by local authorities. Ken Livingstone memorably suggested something similar a few years back for London before all the many pitfalls of such a system became clear – not least the heinous cost of implementing and then enforcing such a system. Shortly afterwards the proposal was quietly dropped. More recently, the US state of Oregon proposed taxing cyclists that proposal too was greeted with predictable ire.

One other aspect of the proposal which doesn't seem to have been thought through is that if cyclists are forced to pay a tax to use the roads they might expect something back for their money in the form of better road design, and stricter enforcement of existing traffic laws, all of which would cost even more money.

Tony has been editing cycling magazines and websites since 1997 starting out as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning road.cc - which he continues to edit today. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes.

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