The mass media is full of 'road tax' stories today because of theoretical plans from the Department for Transport to increase revenue by creating a two-tier system of roads, with motorists paying more to drive on motorways and trunk roads. Currently, roads are paid for out of general taxation - everybody pays for roads - but the new plans would see motorists paying for road use directly with revenues raised being 'ring fenced' for spending only on roads. Such ring fencing is called tax hypothecation and has been derided by the Treasury since the 1930s because taxation opt-outs and opt-ins tend to be inefficient instruments of revenue generation. The DfT's new plans - should they be introduced - could prove disastrous for cyclists because motorists, who already feel they pay for roads, and that cyclists are "road tax dodgers," would claim that cyclists should only be allowed on bike paths only as "roads are for motor vehicles."
[The selling-us-something-we-already-own plans would be disastrous for pedestrians, too, and horse-riders, and, at the end of the day, disastrous for motorists, too.]
While the Government's plans are bad enough, a libertarian think-tank is urging the Government to go even further and "denationalise the entire road network". The right wing Institute of Economic Affairs - which refuses to publish details of who funds its work - wants to "privatise" every road in Britain, selling off not just motorways but local streets, too. It is calling for roads owned by local authorities to be sold to businesses or local residents.
"Local residents, individually where appropriate, but more typically in voluntary associations, should be given the ‘right to own’ the residential roads adjoining their properties," says a report for IEA. In theory this would mean streets could be bought by residents and closed off to cars but, in a car-centric society it's far more likely to mean local streets would become even more motorised than they are already.
The 'free market roads' report was co-written by Dr Richard Wellings, the IEA's Head of Transport (pictured).
He said: "Denationalising the network would ensure British motorists had better roads to drive on."
He also said "much of [£10bn spent on roads is spent] on anti-car traffic calming schemes, priority measures for buses and cyclists and so on."
At the beginning of October Dr Wellings was involved in an exchange on Twitter where he said cyclists are “low-value”, don’t pay for roads and “delay traffic”. Dr Wellings is often wheeled out by the BBC as a commentator on transport matters. He has appeared before the transport select committee and is lauded by MPs, including Angela Leadsom, the MP who last year wanted to bring in a ‘dangerous cycling’ bill.
Dr Wellings is no fan of cycling:
“Removing underused cycle and bus priority measures will increase efficiency of the network…Uneconomic cycling priority measures…impose major time losses on motorists. Another problem is that cyclists fill up gaps in traffic due to slower speed, delaying motorists at junctions."
Despite having a PhD and supposedly being an expert on transport, Dr Wellings doesn't seem to know that roads are paid by all tax payers, not just motorists as he said:
"Maybe cyclists should pay to use cycle lanes – can’t see why taxpayers should be forced to subsidise them."
In his report he wrote "…bicycles, horses, pedestrians and so on" are "users who currently may not pay anything to use the road space."
And cycle lanes should be grubbed up not because they are famously crap but because the vast amount of money spent on them (!) is wasted on uneconomic losers: “Lots of cycle lanes are barely used. Vast amounts of money and road space wasted on a tiny minority of (often low-value) users.”
In his opinion, British cities have not been greatly modified to accommodate motor traffic. Far from it. According to Dr Wellings “strict planning regulations have prevented British cities from adapting to cars.”
Dr Wellings believes "motorists have tended to have little influence over transport policy in recent decades" and he no fan of anybody who thinks motorists ought to slow down a bit:
“A free market in transport would mean ending the state control and ownership of roads. Decisions regarding the deployment of speed cameras would be the responsibility of private road owners. These individuals would have to consider customer preferences for both speed and safety. Thus private road owners would probably focus on the wants of motorists rather than the demands of the road safety lobby. Since slower roads could mean a reduction in profits, as drivers switched to alternative routes, it seems likely that private road owners would avoid arbitrary reductions in the speed limit……There is no necessary role for government in the provision of speed limits or to ensure that motorists are registered, insured and trained. Moreover, road owners would…have a strong incentive not to introduce measures that were unpopular with drivers.”
In the current report Dr Wellings said road privatisation would be opposed by many but that "voter-taxpayers will appreciate lower taxes, whereas voter-drivers will appreciate shorter commuting or journey times and lower-cost fuel."
He doesn't feel privatised roads would lead to less rights for non-motorised road users: "it's likely that rights of way for pedestrians, bicycles and horses would be preserved without charge, even though they would impose costs on road owners and motorists."
Last week the National Audit Office warned the Coalition Government that highway decentralisation could involve “risks”.
Largely local administration of roads would be a reversal of 110 years of national stewardship. In 1903, the Roads Improvements Association – an organisation created in 1886 by CTC and the forerunner to British Cycling – successfully lobbied the Government of the day to, in effect, nationalise the roads of Great Britain. Prior to this, roads were the responsibility of hundreds of local authorities, with an appalling disparity in quality of road upkeep from parish to parish, region to region.
The creation of a central highway authority was brought about thanks to the dogged insistence of a cycling official, Williams Rees Jeffreys. In 1900 he was elected a member of the Council of the Cyclists’ Touring Club and by 1901 was CTC’s representative on the Council of the Roads Improvement Association. He wanted the RIA to push for a “a Central Highway Authority and a State grant for highway purposes.”
In the 1940s, British Prime Minister Lloyd George said William Rees Jeffreys was “the greatest authority on roads in the United Kingdom and one of the greatest in the whole world.” Rees Jeffreys became the first secretary of the Roads Board, founded in 1910. This was the first central authority for roads in Great Britain since the Romans. The Roads Board later became part of the newly-formed Ministry of Transport, which has now become the Department for Transport.
If our current Government presses on with their localism agenda – and perhaps even allows roads to pass into private ownership – the hard work and vision of Rees Jeffreys and others could be undone.
Meanwhile, in America, Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, has said roads are not just for cars, and that cyclists and pedestrians are “more important” than motorists.