Tories gunning for cyclists (during climate and cost-of-living crisis)

Front page off the Daily Mail with the headline "Cyclists may need number plates (and they could need insurance too, as minister orders road laws review). Smaller stories read "[Ryan] Giggs: I've never been faithful to any women (latest court sensation)" and "Mystery as Pop Idol star Darius found dead at 41" with a picture of him and his ex-wife.
The Daily Mail’s front page from 17th August

In today’s newspapers there is a story that the Tories have proposed requiring cyclists to have mandatory insurance and number plates, the same as cars and other motor vehicles, and could face licence points for breaking red lights and speed limits (cyclists are currently exempt from speed limits on most roads). According to Grant Shapps, the problem of cyclists speeding has emerged because of 20mph speed limits which cyclists can easily exceed; he tells us:

“I don’t want to stop people from getting on their bike. It’s a fantastic way to travel, we’ve seen a big explosion of cycling during Covid and since, I think it has lots of health benefits. But I see no reason why cyclists should break the road laws, why they should speed, why they should bust red lights and be able to get away with it.”

According to Peter Walker in the Guardian, the only place win the world that cyclists are required to have number place is currently North Korea (though according to an interview with him in the Times, Shapps regards that particular idea as too bureaucratic and junior transport ministers regard it as a waste of time). Walker speculates that Shapps has gone “off piste”, possibly for lack of discipline in the dying days of the Johnson government and possibly to show off in the hope of securing a ministerial role under the incoming PM. Walker’s article lays out a lot of the major drawbacks of requiring insurance and number plates, including the fact that the vast majority of serious injuries are caused by motorists.

The announcement/rumour, however, got front page treatment on the Daily Mail and appears down the front page of the Telegraph as well. Clearly the Tory press like the idea. In case anyone has failed to notice, we have just had a record-breaking heatwave and now a drought caused largely by man-made carbon emissions and there is a cost-of-living crisis which the Tories have shown no willingness to seriously address, yet the Tories now wish to punish those trying to cut their bills by cycling shorter journeys or for their journey to work, and increasing people’s burdens by requiring insurance and registration. (I wonder how many of them have shares in insurance companies or brokers, and how much insurers donate to their party.) They are appealing to people’s annoyance at seeing others get ahead of them. Cyclists jumping red lights is chiefly an annoyance, and now that drivers face vexatious 20mph limits on a number of main roads, often for no obvious safety reason (essentially because the council has decided it’s a good idea, or has jumped on a bandwagon) and sometimes where it’s completely unnecessary or inappropriate, some of them get annoyed at seeing cyclists go faster than they are. The way to solve that problem is to get rid of the laws that cause the conflict.

The reason cyclists sometimes jump red lights has been addressed many times before: it’s so that we are not in a melee of motorists trying to get away from the lights when they change. It is for our own safety. Usually cyclists do this when they can see that their way is clear, often at times when the lights are red all round and even if it is pedestrians’ turn to cross, there may be no pedestrians crossing. The key issue is consequences; are there lots of people getting injured by cyclists jumping red lights, and is it enough to change the law to make it easier to identify them, or are people just getting irritated? Motorists running reds can cause a fatal accident; a cyclist involved in any collision is highly likely to sustain loss or injury, even if the other party is a pedestrian (and let’s not assume that the cyclist is automatically at fault if they hit a pedestrian; the pedestrian might not have been looking where they were going, especially if they blundered into a marked cycle lane, which are common on inner-city thoroughfares such as the A11 in east London, even if not in the suburbs).

Insurance and registration will make it difficult, slow and cumbersome to start cycling. Cycling is a life skill that most people learn as a child from adults who already know how. This will become impossible if we have to jump through hoops to start cycling; fewer and fewer adults will be able to teach children how to ride. Since Covid hit, every bureaucratic service from driving licences and tests to passports has acquired a huge waiting list; there is no reason to believe that licences for cycling will be issued quickly either, especially after any further crisis. The upshot is that anyone who already has access to a car will put their bike away and use their car for the same journeys they would otherwise have cycled, while the commuter and dispatch cyclists, who may well be the cause of a lot of the problem cycling in some urban areas, will be the first to get licensed and will, much like drivers, continue the same behaviour anywhere they can get away with it, much as many motorists do.

Let’s not forget that a bicycle is not like a car, and cycling is not like driving. There are reasons why cars are subject to excise duties (commonly called road tax) and bicycles are not. Cycling is exercise; car driving is a sedentary activity. A car weighs a substantial amount; a bicycle does not. Cars cause wear and tear on roads, which require constant resurfacing; bicycles do not, or at least no more than pedestrians do, and like pedestrians, cyclists pay normal taxation. A car can cause colossal damage or loss of life if driven carelessly or not maintained properly; a bicycle can cause much less damage in the event of a minor accident and the cyclist is at just as much risk as the third party. A car emits pollution and greenhouse gases, either at the point of use or, in the case of electric cars, where the power is generated unless most of it comes from wind or solar (in this country, it does not); a bicycle does not. A journey taken by bike likely saves a car journey, with a benefit to the rider in exercise and to the public in the reduced danger, emissions and congestion. Imposing bureaucratic barriers to cycling will mean lots more car journeys, a cost we cannot afford in a time when our climate is in crisis and people cannot afford to pay the bills they already have. There is no case for such barriers that is not greatly outweighed by the benefits of cycling remaining free.

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