25 November 2009

Taxing problems

Two lung cancer sufferers are waiting for life-saving radiotherapy. One is a smoker and one a non-smoker. Which gets priority for treatment?

The right answer, of course, is 'neither: free health care is universal and non-prioritised (apologies to US readers), though if I was the doctor I'd be tempted to put the non-smoker first'. But what if the smoker claimed priority because the non-smoker 'doesn't pay hospital tax'?

Nonsense, you'd say: there's no such thing as 'hospital tax'. Oh yes there is, the smoker insists: all that tax I pay on cigarettes pays for the NHS, so the non-smoker has less claim to the treatment than me.

A smoker who claimed this would be held up for public ridicule and contempt. Yet it's exactly the same argument as the certain type of motorist who whinges that 'cyclists don't pay road tax so they should leave the roads to us'.

'Cyclists don't pay road tax' is an urban myth of astounding proportions. More widespread even than the notion that 1970s kids' TV programme Captain Pugwash had characters with very rude names (it didn't); that JFK mistakenly said 'I'm a jam doughnut' in Berlin (he didn't); or that Jeremy Clarkson once wrote something witty.

Now a site called ipayroadtax.com offers to sell you various bits of kit branded with a pretend logo saying that cyclists actually DO pay road tax, because most of us have cars. That's their logo on the right.

It was a wheeze that grew thanks to Twitter by the admirable cycling advocate and journo Carlton Reid (see his fine biking sites bikeforall.net and quickrelease.tv, and his Twitter feed).

Now, anything that might counter certain motorists' tedious and flatly untrue opinions about road funding and raise a bit of awareness is a good thing. If this promotes sensible media debate, and helps destroy this particular urban myth, then great.

But it's a wheeze I can't entirely participate in. I don't have a car, hardly earn enough to pay income tax, and get my T-shirts from East St market for a quid each branded 'Tomy Hifliger' and 'Docle & Gabanna'.

And in any case I'm not entirely clear what it's saying. That it's taxpayers who have the right to use the roads (which are paid for out of general taxation, and council tax, of course)? So not non-taxpayers, then? As a Southwark council-tax payer, do I have more right to use Southwark roads than Lambeth ones?

Maybe there's another answer - to charge cyclists a 'road tax' proportional to the wear and tear they produce compared to cars? The standard figure is that damage to roads is proportional to the fourth power of the axle weight. So a rough figure suggests that a car, which weighs about ten times as much as a cyclist (say 1000kg versus 100kg) should pay 10x10x10x10, or 10,000 times as much in 'road tax'. So if a car pays £100 a year, the cyclist pays 1p. I'd happily pay my next 50 years' 'road tax' now if it would shut up those certain motorists.

But we're getting dangerously close to the Smoker's Defence.


No, that'd be too big a T-shirt. Maybe, instead, one that says CAPTAIN PUGWASH IS INNOCENT. Or JFK WAS RIGHT. Hmm. A bit oblique, I'll grant you. Ah, got it: how about 'SOD OFF'?.


  1. In fact, Vehicle Excise Duty is scaled according to the CO₂ emissions of the vehicle. The most fuel-efficient cars (up to 100 gCO₂/km) already pay nothing.

    The demand that cyclists pay "road tax" is a demand that they pay more than the owner of a Toyota Prius or a Ford Fiesta Econetic.

    Not sure how to put that on a T-shirt.

  2. Indeed. And it's free for old bangers, dating from before 1 Jan 1973. Well, so do I.

  3. It's a complex issue, for sure. I've tried to address all the nuances on different parts of the site.

    The non car-owning cyclist thing was the first brickbat I addressed, and the site has become much more strident since then.

    The jersey will also feature secret text on Pigovian taxes.



  4. @Carlton.. ta for that. I'm rather hoping that BBC Radio might try to build this up as a 'controversy', Then Radio 5 Live could get you and me on 'opposite sides of the debate', cept of course we wouldn't be, and we'd get some free crap sandwiches in hospitality and return train fares. Maybe.

  5. its a fact that JFK said "ich bin ein berliner", which, in germany is a type of doughnut. he should have said "ich bin berliner" to show support the people of that city. sorry i do not know the german for i pay road tax, but i do support the cause.

  6. @Victor - thanks for the comment, but, oh dear! You've believed the urban myth! (Not that I ever did of course. Ahem.)

    JFK did indeed say 'Ich bin ein Berliner', but what the post says is that this is NOT a mistake. It's exactly what he meant and what he should have said. Chase up my links and you'll see the explanations, on Wikipedia and on www.snopes.com.

    In brief, 'Ich bin Berliner' means 'I come from Berlin'; 'Ich bin ein Berliner' means the same thing, but metaphorically. As JFK manifestly did not come from Berlin, 'Ich bin Berliner' would have been wrong. The business about jam doughnuts is a bit of a smokescreen, if you can have a smokescreen of doughnuts.

    The whole urban myth seems to have stemmed from a Len Deighton novel in the 1980s, and a comment in it by a character that the New York Times took as fact.

    Of course, if you can find a contemporary 1960s reference in German to JFK's supposed mistake, then we'll happily believe you!

  7. bugger. looks like i will have to forget about JFK and concentrate on the doughnuts. so what were the captains crew called then. no roger the cabin boy, no seaman staines. just what i need, more dissapointment.

  8. If it's any consolation, I completely bought that urban myth about endowment mortgages twenty years ago...

  9. I'm German, so let me help out with the JFK issue. "Ich bin ein Berliner" is the correct way to say "I am a citizen of Berlin", but since "Berliner" is also a type of jam doughnut you can also faceteously read it to mean "I am a doughnut". "Ich bin Berliner" is grammatically incorrect German, pretty much the equivalent of saying "I am New Yorker".

    Note that the word "Berliner" for the doughnut is actually a short form of "Berliner Pfannkuchen", which means "Berlin pancake", where "Berliner" is an adjective. Analogous to "Frankfurter Wuerstchen" (Frankfurt sausages, or sausages from Frankfurt).