Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

I pay road tax

It could be said that a war rages on the streets of Britain between cyclists and drivers. The myth of the ‘Road Tax’, which is in fact an emissions duty, and cars’ dominance on increasingly congested streets has caused a rivalry between the motorised and the pedal-powered.

It is striking that this is a predominantly British problem. How can six cyclists die on the streets of London in one week but none in Paris for a whole year? The answer stretches further than the number of HGVs on the roads; it is the perception of cyclists and bicycle culture. Whilst the French are seen as more reckless drivers, they have a greater respect for their two-wheeled counterparts. This cycling culture is something Britain has always lacked even despite the recent so-called ‘Wiggo Effect’.

For the French, alongside many other western European nations, the virtues of the bicycle were celebrated in the 19th century, whilst the British looked down on it as the working-man’s transport. Competitive cycling also began to take off on the continent with the birth of famous races such as Le Tour de France in 1903; meanwhile, the British Cyclists’ Union banned all road-racing. Cycling was an alien concept to the average Brit. Why torture yourself with a three-week slog around the mountains of France when you could jog around a pitch for 90 minutes?

The Dutch then sussed another of cycling’s best assets. Pedalling on its flat lands saved time and eased road traffic, not to mention benefitting the environment. Cycling took off and in the 1970s it reached levels not dissimilar to those in Britain today. However, casualties were so high that organisations such as ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (‘stop the child murder’) campaigned extensively for better infrastructure. Their success helped create the Netherlands of today, as roads and towns were re-planned to make way for their now famous segregated bike paths.

Despite the increasing popularity of cycling in Britain today, we still don’t feel the same as they do on the continent. What will it take to reverse our cultural dependence on the car and embrace the healthier, cheaper, more economic mode of transport? Are we merely waiting for our Dutch-style revolution? Just remember, it was the bicycle that dominated our roads first and in fact, we all pay for the roads, and we must all learn to co-operate on them.

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