If you’re a fan of the historical notion that progress doesn’t move as a straight, upward line but tends to be a bit more wiggly, then there was an article about cycling in this week’s Mail on Sunday that very much proved the point.
Anti-cyclist pieces in the Mail are not exactly uncommon, but this one was notable because its key argument was that cyclists should “pay road tax”.
If this blogpost were a film, this would be the moment to insert a sudden, soundtrack-halting needle scratch, with a narrator filling the sudden silence to say: “Yes, road tax.”
You know the one. Abolished in 1937. Replaced by vehicle excise duty (VED), which is, as has been explained countless times, very much not a tax to pay for roads – the money goes into the central pot, as do almost all tax revenues.
VED is also based on exhaust emissions, meaning that even if cyclists were liable for it, bikes would be, as with dozens of electric and hybrid cars, charged precisely £0 a year.
The idea that cyclists are freeloaders because they don’t pay “road tax” has been so thoroughly debunked over so many years that, these days, it is mainly the preserve of anonymous Twitter accounts.
And yet it has returned. Even more notable was the author of this Mail on Sunday opinion piece – Nigel Farage. And to find Farage weighing in on the subject of cycling interests me.
In political terms, we are currently amid what could be called version 3.0 Farage. Brexit is all but over, and his plan B of being a Donald Trump camp follower/media pundit took a significant dent at the weekend.
But Farage is nothing if not adaptable, and is currently reinventing himself as something of an all-purpose, hard-right, populist culture warrior, whether warning about an “invasion” of asylum seekers in the Channel or battling lockdown.
His article on cycling is both at times openly ludicrous – he opines that the “vast majority” of road cyclists frequenting the Kent lanes where he lives are also most likely remainers – but also illustrative of the language adopted by rightwing populists, featuring dehumanising terms such as likening cyclists to “a strange swarm of insects”.
Farage has, presumably, held these golf club bore opinions about cyclists for many years. So why air them now? The clue comes later in the article, when he condemns government spending on ways to boost walking and cycling amid lockdown, such as temporary bike lanes and so-called low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs).
This is the key. Cycling is in the news, and it means that once again we must face a rash of unsavoury anti-cyclist opinion pieces, among which Farage’s is just the latest.
A fortnight ago, a columnist in the Times used proposed changes to the Highway Code to better protect vulnerable road users to complain about cyclists “stamping their feet”, saying “the fact they’re pedalling the eco-friendly option has already gone to their heads”. This is another traditional trope about those on two wheels – they’re smug, self-righteous or, as Farage put it, “pious”.
On the same day, the Telegraph got in on the act, hosting a ridiculous Twitter “debate” that started with the argument: “Country walks can be ruined by arrogant cyclists expecting walkers to know they are coming up behind at 40mph.”
A reminder: even in a brief time trial, professional cyclists competing in the Tour de France do well to manage 30mph. This is yet another complaint about cyclists – they’re always too fast, except when they’re too slow and holding up motor traffic. Schrödinger’s cyclist.
What should we make of this mini-resurgence in much-disproved myths about cyclists? My view is that it is in no small part based on a sense of threat. Not threat from cyclists themselves – it remains extraordinarily difficult to seriously harm another person while riding a bike.
The threat instead is being felt by powerful interests who fear their decades of dominance is being threatened. The government’s response to coronavirus, in terms of how to keep people moving when capacity on public transport is necessarily limited, has not actually been that revolutionary. Yes, £250m in emergency spending is welcome but, in road transport terms, that is less than a fifth of a very expensive roundabout.
My sense is that the rapid change to life brought by coronavirus is making some people who habitually drive fear that the roads could be next, and both the rhetoric and political pressure are ramping up. More than a dozen Conservative MPs have signed a letter calling, in effect, for all new work on cycle lanes and LTNs to halt.
My worry is this pressure could soon have an impact. Nigel Farage is nothing if not a politician who can sense which way the wind is blowing. So yes, let’s laugh at silly notions of road tax and 40mph weekend cyclists. But keep a watch out for the bigger picture.