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Deliver us, Shapps, from the scourge of cyclists

LONDON - Online news stories about cycling generate lots of comments.

Usually, by the second or third comment, a balding white bloke called Terry will have demanded that cyclists have number plates and pay road tax*, like he does.

Comments like Terry’s are especially prevalent in publications such as The Daily Mail, whose readers’ main concerns are foreigners, cyclists and transgender folk. Other people, basically.

Unsurprisingly, this is where the UK’s quite possibly soon-to-be-unemployed Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, has been espousing his new plan to force bicycles to have number plates.

Where to begin.

Quantifying the problem would be a nice, liberal-minded place to start.

Apparently, last year 531 pedestrians were injured by cyclists, a 15% increase in five years.

A scourge indeed, and a growing one, no less!

Yet over the same period, according to the ONS, cycling participation in England grew from roughly five million to 6.5 million, a 28.5% increase.

So if cycling participation is growing not just faster, but twice as fast as the injury rate, could it be that the average cyclist is becoming safer? Without number plates.

Or could it be that the numbers are so small that it is nearly impossible to make an inference?

How likely is it, for example, that any one of those 6.5 million cyclists will have injured a pedestrian over the past year?

Dividing that 531 figure by 6.5 million results in a percentage so small that I don’t even understand it.

The number of pedestrians actually killed every year by cyclists, meanwhile, is three, give or take. At that level, statistical likelihoods become statistically insignificant.

All deaths are sad, of course, but you are statistically twice as likely (which is not very, by the way) to be killed by a cow in the UK as you are by a cyclist.

For comparison, Britain’s 33 million cars kill around 430 pedestrians a year, even though those cars, by and large, have number plates and pay their ‘road tax’.

They also kill about 70 cyclists. Ho hum.


This isn’t really about pedestrian safety. It can’t be. The figures show pedestrians are not in mortal danger because of cyclists.

The truth is motorised traffic is the biggest danger on the road and even then, both walking and cycling are pretty low risk. In fact, doing more of either is likely to extend your lifespan, not shorten it.

No. What really makes Terry’s blood boil is that some cyclists don’t always stop at red lights.

This is very, very annoying for Terry, who frequently shares this annoyance on social media.

There’s a reason for this behaviour, Terry, and it is the queue of impatient people like you behind the cyclists.

That queue of impatient motorists who moments earlier were honking at the cyclist now at the front, shouting abuse as they passed too close, perhaps as punishment for the cyclist going too slowly or not riding in the broken glass in the gutter... all those motorists are now behind the cyclist at the lights.

Worse, they see the stop-go lights as an F1 starting grid, and statistically, this is the most dangerous place a cyclist can find themselves.

Gaining a few seconds headstart on all those Terrys puts the cyclist in a safer road position, evidently does not result in the widespread slaughter of pedestrians, and prevents all those Terrys injuring cyclists and having to account for their poor driving attitudes in court.

Indeed, this safety principle is now being built into new traffic light design at major intersections, so that cyclists can move forward three seconds before other traffic.

This probably infuriates Terry but is for his own good as well as that of cyclists.


Another of Shapp’s daft anti-cycling measures - limiting cyclists to 20mph - is so laughably easy to torpedo with actual numbers that it makes you wonder how serious he is, given that he has clearly afforded the topic no serious analysis.

A professional Tour de France-class cyclist manages about 25-28mph on the flat. A keen amateur, more like 17-18mph.

Me? On my commute? 14-15mph tops. I usually average 11mph over 10 miles.

And the many cyclists I pass on my commute? Mostly much slower.

Cyclists just aren’t fast enough to require a 20mph speed limit.

Cycling remains, however, a quicker means of getting around than driving in urban areas, which probably irks Terry no end.

In recent years average traffic speeds have fallen to 7mph in central London, 12mph in the inner city and 19mph in the outer suburbs.

Perhaps if more of those drivers ditched their cars for bicycles, Terry would get around a bit quicker. Maybe Terry should get a bike.


The final argument for sinking this Thick-of-It scheme is its total unworkability.

Such ‘pointless and expensive’ schemes have been tried and quickly binned elsewhere, with the notable exception of Japan, where they have a completely different relationship to cycling than the UK (cycling on pavements is totally acceptable, for example).

But supposing, for a drunk moment, such a registration scheme was introduced. Who would run it, and who would enforce infractions?

The DVLA and the police are surely the answers, yet both organisations have well publicised problems to contend with, without having to round up 6.5 million cyclists and make them send off for number plates, presumably for a fee.

Yes, new bicycles could be taxed and registered at the point-of-sale, as they are in Japan, but in the UK there are already 6.5 million bicycles out there. And that number grows every year.

The police aren’t going to round these people up. They can’t even round up car thieves, burglars or drug dealers.

It's a bit like guns and Americans. There are simply already too many out there to do much about it.

For such a scheme to work, widespread voluntary compliance would be essential.

And yet, what kind of cyclist do we think is most likely to dutifully fill out the form and send off the fee in return for a numberplate? Probably not those who already cycle in most flagrant breach of the rules, one wonders.

It follows that all the problems Terry wants to solve, which can scarcely be described as problems anyway, would go unsolved, giving rise to a huge increase in administrative and enforcement costs and little else besides.

What would be the point?


It makes you wonder what the point of this announcement really is.

Grant Shapps was appointed Transport Secretary two years ago by the soon-to-be ex Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Since then, various crises have unravelled in British transport. From Port of Dover backlogs, to the HGV driver shortage, to tube strikes, to train strikes, to airport chaos, etc … the list goes on.

All of this has happened on Shapps’ watch.

Meanwhile, in the tory-only race to be the UK’s next Prime Minister, he supports Rishi Sunak, who seems all but certain to be annihilated in that race by Liz Truss.

Could it be that a Transport Secretary who has presided over multiple transport disasters is now worried that PM-in-waiting Truss will owe him nothing when cabinet jobs are being divvied up in a month or so?

Truss seems set to defeat the more moderate Sunak by appealing to the most ardent caucus on one side of the great cultural fracture that divided the UK so damagingly in 2016.

To them, cycling, far from being viewed as the cheap means of easing congestion and pollution that it actually represents, is instead viewed as metropolitan, green, elitist and, well, a bit wokey.

In other words, not very Trussy.

From Shapps’ perspective, playing to the Terrys of this hopelessly divided country can only burnish his anti-wokey credentials and maybe, just maybe, could be sufficient to secure his job come September.

A pity then, that his plan is so mis-guided, and looks so desperate.


The truth of all of this is that some cyclists just annoy some drivers.

That fact that cyclists - even irresponsible ones - cause little to no damage is an irrelevance on the right.

There, the issue has somehow become totemic among Mail readers, and Shapps seeks to capitalise on that friction for his own self-ambition.

Shame on him, although quelle surprise. This is the state of modern British politics.

It is sad that a government which is supposed to govern for all, instead seeks to single out groups to pick on for the satisfaction of its own grassroots support, which is the true minority.

Perish the thought they might actually try to make everyone's lives better. Chuckle.

No. This is a government happy to send refugees to sub-Saharan Africa against their will, makes political hay out of transgender rights, and now seeks to pitch cyclists against everyone else.

Truss might just go for it, despite Shapps’ plan for bicycle number plates looking a lot like it was drawn up on the back of an envelope by a doomed minister to appease provincial tories.

No problem will be solved, which will at least be in keeping with Shapp's track record.

In the unlikely event all of this comes to pass, I won’t be buying a number plate for my bicycle, or installing a speedo… and I don’t think I will ever be caught.

*A tax on cars to pay for road upkeep was in place in the UK until 1937. Since then, the proceeds of car taxation have been unconnected to roads and go into the general taxation pot. Motorised vehicles in the UK are currently taxed in accordance with the pollution they emit.

Most local roads are maintained by councils, who charge a council tax that everyone has to pay, including cyclists, whether or not they use roads.

In London, motorised traffic is further subsidised by public transport fares, which Transport for London uses to maintain main routes in the city.


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