Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Locking my bike up in the car park the other day, I noticed a car arriving, which contained one of my colleagues. "I didn't know you drove in, " I said. "Yes," he replied. "It's quick and comfortable." His journey is only 5 miles or so, and he's in an area served by a direct tube journey.

I don't really understand this "comfort" idea, to  be honest. I don't really like being in boxes. We're not on this earth for long, and after that time is over, we spend plenty of time in a box. I don't actively seek discomfort, and I'm not above leaving the bike at home if it's absolutely pouring down with rain. There's not much better than a bike ride on a sunny day, but there is also something invigorating about a crisp frosty morning, and there's nothing to make you appreciate home comforts more than being out in the rain and the cold.

But each to his own, I suppose. My friend likes the inside of a car, and he is not breaking any laws by choosing to drive in, as long as he pays his congestion charge.

However, it did occur to me that TfL will place a much higher value on his journey than on mine. TfL prioritize the speed and safety of his journey over mine. But without good reason. We are both professional people, working in the same commercial organization. And it so happens that while I actually create products, his job is to minimize the tax the company pays. He doesn't create anything, and he doesn't make the company more efficient. He doesn't even reduce costs, if you consider the whole economy, because tax is a zero-sum game. The government need to raise a given amount in tax every year from all sources, so every £1 he saves us in tax will need to be paid by some other business or individual who can't afford to employ someone like him to avoid it.

Now I don't bear my colleague any resentment because of his job. He's like a traffic warden or an estate agent. People wish they didn't exist, but they perform a function that is necessitated by the way the world is. Our competitors employ tax people, so we have to, otherwise we'd go out of business. But it remains a fact that tax people make a net zero contribution to the economy. It also remains a fact that they are paid a lot of money - witness the fact that my friend can afford a fancy car and the £9/day congestion charge. And because - and only because - he drives a car, and I ride a bike, TfL values his journey above mine.

Compared to a motor journey, my cycle commute is far less damaging to the environment, far less dangerous to other people, far less wasteful of roadspace, and imposes far fewer costs on the taxpayer. The purpose of my journey is to get to a job - same as someone commuting in a car, or by taxi, or for that matter someone going to a job in a van. Now, it could be argued that a plumber a builder can't get to a job without a van, so their journey is truly necessary. But TfL lumps all motor journeys together - whether or not they are necessary, whether or not a viable public transport alternative exists, and regardless of value - and puts the safety, speed and convenience of every one of these journeys above anyone on a bike. That cannot be right.


  1. Your comment hits a slightly raw nerve as I, too, am a taxman, in my case in professional practice. I am well paid, so could easily afford to take a cab every morning and evening from Waterloo to my office, and yet I don’t – I cycle. My boss, paid probably four times what I am paid, commutes by bike from home to work every day. Quite a few of my colleagues do the same. My client base is top City executives and while they can earn 7 or even 8 digit annual compensation, hardly any of them would drive to their work in Mayfair or Belgravia, not because they care about the cost, but because they are intelligent guys and they know it doesn’t make sense – they walk, cycle or take the bus because it is quicker, more flexible, gives them exercise without wasting valuable time in the gym etc. They might even care about the impact on the planet. Given how prominent the Pinarello patrol in the City has now become, it never ceases to amaze me that our mayor, who is surely their biggest fan, doesn’t revise his view on that whole value-of-travel-mode question.

    Although my job is partly to reduce the tax liabilities of my clients (as well as to help them report it correctly to HMRC) I don’t consider it to be some form of moral crusade, as some people of libertarian bent might. On the other hand, I would happily see income taxes be reduced to the extent that they currently subsidise the auto industry through road building and maintenance, policing and other emergency services, secondary public health impacts etc. Road taxes, whether VED, fuel duties, road pricing/congestion charge etc, substantially shortfall their total internal and external costs. Should I as an income taxpayer subsidise me as a driver? I don’t think so, but evidently lots of people would answer yes, perhaps because they haven’t really thought about it or have just accepted the auto industry propaganda that says that hard-pressed motorists subsidise the public purse. Nowhere is that canard more brazenly claimed than over local authorities’ revenues from parking charges, and nowhere are motorists more insistent on getting something for nothing than on being permitted free use of a public asset at council taxpayers’ expense, as the ugly disputes in my home town will attest. If on-street parking (currently free) cost the same as the railway station car park, I have no doubt that quite a few car commuters would find that there is after all another way to make the mile or two trip from home to station.

  2. I am neither a tax-man nor a especially useful contributor to the society beyond my employer. There are pros and cons to what I do, but I'm not sure that's too relevant.

    However, I'm sure I would not want to take an anti-tax man line. I would not take the view that (agnostic to tax-men) people who contribute more to society (e.g. key workers) have the right to have their cycling or car journeys prioritised over other citizens.

    The point I do agree with whole-hearterdly is the perversity of TFL prioritising a journey through Town, simply by dint of it being by car / van / lorry.

    Maximising through-put of vehicle volume is possibly the least logical metric for City transport planning one could conceive.

    Surely if you need to measure and promote something, it should be through-put of people. Or possibly people per kg of Co2. Or people per £ invested in infrastructure and ongoing maintenance capex per year.

    Trains, trams, buses, etc. bring in vastly more people per hour than little tin boxes with "comfortable" commuters.

    Bikes and good old shanks pony (feet) bring in far more, and with almost no pollution (dependant on the previous evening's curry) or financial cost to the public purse.

    Surely, these commuters represent the best return on transport infrastructure investment. The volume of people on bus, train, bike, and foot must swamp the number of motorist still attempting to inflict themselves on London in peak times.

    If drivers prioritise their "comfort", perhaps they wouldn't mind taking half an hour longer to reach their destination than those of us on tubes, bikes, buses etc. If they would mind, perhaps that should not be a major concern for the wider society (or specifically TFL) in that it would make the tipping point of whether to take the tube or car each day a little lower.

    Most of us are taxpayers (tax avoidance jokes put to one side) and so all fund and, as Paul notes, subsidise motorist commuters already. In the interest of balance, we also subsidise the rail commuter community heavily. This is possibly due to the remarkably inefficient rail management system, but nonetheless the point stands.

    I don't mind the latter overly, but do mind the former. I drive a car (not into work, but longer journeys with the kids and luggage etc.), and indeed I am a season ticket holder with a folding bike, so I am subsidised twice. But I see absolutely no reason on earth why someone should fund my car journeys other than me.

    The point is to go further - to have the transport infrastructure providers prioritising the least sustainable, most dangerous, individual-centric and inefficient mode of transport in the City - is simply remarkable.

    How long can this go on?

    At least the tone of public debate seems to be turning.

    The voice crying "Put the cyclist first" (my somewhat-less-catchy preference would be "cyclists, pedestrians and public transport in that order") is no longer a crazy man shouting in the wilderness - it is the editor of the Times.