Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A General Theory of Cycling, Motorists and Money

It was when I witnessed the staff at Brixton Cycles standing worried by a distraught customer that I first appreciated the intense human dramas played out at the bike shop. The woman had just been given some bad news about the cost of fixing her bicycle – or the impossibility of repair. She collapsed into such hysterical sobs that someone scurried off to the back offices to find a chair, sit her down and offer her whatever the bike-shop equivalent of grief counselling is. I’m sure they’d done everything they could.

A Surly Big Dummy outside Brixton Cycles: who knows
what dramas lurk inside the doors?
It was only the messiest of countless collisions I’ve witnessed in bike shops between people’s expectations about the economics of cycling and the reality. Because it costs nothing to jump on a bike in the morning - and people forget that assets require regular maintenance and occasional replacement - many expect it to cost nothing at all. I can’t pretend to be entirely bemused. I open my wallet with something like gay abandon for the bike shop. But I never quite remember that the same money is no longer available to replace trousers worn out by catching on mudguards or shirt collars worn out by over-optimism about my neck’s fatness. I wander round for the most part in the clothing equivalent of the squeaking, buckled-wheel bikes I encounter on the roads – shirt collars frayed, trouser seats nearly worn through.

Yet one doesn’t need to cycle for long in most western countries to encounter someone who thinks cycling should be costing far more. This was roughly the view of the SUV driver who came crowding into the cyclist-only advance stop area at a set of lights one night on south London’s Clapham Road. As I tried to turn right across the oncoming traffic, he should, I pointed out, have been behind me, giving me space. “You don’t pay road tax!” he leant out of his window to shout. It was an only slightly less sophisticated version of the argument that John Griffin, the chairman of Addison Lee, London’s biggest private-hire car company, put forward in a recent issue of his company magazine where he ranted about the danger cyclists posed and their failure to pay road tax. "It is time for us to say to cyclists 'You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up'," the chairman opined.

A beautiful, up-to-date bike: all in a day's work for
the market's invisible hand
Cyclists consequently find themselves in some dark middle ground between the paid-for-but-well-funded city of Motoring and the free-but-clearly-unchargeable village of Disregarded Pedestrianism. Most are paying out far more to the private sector than they might like to keep their bikes on the road – but getting ever-lighter, ever-faster, ever more beautiful bikes in return. They are meanwhile paying, in many people’s view, nothing for use of road networks towards whose uptake most motorised users pay substantial annual taxes. They get in return roads built almost wholly for non-cyclists, and the contempt or antipathy of the police forces meant to keep those roads safe. A powerful headlight is needed to illuminate this road. Who, if anyone, is getting ripped off here? Could there be a better arrangement?

There is certainly an irony about watching the smashing of free-market capitalism’s carbon fibre road bike into liberal cyclists’ custom-built retro roadster at Brixton Cycles, the bike shop that attracts the vast bulk of the Invisible Visible Family’s substantial bike expenditure. The shop avers itself an opponent of normal, capitalistic ways of doing things and is a workers’ cooperative. It is festooned with the paraphenalia of anti-establishment urban culture. I’ve grown so used to them I barely notice them. But, recently, as we left the shop the Invisible Visible Girl stayed, her 10-year-old faced glued to a sign in the window. “Daddy, what’s a Dykes on Bikes ride?” she asked.

The Invisible Visible Man's Surly Long Haul Trucker
He knows he's used this picture before - but suspects
others must enjoy gazing at it just as he does
Yet capitalism’s genius for parting people from their money screams so loud from every corner of the shop that even adverts for biking Lesbians can’t drown it out. I used 15 years ago to reach down to the bike’s down tube to change gears on my early road bikes. When I bought my Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bike in late 2007, I was delighted to find I could change gears between a choice of 24 with a sideways flick of either the brake levers or little switches beside them. Two years later, I found shifters for a mere 24 gears were no longer available. Instead, for much the same price, I was offered seamless shifting between 27 speeds.

When I first brought a road bike from Edinburgh to London in 1997, I had to glue in ineffective Kevlar linings to protect them against puncture risks. Now, thanks to the latest Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres, punctures are rare, landmark events. My early road bikes’ brakes were neither strong nor easy to service. My Long Haul Trucker boasts easily adjustable brakes that stop me quickly and efficiently from a substantial speed – and that even a mechanical know-nothing such as I can adjust. Twenty years ago, I wrestled with dim lights demanding heavy batteries and apt to stop working suddenly. I now attract complaints from those around me for the dazzling brightness of far smaller, lighter, less energy-hungry lights.

Denmark's Henrik Norby with the Viva Bikes
the market tells him to design
The market’s invisible hand has, in other words, fitted bike manufacturers’ products to cyclists’ real needs as smoothly as a well-lubricated gear cable slips through its cable housing. No mere bureaucrat, for example, could have anticipated the sudden rush away from the order and progress of ever-improving gears into the chaos of gearlessness. But the world has suddenly filled, without breakdowns in supply or vast deliveries of unwanted bikes, the gearless, sometimes brakeless, pared-down machines some of the public seem to want. Cycling advocates have no need to pester the manufacturers to meet their needs. Whatever the market’s shortcomings in, say, providing stable banks or creating just societies, it has responded to cyclists’ changing whims as smoothly as a new chain and rear cassette mesh when bidden by STI shifters like those on my bike.

The transmission between governments and cyclists’ needs works more like the derailleurs on some unloved old mountain bike abandoned outside a town hall. The reactions are either delayed or over-sudden, the outcome unpredictable and everything accompanied by a great deal of squealing.

Rust clogs up the mechanism. The sense that cyclists will never exist in large enough numbers to justify significant spending fouls up many links along the chain. The feeling that cycling is an optional extra sits like great blisters of rust on the rear mechanism.

But undoubtedly the most obstructive bit of rust - two great browny-red agglomerations around the wheels that keep the chain taut - is the feeling that there somehow isn’t a stream of money that justifies spending on cycling. It helps to make the police, largely untroubled by insurance companies’ worries about the cost of cycle accidents, apathetic. It helps to bore local politicians eager to shape dramatic new junctions for cars, rather than dinky bike lanes. The outraged anger of people like John Griffin or the man beside me on Clapham Road makes the politicians scared of being seen to clean off the rust.

The problem takes me on a mental journey to some outbuildings of Oregon State University, in the neat college town of Corvallis. There the university some years ago devised equipment to charge cars for their road use in Oregon by a more rational method than the simple gas tax. A meter, guided by a GPS beacon, would measure the car’s mileage on Oregon’s roads and in the most congested area around Portland. Charges would vary according to the time of day, the car’s carbon emissions and a range of other factors. At fuel stations, an electronic pad would detect the meter, knock the fuel duty charge off the driver’s bill and collect the required road-user charge.

Oregon paid for the apparatus I saw in Corvallis because fuel tax revenue, shrinking as car engines grew more efficient, no longer covered even the state roads' repair costs. Most European countries try to cover the costs of new roads, accidents, pollution, greenhouse gases and congestion as well. But, whatever the approach, introduction of so much clearer and more straightforward a charging system might, I think, have eased even the Angry SUV Driver’s frustration. It would have been clear that he was paying for the damage his SUV did – and that what he paid wasn’t covering everything. Most transport economists even in heavily-taxed Britain think motoring tax receipts fall at least £3bn short of covering all the costs motoring imposes. My taxes are already helping to foot the bill for cars – it’s hard to see I should be charged, as Mr Griffin wants, for using my bike as well.

An Addison Lee cab in traffic: price signals might
keep him in line
But it’s not necessary to wait until everywhere adopts a system like the Oregon experiment – which the state has now, sadly, abandoned – to see the magic of clear, strong price signals working to protect cyclists. Cyclists swarmed on April 23 toAddison Lee’s offices to protest against Mr Griffin’s comments and demand consumers boycott the company. The protest echoed a practice I’ve occasionally adopted when harassed by a particularly aggressive taxi driver. If the driver remains unrepentant after one complaint, I reach for the passenger window, knock on it and shout to the occupant, “no tip!”.

It’s a tactic that’s never well-received and seldom calms down a confrontation. But it’s hard to imagine that, if my knocking on the window prompts a stream of passengers to leave a few more pounds in their purses, there won’t be at least some change. The market’s invisible hand is unlikely immediately to make cars as responsive to cyclists’ needs as bike manufacturers already are. But it could start nudging things imperceptibly towards the right direction.

16 comments:

  1. Looking at the new header, might it be possible motorists might be drawn to that vest as bulls are to a waving flag?

    Did I mention that the Surly surely calms other motorists down?

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    1. The new header is the work of the Invisible Visible Girl, with Photoshop. When we get better at defining edges, we'll put up an improved version...

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    2. Actually, please pass my compliments on to the Invisible Visible Girl, though she might consider Photoshopping in a bull in the field behind the star attraction in the photo. That bull should clearly be contemplating a charge at that vest. I think the bull is named either "Toyota," or "Lamborghini?"

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  2. Don't forget that every time you spend money on bike gizmos, you are paying VAT. And it is general tax receipts like VAT that pay for the roads. Don't let the myth that drivers pay for the roads carry on.

    And of course bicycles do no damage to roads, whereas cars and especially trucks do.

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    1. Dan,

      Thanks for your comment. You're right, of course. But I was trying to get away from the typical cycle advocate argument that "roads are paid for from general taxation, so there's no need to worry". It's not an argument that cuts much mustard with motorists, for the simple reason that, from their perspective, motoring is a fairly heavily taxed activity and they feel it's excessive (particularly given the congestion and so on they encounter). Also, let's be frank, it's a factor of UK intra-governmental politics that road taxation isn't hypothecated. The UK Treasury has never liked hypothecated taxes and that seems to have played a role in the switch in the 1930s from "road tax" and a separate "road fund" to vehicle excise duty.

      The argument I'm making is that motoring taxes do not, on most measures of motoring's full external costs, meet motoring's costs. The costs are consequently clearly underwritten from general taxation. And, as you rightly note, since cycling has almost no external costs on the road system or other road users, that means any tax-paying cyclist is helping to pay for the motorists' roads.

      Invisible.

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  3. It is wonderful that you make this sacrifice for the rest of the cycling fraternity. After a trip to Holland in the eighties I have joined the "cycle on the pavement" wets and kiddos. My neighbour cycles his child to school on a tandem, stubbornly maintaining his right to join the cars on the bendy lanes. But my journalist cousin (6'1") was run over in London while cycling to work at the FT (30 years ago now). I am old school, though; I get off and scoot with foot on pedal when I see pedestrians ahead (and would walk for coppers, if I ever say one).

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    1. My work rules prevent me from explaining exactly who I am in normal life, Cawstein. But I'm sad to hear about your cousin, since I feel significant empathy for tall journalists who cycle to work at the Financial Times.

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  4. Damage to the road is related the weight of the vehicle to the fouth power. For example a vehicle twice the weight would inflict 2x2x2x2 or 16 times the wear so bicycles cause so little wear that it is negligable but cars are massivly subsidising lorries. In fact the govenment has raised the limit on lorries far higher than the roads were originally designed for. This is why there are so many pot holes.

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    1. You are quite right, Boldfield, about lorries. They were meant originally to pay a far higher London congestion charge than other motorists and the industry lobbied its way out of it. This is why lorries now form such a high proportion of the traffic in many bits of central London. The M6 Toll I think worked out properly the relationship between wear and tear from trucks and other vehicles and set charges appropriately. The result, I understand, is that lorries are pretty much absent from that road.

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  5. I'm a fairly new returnee to the world of cycling, forced into that position by unemployment alone, My bike is cheap, and breaks down a lot due partly to cheapo componentry and partly to my massive bulk. Long Haul Trucker huh? Nice bike. I can hear my mother in my minds eye quizzically asking 'You spent HOW much on a bicycle!?'

    My argument here is that the current cycling 'movement' is an almost entirely middle-class phenomenon. People like me in fact, except that they have jobs which can pay for quality machinery. Those jobs no doubt also afford them the luxury of car ownership, which they will be using a lot more now the drought has started. I signed on yesterday, 5 miles into driving rain propelled by a freezing East wind. Even a bus would have been preferable , but I couldn't afford it. Seriously.

    The massed fluffy umbrage taken at Mr Griffins comments has me in hysterics. All he really said was 'Can we use the bus lanes please?' and 'cyclists should be a bit more careful'. I've no opinion on the first point really, except to note that the most dangerous things in bus lanes are actually buses, prone to stopping dead in front of you and passing so close that you feel the draught from their head-height mirrors.

    But on the second point, I really do have an opinion. Having spent a lifetime on motorcycles as well as cars I am very well aware that a human bean is soft and squishy. Think Arthur Dent and the bulldozer. The only thing that can prevent squishing is not a stupid plastic hat, but intelligence. All you need to do is assume the other guy can't see you unless you're directly in from of him, otherwise make sure you're not in a place that he's likely to go. It's a philosophy which has kept me out of hospital for over 50yrs.

    So enough victim mentality all you eco-warriors out there. We are slow and vulnerable, and DON'T own the road. Take your storm-in-teacup taxi problems and put them in the jar next to the brown rice. The real world doesn't care.

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    1. DownAtHeel,

      Thank you for your comment - and I'm sorry about your job problems.

      You're right that the Long Haul Trucker is a nice bike and I'm lucky that the Bikes for Work scheme allowed me to afford it when I otherwise never could have. The STI shifters are a bit of an extravagance - I could have gone for bar end shifters and saved some money. Otherwise, I bought it because I needed something that would haul the trailer I bought for the Invisible Visible Boy when we were expecting him and that would be more reliable than the Marin Muirwoods I had before. The bike does all the jobs that most people's cars do - hauling heavy loads and children and getting me about pretty much everywhere that doesn't require an aeroplane or a train. I've never owned a car and couldn't afford one even if I wanted one.

      You're right that cycling activism is mainly a middle-class activity - most forms of activism are. But I really don't agree that it's not worth making a fuss about what John Griffin wrote. Mr Griffin made it clear that he thought it was cyclists' fault if his taxis hit them - when there's plenty of research that most cycle-vehicle accidents are the vehicle's fault. Given that he runs London's largest minicab company and most London cyclists have had numerous problems with his drivers, it seems to me that it is worth pointing out that this is a dangerously irresponsible attitude and it's worth complaining about it. Nobody's saying it's not worth taking care on the roads, except for Mr Griffin about his drivers.

      A victim mentality certainly isn't attractive and it would be unfortunate if cyclists were making a fuss about things that didn't matter. But cyclists are the victims in most motorist-cyclist accidents and that's bound to lead to a victim mentality to some extent.

      Mr Griffin is the person you should tell to drop his victim mentality. He thinks his drivers are the victims of careless cyclists and are being ripped off over road funding. Since the facts suggest he's entirely wrong on both, he really ought to change his attitude.

      I hope the job stuff sorts out soon and the wind is at your back more in future.

      Invisible.

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    2. Hey I don't blame you for buying the bike, I'd get something quite similar myself if I could.

      I'm totally nonplussed as to why cycling needs 'activism' of any sort. As a biker I was perennially running into (sic) the 'it's all the cars fault' statement. I never believed it then and I don't now. Well, ok, I'd believe it of school-run SUV's, but not of any sort of professional driver, right down to white-van-man (hmmm maybe stretching my case too far!).

      I have only ever cycled once in London, from Euston to Liverpool St station on a Saturday morning. Very pleasant as it happens, and the Boris Bikes look like fun. I needed to ask cabbies for directions, and they were all helpful. A bus thanked me with its hazards when I stopped to let it pull out. I wonder if many cyclists do that? Motor vehicles are people too, treat them with respect and they may well be nice back.

      Activism however has an aggressive feel, and there will be an element of herd instinct driving it on. Once folk believe that they are going against a sworn enemy lines can only harden and gulfs widen. I sincerely believe there is an element of 'you lot' who will deliberately put yourselves in dodgy situations to test drivers out. i know, for instance that sitting next to an artic at the lights, I can get across them before he's changed to 2nd, and I'm a fat bastard. If he should turn left, I'll be well in front of him. If, on the other hand i was to take my time he could simply roll straight over me, as I believe has happened to others. The driver would be blamed, but the cyclist SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THE DANGER.

      We are primarily responsible for our own safety. A little humility and an apprecation of our vulnerabilty I think would go a long way and negate the need for 'activism'. Drivers are people too!

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    3. If you've only ever cycled in London once, then no wonder you have no idea why cycling needs "activism" in London (where much of it is taking place, including the Addison Lee protests). I have no idea if cycling in Coventry needs activism, as I don't cycle there...so I wouldn't bother offering my opinion on it.

      I cycled in this morning. I let several buses out (together with other cyclists). I waved my thanks at one car which let me out into its lane. This is a fairly routine occurrence, not worth writing home about.

      I agree - we should all take responsibility for our actions. Make good choices, don't challenge other road users, and be respectful. Both "sides" have work to do on this, and I can only ensure I personally treat others as I would like to be treated, whether I'm cycling or driving.

      The difference though is that if a car hits me when I'm cycling, I will suffer - not the driver. On Monday of this week, a car turned left into me whilst it was overtaking me, without indicating, making me swerve into the side road it was aiming for. He would have been fine. I would have had my right leg hit by his front bumper, and would have been knocked from my bike onto his bonnet. To re-iterate - he was overtaking me, I was riding in a straight line down a road, in a cycle lane.

      So why aren't drivers involved in this activism? Do they have an inherently different nature from cyclists? Of course not. Most cyclists in London own cars, and many more hold driving licences and drive regularly. It's the disparate outcomes of a collision that mean it's cyclists who are leading the "the road is for everyone" protests. As mentioned in the blog post, it's also that motorists have what they need to drive safely, and cyclists do not feel they have what they need to cycle safely.

      To revise your final paragraph: "A little humility and an appreciation of non-drivers' vulnerability from all road users would go a long way to negate the need for 'activism'". I agree - but we're a long way away from that.

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  6. I own a Land-Rover (because I don't ever want to buy another car, and because I don't have to worry about packing.
    I also cycle a bit, but not in Central London any more, and not as much as I used to.
    Lorries. Well, that;s down to guvmint corruption, amd deliberately shafting the railways from the unbelievable crook Marples onwards, isn't it?
    As for Addison-Lee, words fail me, though I suppose we shouldn't be suprised - it actually reminds me of Marples, in a way.

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  7. When I first saw the photo of the LHT aloft on its stand my mind fooled me and whispered, Finally a sculptor has wrought Truth and Beauty out of base materials!

    My compliments to Mrs I-V, and I like the soft edges - where does the cyclist stop and the illusion begin, and so forth.

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  8. I just discovered your blog today and have happily wasted my lunch hour.

    I attempted to tot-up the costs of externalities associated with motor vehicle use last year. Motoring taxes definitely pay less than 100% of the costs they cause, and possibly as little as 30%. http://aroomwithmyviews.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/driver-privilege-checklist.html

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