OPINION - There’s a worrying subtext to these proposed cycling policies

opinion - there’s a worrying subtext to these proposed cycling policies


Call it red-tape Britain. We’ve tied up businesses and borders, now the Government has suggested doing the same to cyclists.

Reports this week suggested that all bikes on the road should be fitted with number plates and require compulsory insurance, to hold them accountable for behaviour on the road, such as speeding.

To some, this may sound sensible. On the face of it the idea looks like it is addressing an inequality in the way different road users are treated. Cyclists, like motorists, can be irresponsible, and reckless ones can be a danger to others, but it is harder to punish erring cyclists because you can’t identify them as easily.

But look at the practicalities and the idea gets steadily sillier, partly because the problem at hand is relatively small. Twice as many people are killed by bees and wasps a year as by cyclists. Reckless cyclists are regularly caught and punished (their getaway is slower). Neither does identification solve all problems on the road. Take the number of uninsured motorists: the UK has an estimated one million of them.

Also silly is the idea of cyclists speeding as a huge problem: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested in a recent interview that there is an issue with cyclists going over 20mph limits. But it’s the rare cyclist that is able to get to this speed in the first place (and enforcing it would mean more measures than simple identification. Would all bikes require compulsory speedometers?). Of course even a bike hitting a car at top speed would result in more damage to the cyclist than the car.

The idea is beset by impracticalities, too. How do you fit a big enough number-plate on a bike? How do you make sure the number plate identifies the cyclist, not just the bike? Do we really have the resources to register every cyclist on the road? Children get on bikes too. What about them? Little wonder that most places where this kind of thing has been tried have swiftly given up on it, with the exception of North Korea.

The most likely outcome of this idea, if the UK was ever able to get it off the ground, would be to put people off cycling. Registering number plates and buying insurance might be expensive and onerous enough to deter people but this would of course be a bad outcome. Cycling as an alternative to driving clears space on the road, promotes cleaner air in cities and is generally good for the environment. It is also vital for those who can’t afford a car. These are the people who would be most harmed from piling up the cost of cycling.

This is probably why the Department of Transport has repeatedly rejected proposals for registration schemes for cyclists, as recently as last November. Shapps himself admitted in another interview that he was not attracted to the bureaucracy of the idea. The chances of it ever happening are close to zero. So why is he proposing it?

The really interesting thing about this proposal is not that it will happen, but what it implies. Many government policy announcements in recent months have not been about what the Government intends to do but what it wants to signal about its position in various culture wars. Shapps thought it worth signalling that he was not on the side of cyclists but rather on the side of their natural enemies in the minor culture wars of the road: motorists.

Environmental matters were at least kept out of the culture war battles under Boris Johnson, himself a cyclist. If this announcement is a batsqueak signal that the Government is keen to ramp up a culture war in which it takes the side of motorists, that should trouble us.

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