Has the Times declared war on cyclists?

Even in the context of the UK media’s famously curious coverage of everyday cycling, this was a surprise. Away from the more familiar tabloid cries of a “battle” over changes to the Highway Code, tucked away in the sober enclave of the Times’s editorial pages something odd was happening.

It was near the bottom of a leader column on cycling that a paper which, less than a decade ago, launched the most concerted and effective media campaign for safe cycling seen in this country for years, decided in effect to declare war on those who opt for two-wheeled transport.

It was, the column noted, beyond doubt that drivers should have licences, insurance and number plates for their vehicles. Then came the follow-up: “Requiring the same of cyclists is fair.”

This was a triple-whammy, the full bingo card, the complete Littlejohn, the title that still styles itself the country’s newspaper of record formally declaring that it no longer wants to see cyclists on the roads.

Of course, it wasn’t phrased so directly, but if you argue for such measures, that is in effect what you want. Any of those regulatory handcuffs being applied to bikes, let alone all three, would be so unwieldy, so counter-productive, so utterly, utterly pointless that pretty much no country or territory has ever attempted it, and the few that did generally gave up quite quickly.

If the UK enforced these measures fully and with gusto, my guess is that somewhere between 50% and 75% of cycle traffic would vanish. And yes, this is a guess. There is no real data to base it on – because no one has been so stupid as to try it.

The arguments against such regulatory tangles for cycling have been made many times before and don’t need repeating in full, but let’s just think about a couple of the potential hiccups.

Consider children. Would they need to take a test and have insurance? If so, from what age? Some kids ride on the roads, with their parents, when they’ve five. Good luck giving them a multiple choice test on the Highway Code. And if under-18s are exempt, how do you enforce rules for teenagers? Would a 16-year-old have to carry ID when out on a bike to prove their age?

Secondly: number plates for bikes. Anything light and small enough would be too small to read beyond a distance of a few metres. And what of people [holds up an apologetic hand] with multiple bikes? Would we have to register each one, or transfer plates between them?

This is the point at which someone usually suggests riders wear a numbered, hi-vis tabard. One both light enough to wear on a 100-mile ride in mid-summer, but also big enough to go over the winter coat of someone cycling to work in the snow? And that’s assuming the commuter doesn’t have a bag on his or her back.

You could go on, almost endlessly, which is why, when asked about such ideas, UK ministers and officials, in common with just about everybody else who has given the idea more than 90 seconds of thought, dismiss them.

Cycling for transport is an undisputed social good – even the Times editorial concedes that. So why argue for all this? The Times, almost insultingly, doesn’t even try to square the circle, merely saying, without any attempt at elaboration: “The objection that it would deter legitimate cycling is not persuasive.”

Instead we get this very odd sentence: “The road network is a service available to everyone, and it is reasonable to expect those who benefit from it to abide by its regulation and contribute to its upkeep.”

Ignoring the intellectual howler of “contribute to its upkeep” – it is embarrassing for the Times to have got that one so wrong – we at last come to the crux of the argument, such as it is: “fairness”.

It is the cry more usually seen in the murky depths of reader comments or the fringes of Twitter arguments: drivers face all sorts of regulations to use the roads, what’s so different about cyclists?

One response would be: if you use a table saw and a screwdriver for the same wood-based DIY project, and you don goggles, ear protection and a mask for the saw, why don’t you for the screwdriver? That’s right – one is notably more dangerous than the other.

Again, the statistics are well known. Of the 1,700 or so deaths and 25,000-plus serious injuries on the UK’s roads every year, only a handful are caused by a cyclist hitting someone else. To stress yet another well-worn point: it’s not about morals, it’s just physics. If I hit a pedestrian while doing 20mph in a Range Rover I would impart 25 times more kinetic energy than at the same speed on my bike. If you make the speeds more realistic – bike at 12mph, car doing 30mph – then the difference is 150 times.

What should we make of the Times’s sudden outbreak of idiocy? It’s hard to know. It would be nice to think this is the response of a dinosaur class who realise history is against them. But even in the context of the UK’s cursed media narrative on everyday active transport, it is deeply depressing.

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