Cycle tax, a licence, a form of duty? (1883)

To the editor of The Times


Sir—As one whose experience on a bicycle dates from what is now regarded as a prehistoric era, perhaps I may be allowed to contribute to the discussion now going on in The Times with regard to taxing cycles. I hardly think cyclists themselves would object to such a tax. Provided (as one of your correspondents suggests) It were devoted to the maintenance of the roads. Though the amount of “wear” we create on a road is infinitesimal, we derive greater comfort from a well-kept road than most of those who use it. And we long for the day when district road surveyors shall be compelled in all cases to discharge, their functions on a bicycle as the best means of stimulating their perception of the essentials of a good road. Those who ride bicycles would certainly prefer paying for road maintenance in the shape of a tax to having to dismount at every toll bar. The form, however, which such a tax should take, is not such an easy question. Against an annual “licence” to ride may be urged the fact that the burden would fall on many who can ill-afford to pay it. As each new improvement in cycles is introduced serviceable machines of superseded patterns find their way into the second-hand market and may be picked up at very low prices. Many workmen take advantage of this, and by possessing a cycle are enabled to substitute healthier abodes at a distance from their work for the more central rockeries. This is a tendency which ought certainly not to be discouraged. On the other hand, manufacturers might reasonable object to a duty, as involving an objectionable system of official inspection. Perhaps, however, some “plate” with the Government stamp might be devised which could be fastened into the hub or some other essential portion of a cycle, and which the manufacturers (and present owners) could obtain from the government and themselves attach to the machines, thus dispensing with all necessity of inspection. In whatever form, however, the impost be levied, it is hardly likely to bring in an amount worth very serious consideration as a matter of imperial finance though when county government is established it might be worth considering as a matter of local taxation.

Meanwhile, there are other forms of fair and easy taxation more likely to commend themselves to a Chancellor of the Exchequer, as promising more substantial results. Why not, for instance, tax advertisements…not newspaper advertisements, but the hideous things which cover our hoardings, disfigure our stations, parade our streets in single or double file, thrust themselves in the shape of handbills into our fingers, and stare at us as we take our seats in an omnibus or a railway carriage. If every such bill or board were made to show an adhesive stamp – like a receipt stamp, &c. – of a value proportionate to its size, a very substantial addition to our stamp revenue would accrue. All this enormous system of advertising must represent gain to the advertiser, or it would not continue; it forms, therefore, a very fair subject for taxation in the form most easily and economically levied. To return to the question of cycling I have been much interested in the accounts which have recently appeared in The Times from Swiss correspondents. It is now several seasons since I first took a bicycle to Switzerland, and I have an intimate acquaintance with all the main roads in 16 out of the 22 cantons, having traversed most of them on a bicycle several times. They certainly afford far more enjoyable riding than most of our English roads, and one great charm of visiting Switzerland in this way is that you are led into parts the ordinary tourist never hears of, in which in addition to very beautiful scenery you see native Swiss life at its very best. If any of your readers are thinking of trying it next year, I may perhaps mention that I contributed a full itinerary of these roads with all such details of gradients and distances as the cyclist requires to know to the columns of the London Bicycle Club Gazette last year. If they cannot procure the numbers from the printers (Messrs Darling and Son, 35 Eastcheap) they will be able to consult them in the library of The National Cyclists’ Union.

Though the ride to Kandersteg is one of my special favourites, 1 certainly should never have thought of having my bicycle transported over the Gemmi, neither do I think that cycles, whether led or ridden, should be taken along mule-tracks, or on such extremely narrow and dangerous roads as that of the Tote Noire.

Your obedient servant,

Gerard F Cobb, late president of the Cambridge University Bicycle Club and the National Cyclists’ Union, Trinity College, Cambridge, Oct. 6.

The Times, Wednesday, Oct 10, 1883; pg. 12

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