Anyone who cycles regularly on British roads is likely to have heard the comment from car drivers that “roads are for cars!” This is often stated as fact, which poses the question of why are roads for cars? Despite the currently prevalent belief among some motorists, roads weren’t actually invented for cars, as roads have been around for quite some time before the car was invented. The road was invented in Western Asia around 3500 BC (although the Chinese probably claim to have invented them earlier), and strangely enough, Herodotus made no mention of Babylonians using their roads to drive around in cars.

Modern methods of road building were invented by John Loudon McAdam who died in 1836, thirty-one years before Carl Benz invented the car. It was the invention of the pedal bicycle, by fellow Scot Kirkpatrick Macmillan, which became increasingly popular through the 19th century. This in turn led to a great public concern at the deplorable conditions of the nation’s roads. The roads, thus improved, enabled Henry Hewetson to import from Germany the first motorcar to run on the “British Highway” in 1894. So, if it hadn’t been for the bicycling boom in the 1890s leading to the construction of better roads, cars wouldn’t have become common in Britain. Interestingly, the early cycle paths were constructed in towns in the middle of the street to help cyclists avoid the discomfort of cycling over a cobbled surface. No concession to cars there then.

Explain all of this to the average motorist, and they will tell you that they have more rights to the road because they pay tax. Before going further, it should be pointed out that, in Britain, the vast majority of adults pay tax (unless they are Russian billionaires, in which case they live in London specifically because they don’t feel the need to pay tax), and that public roads in Britain are paid for out of general taxation. Therefore, all adults in Britain have a right to use the public roads, having paid for them through taxation. However, many motorists will then claim that they have a greater right to the road as they pay something called “road tax”, which oddly enough doesn’t exist. Most motorists will pay Vehicle Excise Duty. This is based on the level of CO2 emissions, it doesn’t have anything to do with paying for the roads. Besides which, drivers of vehicles which produce emissions of 100 CO2 g/km and below are exempt from VED, and cyclists would fall into this category if tested (also the right to breathe has yet to be taxed).

So, where did this idea that motorists are somehow exclusively paying for the roads come from, when in reality we are all paying for the roads through taxation?

The earliest form of motoring tax was introduced under the Finance Act 1908, which levied a tax of 3d (£0.01) on a gallon of petrol from 1st April 1909. This was then followed by the Finance Act 1909-10, which introduced a tax based on the horsepower (hp) of the vehicle. It was stated at the time that revenue from this tax would be paid into a Road Fund, which was to be used for road improvements, and this would pay up to half of the cost of some new roads. In 1910 Road Fund Licences introduced, which were charged at £2-10 for vehicles up to 6.5hp and £42 for 60hp. A Road Board was set up to administer the Road Fund and grants paid to local authorities for road improvements. In 1918, the Road Board was disbanded, and its functions were taken over by the newly formed Ministry of Transport. The Finance Act 1921 replaced Road Fund Licences with Car Tax (Road Fund Licence) which was set at £1 per hp. The Road Fund continued until 1936, when Winston Churchill, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, abolished it (on the ground that it was giving motorists a dangerously inflated sense of ownership of the public road) and so brought to an end to hypothecated road taxation in Britain. So, the only drivers on British roads who can truly claim to have paid for the road through car tax are those who are, at the time of writing in 2007, over the age of 88!

QED: roads are not for cars, but are for people however they choose to travel. The act of driving a car confers on the driver no more right to the road than that of any other road user.