Campaigning Cyclists

For those interested in such things, the UK’s first ever national cycling and walking debate which took place earlier this week (you can find out more about it here: After reading around the issues discussed, you could be forgiven for seeing the 1890s as a golden age for cyclists. This was a period when cyclists were by far and away the largest body of road users. Free from dangerous junctions and, for the most part, busy roads, what issues could they possibly need to bring up with politicians?

Quite a few actually. Throughout the 1890s the Cyclists’ Touring Club, backed by the wider cycling press, campaigned for changes on a wide range of issues, all far removed from the debate which took place last Monday.

One particularly prominent issue for cyclists in this period was meeting other road users at night. Whilst this might not sound like much of a problem, there were no laws enforcing non-cyclists to have lights on their vehicles. For those cyclists sharing unlit country roads with horse drawn vehicles, this sometimes presented itself as an issue. The following letter appeared in Cycling in 1891:

‘Sir-Cannot something be done to enforce drivers of vehicles to carry lights, the same as cyclists who are compelled to, especially in country places, where there is always a scarcity of road lamps? On Thursday evening I was riding in Bexley from Foots Cray, when a man driving a fast-trotting cob harnessed to a light dogcart, without lights, came round the sharp curve by Bexley Church on the wrong side of the road, and having no time to get out of the way, the cob and trap came into collision with my bicycle, luckily doing no damage beyond smashing my lamp and bruising me a little.’

Horses and dogcarts: Not what you want to meet around a dark corner. Source:

You might expect the driver to be apologetic to the cyclist. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. The writer explained,

‘Of course there was the usual argument, which ended in the man refusing to give his name and threatening violence; and as there was no policeman to prevent him, he drove off, and I, having no light, was unable to follow him.’

Strange to say, it could have been even worse for the cyclist. In 1898 the Leeds Express reported on the case of a cyclist, who, after colliding with a horse dealer found himself being attacked by the driver and his whip after he asked for his name and address (maybe cars, with their headlights and their whipless owners aren’t so bad after all).

However, despite much agitation, both by the cycling press and the Cyclists’ Touring Club, by 1900 there were still no universal lights law. The second area in which cyclists campaigned for change was in relation to railway companies. For many cyclists in this period, especially those going on holiday, part of their journey involved a railway journey in which their bicycles were stored in general luggage compartments at the back of trains.

Cyclists had two main complaints about their experiences of rail journeys. The first was cost- English rail companies charged far more for storing cycles than any other cycling nation. However, cyclists would more frequently complain about the manner in which their bicycles were stored in train’s luggage compartments. Because train companies did not make special provisions for storing bicycles, this meant they were often crammed in with other items of luggage. As an article in Cycling explained,

‘In the matter of accommodation cycles are at present placed with other luggage and it is a common occurrence for cycles to be stacked together. So little consideration for the safe carriage of cycles is shown that many are rendered unrideable by the end of the journey, and the majority are scratched or damaged in some way.’

On top of this, most rail companies accepted no costs for damages done to machines. An article in cycling, commenting on the poor relationships between cyclists and train companies, described how,

‘It sometimes happens that a cyclist has to place himself at the mercy of the railway company. Whether going on tour, on benighted, or storm overtaken, or broken-down, it is an evil day for both man and machine, for verily he must have many shekels who can face the charges for the bike and the damages thereto. They give you a little piece of paper, printed on the back with some infernal nonsense about ‘the act of God and the Queen’s enemies, and this absolving themselves of any legal responsibility, proceed to pile milk-cans and packing cases on the top of the unoffending bike.’

Although there was a slight reduction in rates for cyclists in 1893, train companies did very little to provide better facilities for bicycles during this period, much to the annoyance of cyclists such as the one above. However, there was an issue which cyclists successfully campaigned on. Despite many proposals, no tax was placed on cycling and cyclists in this period (which continues to this day, long may it continue!)

Surprisingly, this was the one issue which actually divided cyclists. Some thought that by paying a tax cyclists would increase their status and standing in relation to other road users, and that the money raised might be used on improving roads. The issue was also a class one, with some wealthier cyclists arguing that a tax would effectively remove the rougher, lower class cyclists who they claimed were damaging the good name and ‘respectability’ of the sport (more on this another time).

Despite these arguments, cycling remained an activity which you did not need to pay a tax to enjoy. Those campaigning against a cycle tax benefited from having the support of high ranking politicians. In 1893 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Harcourt, replying to proposals to tax cyclists stated that,

‘I have no sympathy with the proposals which have been made in various quarters for levying a tax upon cyclists. In my view cycling has afforded opportunities for healthy enjoyment and facilities for business purposes which are highly advantageous to large classes of the community, whose restricted means exclude them from more expensive methods of locomotion. Many thousands of persons with small incomes are thus enabled to obtain fresh air and exercise, and to escape from the influences of large towns, and also to carry on with less labour and fatigue their ordinary occupations. I see with satisfaction in the delightful part of the country in which I live that vast numbers of people are capable of enjoying its beauties to an extent which in former times was impracticable. I regard cycling as a cheap, a healthy and a useful pleasure, and I have no difficulty in assuring you that, so long as I have any responsibility in the matter, it is the last thing I should be taxing.’


Sir William Harcourt


8 thoughts on “Campaigning Cyclists

  1. Bravo indeed. Harcourt’s words on the benefits of cycling are as apt today as they were 122 years ago. If anything cycling should be incentivised by tax breaks to encourage people to cycle more with the aim of taking cars off the road. The bike-2-work scheme is a good example of what can be done, but I’d like to see zero VAT on sales of new bicycles and bike helmets and in the wildest flights of my fancy a tax rebate for those who choose to regularly commute by bicycle.


    • There is something very timeless about it, was very pleased when I found it! And I think you’re right, I guess the only problem would be working out when people were buying bikes for commuting and when for more general leisure use. But with the growing numbers of cyclists and everything that cycling represents in a cheap mode of travel that’s good for environment, creates less congestion and gets people active you would hope (and probably expect) to get more schemes which build on bike-2-work over the next few years. More investment (as discussed in the debate on Monday) in schemes making cycling safer and more appealing is definitely another thing that you would hope/expect to happen.


      • I’ve been having a running debate recently about cycling infrastructure with a friend of mine who works for the council here in Swindon. My argument is basically “good intentions, bad implementation”. We have miles of cycle paths admittedly, but they’re disjointed, are shared with pedestrians, and all new development in the area has singularly failed to provide proper cycle lanes, safe junctions, or direct routes from the outskirts to the town centre that parallel the roads. In residential areas there is no space for cyclists on the roads and the maze of cul-de-sacs makes getting from A-B difficult unless you use the roads. These are lined with parked cars forcing cyclists and cars to share a single lane which isn’t wide enough for both. Result: increased risk for cyclists and frustrated car drivers. Personally I think there needs to be a shift in mind-set in which planners and developers think of the bicycle as being equal in importance to the motor vehicle. I’d love to see the UK adopt the Dutch approach of building highways and byways with dedicated lanes for bikes, cars, and pedestrians.

        As for tax, I’d not distinguish between leisure, sport, or commuting use, simply applying zero VAT on all new bike sales. An income tax rebate for commuters could theoretically work by requiring people to register their place of work and home address and to submit GPS tracked journeys to a dedicated site on the HMRC pages to prove they are actually commuting by bicycle. A set rate per mile would seem to be the best way of setting the level of the rebate. The more you ride to work, the less tax you pay. Though there would be one advantage of imposing a bike tax: It would end the false argument hurled at all cyclists by many car drivers of “you don’t pay road tax, you shouldn’t be on the roads”. In my experience explaining that they don’t pay road tax either, but a vehicle excise duty, isn’t very well received in the heat of the moment.


      • Interesting to hear about Swindon- I regularly walk through York on my way to uni and am always happily struck by the number of cyclists on the roads I walk past- I think the council have both been good at investing in bike infrastructure but have also benefited from York city centre already being pretty much car free and having roads that were already wide enough to put bike lanes on (more is still to be done of course, and if I regularly cycled on the roads I might have a different opinion!). You might have already come across it but the book Roads were not built for cars (there is also a website is a recent history of cycling that’s very relevant to current debates. The website is quite difficult to navigate but if you google roads were not built for cars blog and go on the first result there are a series of blogs which I imagine you would be interested in (have noticed the first one talks about Dutch cycling infrastructure).


  2. You are far more advanced in the U.K. than we are here in the U.S. I hate to admit it, but we are seemingly oblivious to motor vehicle traffic. I live along a beautiful river valley. I have often thought how lovely it would be to ride my bike along this road. Unfortunately with the big dump trucks barrelling along the road, I have decided it is unsafe. For some reason–it is part of the “free to do what I want to do” mindset that is so unfortunately popular in my country–there are no restrictions. So cyclists beware, it is the bigger, more powerful motor vehicles that have precedence.


    • That sounds awful- can perfectly imagine those other road users you are describing! I think that added to the mindset you mentioned having a national health service and as such the government having a greater incentive to get people fit and active means cycling over here gets relatively more funding than over the pond (plus we might be a bit more accepting of global warming and more open to investment in greener transport, correct me if I’m wrong!)


    • Many thanks for your comment- need more people like him in circles of power today! I’ll hopefully do something about cyclists and other road users in this period next week- their uneasy relationship back then also has definite parallels to today.


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