Tuesday 31 December 2013

I have to smile

I was prompted to write this post by something I tweeted on Twitter a couple of days ago, which has generated far more responses, retweets and favourites than anything I have previously tweeted.

Clearly it struck a chord – or hit a nerve, depending on your point of view.
By way of background, I live in the area administered by Waverley Borough Council, a semi-rural location tucked into the south west corner of Surrey, bordering West Sussex and Hampshire, largely overlapping the parliamentary constituency of our Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.  It comprises several villages and four small towns:  Cranleigh, Farnham, Godalming and Haslemere.  It is prosperous, having not so long ago won the accolade of the borough with the best quality of life in the whole of the UK, and having, at the last census, 87% of households having the use of at least one car. *
Just as a convenient index of poverty and deprivation in a community can be made from the proportion of children eligible for free school meals, for affluence you could have the “Waitrose Index”, and on that index Waverley scores highly with a near maximum score of 3 – only one of the four small towns does not have a Waitrose branch.
Two of the three branches do not have their own car parks, relying instead on adjacent Borough car parks, for which a charge is made – 80p for the first hour and £1 for each subsequent hour.  (Not, in my view, a sum which would genuinely motivate a typical local Range Rover driver to travel to BlueWater).  So, to attract business, Waitrose offers a refund of 60p against the counterfoil on customers’ car park tickets when produced at the till, where the total exceeds £10.
I don’t deal with the household’s main weekly shopping needs – that falls to Mrs M – but I typically go down of a weekend for a top-up of things like milk, fresh fruit and veg, and quite often a Sunday roast.  For convenience I use the self-scanners.  The system can’t verify your car park ticket stub to authorise the refund but is clearly configured to assume that you must have one, so as I almost invariably spend more than £10 on a visit (hard not to, in Waitrose, even with only a bicycle basket) I get the refund automatically.
Personally I think that is sending the wrong signal to customers, but it is probably a sensible commercial decision for Waitrose to take in such a car-dependent area, and here’s the thing:  those car parks get very crowded indeed at peak times.  Sometimes you can watch the bankers’ wives in their Range Rovers, roving the car parks ready to pounce on the first  space to come free – and to exercise pretty sharp elbows when two 4x4s converge on the same space at the same time.  Would it  not make commercial sense to incentivise customers who have arrived on foot or bicycle, to ease the pressure on the car parks and so make more spaces for more customers?  Should they not extend the car park refund without conditions, or even go a step further and offer a larger discount to people who can show they have not driven to the store?  The third store (Godalming) having its own free parking does not offer this refund, so couldn’t something which is not offered at all to drivers be offered there to non-drivers?
Of course, proving it might be tricky, as negatives are always harder to prove, but perhaps if they provided a rack of cycle locking points, ready fitted with locks and keys?  A bit like the lockers in gym changing rooms, where you take the key with you on a wristband after you’ve locked up your outdoor stuff but the key can’t be removed from the lock unless it is locked closed.  Or the facilities for storing your skis at the bottom of a ski lift in a typical alpine resort?  You would then simply produce the key at the till for your rebate.
Come on Waitrose (and Sainsburys, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons) - what's stopping you?
* It is also a fantastic area for off-road cycling, with conditions to satisfy and challenge almost all skill levels.  Do come and try it out.  Or if you are roadie, try the “Little Lumpy” sportive at the end of May.

Sunday 29 December 2013

Out of town, or out to lunch?

I was reading a Twitter conversation yesterday, a series of exchanges between a lady called Frances Coppola (I assume no relation to Francis Ford Coppola, the film director, but you never know) and various tweeps with a cycling frame of mind.

Ms Coppola is no doubt a thoughtful and amusing person in many respects but I thought her observations on out-of-town shopping centres vs traditional town centres were just plain silly.  Here is a taste:

Elsewhere in her timeline she comments that people like shpopping malls because they are “easy” to  park.

Easy?  Thinking about the two Westfields – Stratford and Shepherds’ Bush – and Bluewater, what springs to mind is either basement carparks under the buildings or vast flat sheets of tarmac outside.  The former are deeply uninviting places – dark and under-lit, with loads of blind corners and pillars for muggers – real or imagined/feared – to hid behind.  They are also huge, and confusing.  You could easily get lost in them, or at least have difficulty in returing to your car unless you have left a breadcrumb trail to follow back.  Unless you are an early-bird, chances are you will have to park at some distance to the pedestrian exit and access to the shops, because the early arrivals – human nature being what it is - will have snaffled all the spaces close to the exit.  You will in all probability have a longer walk from car to shops than you would have to suffer in your local town centre.

And in the  open-air examples, you may not have the fear of footpads, but you still have the confusion about where you parked you car – ever parked in Gatwick South long-stay? – the long walk to and fro, plus exposure to the elements, is no better than in your town centre.

And parking is not the only issue, as this tweet from TfLtrafficnews shows us:

No, people don’t go to Westfield because it is easy to park, or if they do, they have a screw loose.  All that is easy about it is that you will likely not be disappointed about finding a space – somewhere.  The lady referred to last year in one of Mark Treasure’s Aseasyasriding blog posts, writing to the local paper in Horsham complaining about the £1.20 per hour parking charges there, which motivated her to drive to BlueWater – a round trip of a good 100 miles and thus probably nearly ten litres of petrol at a cost of about £13 – may have been miffed about having to pay for parking, but that cannot have been her true motivation for going to BlueWater.
As that loyal hound of the Founder, Spokesman and only member of “Drivers Union” succinctly tweets:
People go to shopping malls (out of town or in town) not because of the ease of parking, or at least only partly so.  They go because the shops they want are there – mainly multiples because independent retailers could never afford the rents – and the shops they want are there because the developer has created an environment which customers want to be in and so attracts business.  That environment is frequently sheltered from weather, and it is clean and fairly secure thanks to an army of private security personnel, but mostly it is entirely pedestrian – you may have to drive some distance and for some extended time on congested streets but once you are there, it is traffic-free.  Far too few town centres are that lucky.  Mine certainly isn’t.

Thursday 26 December 2013

Taxation of the company car - a trip down Memory Lane

Income Tax was first introduced, in around 1805 by William Pitt the Younger, to finance the cost of the Napoleonic Wars.  It was (stated to be) intended to be temporary, but of course it is still with us.
William Pitt the Younger
- the man we have to thank for income tax
Later in the 19th Century the tax law was restructured into substantially the same form as we see today, although since 2003 there has been some change in the terminology used – the old references to the Schedules and Cases, which provide the framework for taxing

·         income from property (Schedule A),

·         Woodlands (Schedule B),

·         Gilt-edged securities (Schedule C),

·         Trades, professions and vocations (Schedule D cases 1-2)

·         Interest, royalties and similar receipts in the UK (Case 3) and overseas (Cases 4 & 5)

·         and the bucket category for anything else that has got forgotten elsewhere (Case 6),

·         and finally, income from employment and pensions (Schedule E)

are no longer in common use – unless like me you have been around too long to get used to the new way.

I shall concentrate here on Schedule E (employment income) and in particular the treatment of benefits-in-kind, particularly the provision of a company car.

Schedule E taxes the “emoluments” of an employment.  Over many decades, case law expanded on and clarified what this term, defined in statute in good Victorian language  as “salaries, wages, fees or perquisites of whatsoever nature”, is intended to mean.  Broadly, payment in money or money’s worth is an emolument.  If an employer offers to step in and settle an employee’s bill or reimburse an employee’s (non-business) expenses, the amount paid by the employer is an emolument.  Finally, if the employer provides the employee with goods or services which the employee is capable of realising for cash, the emolument would be the amount of cash the employee might reasonably be expected to be able to realise.  This particular point was much tested in case law – for example, when an employee was supplied by his employer with a bespoke Savile Row suit, the courts determined that the emolument was not the full cost of having the suit made, but the considerably lower value which the employee might be be expected to realise by selling it second-hand.

Where the employer provided something on loan to the employee, without transferring beneficial ownership and imposing restrictions on third party use so that the employee could not realise any cash value from the loaned item, there was nothing at all to tax.  Housing and cars fell into this category.

Unsurprisingly, tax mitigation for owner-managers of businesses and for the Directors of public companies became a major industry in its own right, and finally the Labour Government of Jim Callaghan responded in 1976 with the introduction of taxation of benefits in kind (BIK) for directors and “higher-paid” employees.  Back then, you were considered higher-paid if your taxable income, including the assessable value of your BIK, exceeded £7,500 pa, soon raised to £8,500 pa.  As my first job after graduation from Oxford, in 1977, paid £3,000 pa, my younger readers will see that eight grand really was a fairly good whack in those days.  The £8,500 threshold however has remained ever since so in effect captures almost everybody, down to minimum wage.

Directors were caught by the rules whatever they earned – in order to catch owner-managers who had become used to rewarding themselves primarily with BIK which they otherwise would have paid from their salaries.  The term director also covered Shadow Directors – people whose names didn’t appear on the Companies House register for the company as directors, but who nevertheless practically determined what the  directors-of-record could do with the company.

Alongside provisions for taxing any other type of BIK, such as accommodation, meals, gym membership, medical insurance etc, the 1976 Finance Act introduced a scale charge for taxing company cars.  Believe it or not, until 6th April 1976 an employee or director could be supplied with use of a car, including fuel and even a chauffeur, entirely free from taxation!

I think we can assume – admittedly with “cognitive bias” – that this situation must have been highly instrumental in forming the Great Car Economy of present day Britain, and the greater dependence on cars – and deeper obsession with how big/fast/new/shiny our cars are – than we typically see in many European countries where the tax system was not quite so sympathetic to motorists.

We are now into our third phase of taxing the company car as employment benefit.  In the first phase, which ran eighteen years from April 1976 to April 1994, we saw the taxable benefit of a car expressed as a fixed scale charge which bore no real resemblance to the cost of buying and operating that car.  If we consider the far most common type of company car – the middle-market saloon with an engine between 1,401 cc and 2,000 cc – the scale charge in 1976 was £225 – this is what the car was deemed to be worth as income, per year.  At this stage, provision of fuel (at the employer’s own pump or using an employer-provided fuel credit card) was still not taxed – that only came in five years later.

In the first five or so years of the scheme, the scale charge hardly rose at all – and a 50% reduction was introduced for users with more than 18,000 miles of business use and a 50% surcharge for users with less than 2,500 business miles - and then the mid-eighties saw the scale charge start to rise more rapidly, so that by its final year, 1993/4, the scale charge for a 1,400-2,000cc car had reached £2,990 (again add 50% for less than 2,500 miles business use).  Although much higher, it still represented nothing like the true cost of buying a brand new car and keeping and using it for three years before replacing with a new one.  Also, the business mileage threshold caused great distortions in employees’ travel decisions.  I remember for example driving to meetings in Manchester from Surrey in preference to taking the train, as a way of racking up the necessary 2,500 miles.  I even recall a colleague travelling to a conference in Vienna in his company car, to get his mileage in with one trip having failed to do any business driving at all throughout the year until then.

It also distorted the new car market.  Ever wondered why so many cars labelled as 2 litre actually have engines of about 1,995 cc?  Or 1,395 cc?  Now you know.  I also recall my brother’s father in law, a director of a chemicals company, choosing a “Grand Luxe” version of the Ford Granada 2 litre in preference to the standard spec for the 2.4 litre version – he did a deal with the garage to stick a “2.4 L” badge on the boot in place of the proper “2.0 GLS” badge, so he wasn’t exposed to ribbing in the company car-park!

The 1993 Finance Act sounded the death knell for the old scale charge system, and introduced a system a little closer to what we have today.  From April 1994, the BIK was 35% pa of the achievable retail price (slightly lower than the manufacturer’s advertised RRP) plus the cost of any optional extras.  Do 2,500 business miles and this dropped by a third, more than 18,000 and it dropped by another third.  There were some minor tweaks but in substance this regime continued until 2002.  It still contained the distortion of pushing people to get across business mileage thresholds by hook or by crook, and being purely price-based, it contained no incentive to buy smaller-engined or more fuel-efficient cars. 

However, the scheme had approached a balance with the actual cost of providing the car, such that when my company car came up for renewal my employer now offered me not a car as such, but a specified monthly sum to spend on a car lease, or to take as gross salary through the payroll.  Like many of my colleagues, I decided to take the money and buy my own – second-hand – car.  Working as I did in the City of London I only rarely needed to use my car for business, would normally prefer to take the train instead, and struggled to achieve the necessary 2,500 business miles to reduce the taxable benefit.  Better to be taxed on salary representing about 25% of the capital cost of that car than on a notional 35%!

Finally, in 2002 the scheme changed to substantially what we have today.  The annual charge was a percentage factor, starting at 15%, of the new retail price, for cars with the lowest standardised CO2 emissions, of 165gm/km or lower.  For every 5gm/km above 165, the annual factor rose by 1%, until it reached 35.  Today, the “threshold percentage” is 11% and the “threshold amount” is 100gms/km but otherwise much the same – 1% more for each 5gm/km until 35% is reached. 

There is now no reduction in the benefit for business mileage thresholds, so the incentive to make unnecessary car journeys has been removed.

Meanwhile, the introduction and gradual escalation in car fuel scale charges has to some extent discouraged provision of free fuel for personal use, although probably not for the most committed petrol-heads.

If my own experience is anything to go by, the 1994 scheme probably deterred some purely-personal users of company cars from taking one, but the 2002 scheme has evidently resulted in a significant reduction in uptake of company cars by “non-essential users”.  There is some reference to this as a factor in the assumed arrival of “peak car” which occurred prior to the current economic downturn, in the mid-noughties when the economy was still defying gravity.  (The RAC Foundation, of course, would deny that car use has peaked, it has merely briefly interrupted its relentless onwards march.  A Parliamentary briefing paper, which also refers to the company car effect as one of the fiscal and demographic changes affecting private car use,  prefers not to come off the fence as to whether peak car has arrived).

A report by HM Revenue & Customs evaluating the impact of the 2002 changes on CO2 emissions – not of course at all the same thing as total road travel mileage, or its impact on  traffic congestion or road danger for motorists or other road users) however suggests that the new scheme has been, and will be, fairly successful in delivering its primary aim.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Another day which will long live on in Infamy

Barely a month ago I was reminiscing about an infamous event which occurred 50 years ago, and how, despite my tender age at the time, like many others I remembered vividly where I was when I heard the news.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the destruction of PanAmerican Airlines Flight 103 from London to New York, over Lockerbie, in the borders of Scotland, at approximately 7pm on Wednesday 21st December, 1988.  Like the assassination of President Kennedy, I have a vivid recollection of where and when I heard the news.

I was travelling to Barrow in Furness with one of my bosses, Archie, for a meeting at the Vickers Shipbuilders' Trident Submarine yard.  When the train left Preston, the guard walked through announcing that news was coming in of an airliner exploding over southern Scotland.  That was about all he could tell us then, but we listened to updates as we were driven by car from Lancaster Station to Barrow, and when we arrived at the hotel we watched TV bulletins.

I don’t think we really had much inkling of quite how horrific this crime was at that time.  It was, after all, dark so the full extent of the destruction was not visible, and it was not yet confirmed that the explosion was a result of terrorist action.  We could however see that the small town of Lockerbie had suffered catastrophic and fatal damage from falling parts of the plane – an entire wing, full of fuel, as it turned out.

This had been a miserable couple of days for me.  My then girlfriend had just done a “Dear John” on me and I was still reeling from the shock and grief.  The news however brought home to me that many others would be far more shocked, and have far greater reason to grieve, than I.

The trip was eventful in other ways too.  The purpose of our visit to Barrow was to discuss the shipbuilder’s claims for “capital allowances” on the cost of construction of the yard where the Trident boats were being built, at almost unimaginable expense, with the company’s tax inspector.  Somehow, and the company staff swore it was pure co-incidence, it came to pass that the hull of one of the subs had to be moved across the yard for the next phase of construction.  A vessel the size of a modern cross-channel ferry, with about 7 or 8 decks inside its hull towering high above us as we stood on the floor of the yard, was slowly moved on a series of rail-borne bogies.  This was the first and last time I have ever seen, in reality, that cartoon image of someone’s jaw literally dropping.  The inspector immediately agreed the tax allowance claim, measured in hundreds of millions.

And finally,  a revelation about my boss, Archie.  He had always struck me as a miserable, grumpy git, a true “Dour Scot”, and I had been dreading the thought of spending a couple of evenings in his exclusive company, but he turned out to be an amusing and thoughtful companion, and a good listener to my tales of woe.

Seven years later, in November 1995, my wife and I had a long weekend in Washington.  We paid a visit, as one does, to the Arlington National Cemetery, to see John F Kennedy’s grave.  While there, we came across a cairn, a neatly constructed pile of small rocks, 270 of them, one for each of the victims in the aircraft or on the ground, built in memorial to the incident.  It is almost impossible to remain dry-eyed in front of this monument.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Hulk tamed.

I blogged a couple of months ago about a particularly frustrating occasion making one of the very few regular journeys I still do by car.

I am a fairly infrequent driver, with only two regular weekly car outings, each about 45 minutes or so for the return trip, plus other journeys, generally a little longer but less regular and less frequent, including visiting my mother in a nursing home in Winchester, and trips to the sailing club in Portsmouth.  Winchester I think is going to be too difficult, but I think I have managed to switch my Portsmouth trip to train/bike, taking the train to Fratton station and then back-tracking about three miles, on flat and mainly off-road cycle paths (mediocre quality, but at least they exist, and are quite well-used).

One of my regular weekly trips is also too difficult to change – ironic really, as it is to the gym, for an hour’s sheer torture with my personal trainer (who, I am convinced, learnt her trade at Gitmo, forcing men in orange jumpsuits to maintain “stress positions” to extract information from them – or at least that is what “the plank” feels like to me).  The other, the one which caused me such frustration recently, is to my French tutor on a Saturday morning.  I fumed then that it would be so much nicer to travel by train and bike.
Well, I finally got around to giving it a try. 

Journey by road to Guildford in blue.  By bike and train in red.

I left home ten minutes earlier than usual, cycling down to the station to pick up the 10:32 train to Guildford.  I locked up my bike at Haslemere station, as the final leg in Guildford is a steep climb and not very far so better to walk.  I arrived about 5 or 6 minutes before my lesson was due to start, and waited on the street so that the student before me could finish her lesson before ringing the bell.

For the return journey, a walk back downhill to Guildford station, then about 15 minutes’ wait for the next train back to Haslemere, spent in the waiting room (if you can call it that, but at least it has a bench and an electric heater) reading my Kindle. 20 minutes in the train to Haslemere, and a little over ten minutes’ ride back home from there.

The journey times are a little longer, inevitably, but at least I get time to read a few chapters of the “Swedish Noir” romans policiers that I enjoy, which I wouldn’t get in the car.  I also save 28 miles of driving and the fuel consumption and CO2 emissions that entails, and I have a season ticket for the train already. 

It depends on the weather – hanging around outside Anne-Sophie’s house for five minutes in the rain doesn’t appeal – but I think I might make a habit of this.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Stands to reason, dunnit?

“Stands to reason, dunnit?”

Often this is just about the entirety of an argument put forward in support of a proposition, by a proponent who considers the proposition to be so blindingly obvious that no evidence is necessary to support it.

A good example is cycle helmets.  Proponents of helmets and helmet compulsion evidently believe that wrapping a couple of centimetres of expanded polystyrene around your head must surely protect your head from damage.  After all, it stands to reason – electrical goods get shipped packed in expanded polystyrene to protect them, so it must be good.  Real evidence of course is harder to come by.  The evidence tends to be fairly inconclusive but it does suggest that head injuries don’t really decline much when helmets are made compulsory, even when cycling levels fall as a result.  Other adverse effects are also observed to come into play, such as rotational neck injuries, or health impacts of reduced physical activity – as in Australia, home of cycle helmet compulsion and apparently second-most obese nation in the world after the USA.

Moving on, a more topical example of the Stands-to-Reason assertion relates to car parking.  In thisdocument, on which the Department for Transport is asking for your comments in a consultation exercise, it is asserted that reducing charges, easing restrictions and obstructing penalties for illegal or inconsiderate parking will benefit town centres.

There is no evidence for this.  Nil, none, nada, zilch, aucune.  It just  ‘stands to reason’ that if people can get parking for free, or for less than they pay now, if they can park for longer than they have actually paid for, or if they can abuse yellow lines and other parking restrictions for example to park within two paces of a shop, that will motivate them to shop more, and more often.  There is however no academic or scientific, empirical evidence or report to support this proposition.  Appeals have gone out on the Twittersphere (from John Dales?  I forget) for information on any such documents.  As far as I know, no-one has come forward.

There is however evidence for the converse, and for the opposite.  Here and here, for example, from Transport Research Laboratory and London Councils respectively.

The converse is that, rather than pricing of parking or the availability of free parking impacting the vitality of a town centre, the vitality of a town centre impacts on the cost of parking.  This was summed up neatly two years ago, shortly before Christmas, when retailers in Wokingham were reported in the local paper demanding concessions on parking charges to boost trade.  The chairman of the local chamber of commerce, however, dismissed this as “putting a sticking plaster on a broken artery” and pointing out that in nearby Reading, parking charges were much higher and yet cars were queuing around the block waiting for access to a car park.

The opposite is that reducing parking charges can actually have the opposite effect.  Maintaining the correct level of charge for the area is an art which local authorities aim to refine, so that they can maximise the number of visitors to a town centre by discouraging excessively long stays during which purchasing activity tails off.  Avoiding “bay-blocking” in other words.  If people who stay an hour spend more than twice as much as those who stay 30 minutes, and more than half as much as those who stay two hours, then pitch the pricing at one hour minimum and high enough to encourage people to get on, shop, and leave so a new shopper can take the space.

An example, it seems to me, of how different parking areas in my own home town sustain different charges and so (probably imperfectly) optimise the use of spaces, is that a car park next door to the supermarket (which has no free parking of its own) charges at 80p per hour while another a hundred yards or so further way charges at 50p per hour, and yet in the former each space is sold twice as many times per day.

All of this of course falls on deaf ears as far as Mr Pickwick is concerned.  He persists in his bleedin’-obvious prejudice that a parking free-for-all would be good for towns, proposing to permit motorists to overstay their time by a “few minutes” (can they not afford a watch?  If not, surely they can see the time on their mobile phones?), or to park “briefly” on double yellow lines – never mind the inconvenience to other motorists, the danger to pedestrians who are now hidden behind parked cars and so  invisible to those motorists as they attempt to cross the road, or the impedance to emergency services attempting pass down congested streets.  Just tie both hands behind the council’s back in its efforts to keep things under control.  Just end up like Aberystwyth, where all parking controls were initially lifted, then after a year of total chaos, anarchy, accidents, arguments and punch-ups, they were re-instated to the profound relief of all, including the usual troublemaker in this matter, the local rag.

Parking controls do matter.  Inconsiderate parking obstructs the highway.  It impedes elderly and disabled pedestrians who need access to dropped kerbs.  It places children in danger when they can’t be seen by passing cars as they try to cross the road from between parked cars.  It blocks cycle lanes, forcing cyclists to swerve out into traffic and put themselves at risk.  Cheap parking, apart from not doing what it says on the tin, attracts more traffic so more congestion, more pollution and more road danger, making the town centre even less attractive to pedestrians and unfairly disadvantaging people who have no access to a car.

Go to the survey, and tell Pickles where he can stuff his parking free-for-all proposals.

Friday 29 November 2013

The cost of travel

The other day I stumbled on this webpage on the site of the Money Advice Service.

The Money Advice Service, which advertises as “Ask MA” on TV, is a Government sponsored, impartial and free advice service on personal financial matters.

Now I suppose it is my good fortune that, due to some academic ability and years of hard work, but also  - more than both of those together - simply buckets of good luck, I have spent years in an interesting and lucrative job.  I am fortunate that I don’t really need to “Ask MA” myself, but I wholeheartedly applaud their aims, providing counsel to people who have debt problems – my mother, for many years a volunteer counsellor with Citizens’ Advice Bureau, told me that by far the biggest source of problems brought in by their clients was difficulties with debt – and advising people on how to make their limited money go further.  So that they could afford to eat and heat their homes at the same time, for example.

But what am I to make of this?  Their advice on travel seems to me to be heavily weighted towards car use – not only most of the page, but also the whole top part of the page is devoted to a travel mode which nearly half of all households have no access to, and no doubt among those who need to "Ask MA" the most, a good deal more than that.  Advice about public transport or active travel is there, but right at the bottom.

And in any case, their advice is really tinkering around the edges.  First up is “Shop around for cheaper car insurance”.  Well, doesn’t everybody do that, even overpaid gits like me?  How much impact does it have on the overall cost of car ownership?

And then there is “Cut cost of fuel – saving just 5p a litre…could save £100 a year”.  No shit, Sherlock!  But where are you going to find this cheaper fuel, and how many litres will you burn driving around looking for it?

In fact, there follow several suggestions on how you could improve your fuel consumption – like not driving too fast, or braking/accelerating hard, and making sure your tyres are correctly inflated.  I know these work, as I can see that the rolling-average MPG display on our car dashboard can drop about 5% when I am driving instead of my other half, but  this is hardly a game changer, is it?

The one glaring omission in their advice is this:  first of all, before anything else, ask yourself - does this journey really need to be made by car?  How far is it?  How much weight or volume of stuff will you have to transport?  If you are just “popping in” to your local 7-11 a half-mile down the road for a pint of milk or a newspaper, why are you even thinking of driving?  Couldn’t you walk instead?  Save yourself all of the fuel that journey would normally take!  Save yourself paying for parking! Quite possibly save some time not having to hunt around for a parking space.  Get a bit of colour in your cheeks!

And if the journey is more than a mile, but less than say 3 or 4 miles (let’s not over-reach ourselves at the start) why not cycle it?

The site does, to be fair, cover use of public transport and cycling, but the latter is covered in a bare two lines.  There is no discussion of the alternatives to short car journeys.  There is no mention of the lamentable fact that nearly a quarter of all car journeys are under a mile, half are under three miles and two thirds are under five miles – all distances which are ideal for cycling, and indeed up to 2 or 3 miles are probably quicker by bike.  There is no mention of the health benefits, which could also save you money or reduce your risk of sickness absences which might muck up your overtime earnings or even in the worst cases pose an existential threat to your very livelihood.

For a Government sponsored, free unbiased and independent service, would you not expect better than this?

Friday 22 November 2013

An infamous anniversary

This post really has nothing to do with cycling.

50 years ago today, 22nd November 1963 (also a Friday) US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, in Dallas, Texas.

I first heard of it the following morning.  The shots were fired at about 1pm, Dallas time – 7pm UK time – and death was confirmed about an hour later.  By the time the news percolated to the BBC, as an eight year old child I was no doubt tucked up in bed.

They say everyone remembers where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had died.  In my case, certainly, that is true.

I was sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car when I heard it on the radio.  My father was driving, and my mother, brother and sister were not with us.  We were on the High Street in Lee-on-Solent, just passing the library.  I asked “Daddy – who is President Kennedy?” and my father told me that he was president of America.  I don’t recall feeling any great emotion over this news, but it was plain to hear that it was a truly momentous event so it must have struck me somehow.

The car was a Morris Oxford, sky blue, registration XXB 273.

It was unusual in those days for cars to have radios, and in fact ours didn’t either, but it did have a shelf on the dashboard to rest your home transistor radio, and an aerial lead to plug into the radio’s aerial socket – a fairly common arrangement then.  I assume my father had it installed because he used to drive down every week to his posting at the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, not far from Falmouth in Cornwall, and would appreciate having something to listen to.  (Driving then was even more male-dominated than it is now, and married women must have been used to not having use of a car when their husbands were at work)

I don’t really recall what we were doing in the car, or where we were going (it was a Saturday, so not to school) or why the rest of the family wasn’t with us.  What remained etched in my mind was just the scene.  How likely is that I would recall such trivial details, so long after the event, if the event itself  had not made a profound impression?

On a lighter note.

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the first screening of “Doctor Who”.  The first episode was in black and white, and starred William Hartnell.  The Doctor had an assistant even then, but I don’t remember who.  As a scene-setter, the Tardis departed 60s London and arrived in what was evidently the early stone age, outside a structure which might have been inspired by the houses of Fred & Wilma Flintstone and Barney & Betty Rubble.  Which is not to say that Dr Who had the comic overtones which it started to acquire in later years.  As an eight year old, I was quite frightened.
I understand the BBC have made an anniversary episode linking back to William Hartnell, played on this occasion by David Bradley (Filch, in the Harry Potter movies) as Hartnell is long since deceased.  Bradley is a fair likeness, if a little craggier and somehow harder in appearance.

Who can tell me, in which episode did the Daleks first appear?

Answer: Episode 2.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Going to the Library

Off today to the British Venture Capital Association’s Tax, Legal & Regulatory Conference at the British Library.

I am sure the excitement must be almost too much for you!

Anyway, first thing this morning I was checking the weather forecast to see if rain was expected during the day.   I will ride my Brompton to work in any weather, all year round – except heavy snow when it gets too slippery – but for commuting I would be wearing waterproof trousers and jacket if necessary.  The BVCA TLR conference is very much a suit & tie affair, so I had to be able to ride in said suit & tie, for which I need no expected or recent rain – a wet road kicking up spray from passing HGVs is if anything worse than water falling out of the sky.

I have to say that it was with some apprehension that I contemplated today’s ride, reflecting on the events of the last eight days, in which there have been five tragic fatalities of cyclists at the hands of buses or HGVs – and one miraculous escape when a car turned across the path of a lady cyclist, flipping onto its side in the process (how on earth could that happen, on a busy London street with a 30mph limit?) and her plastic hat apparently was able to bear the 1.5 tonne weight of said car resting on her head and “save her life”. 

(I submit, m’lud, that what saved her life was the several public spirited members of the public, including some whose names would no doubt have the Daily Mail slavering about immigrants and islamist fanatics and all their other hag-ridden fantasies, who bodily lifted the car enough for her to wriggle free).

But, with dry roads, no anticipated rain, and a route which mercifully involves no Cycle Superhighways and goes nowhere near Bow Roundabout, although it does go closer than is comfortable to Kings Cross, I set off.
Almost all of the route takes me through the Bloomsbury district of London – High Holborn, Red Lion Street, Lamb’s Conduit Street (no motor vehicles) and then Brunswick Square and Judd Street.  I finally emerge at Euston Road but fortunately my destination is literally just across the street so the logical thing to do is walk across as a pedestrian when the traffic lights go red.  That isn’t particularly pleasant though – there is no green man at the lights, the red-phase for traffic in each direction is short, and you can’t cross in one stage, instead you must wait on the central reservation for another break in the traffic.

From unfold to re-fold, including waiting for every red light to turn green – natch – and the walk across Euston Rd and through the courtyard at the Library, took under 15 minutes, at a leisurely, suit-wearing pace.  Coming back, with a very slight downhill and a brisk, cool following wind, took less than 10.  There is no way I could have done that in a taxi, much less so by tube.

So, while reflecting on the personal tragedies of the last week, I am still convinced that my bicycle is the best and fastest way of going about my business, professional or personal.  I would, though, like some #space4cycling.

You can support the #space4cycling campaign by joining LCC – look here. 

Sunday 20 October 2013


Last night I sat with the kids watching “Hulk” on TV.  It is a film adaptation of the old Marvel Comics’ “The Incredible Hulk” – you know, mild-mannered scientist Dr David Banner performs an experiment on himself which goes wrong, so that whenever he becomes mildly annoyed he turns into a huge, green, rampaging monster wrecking property all around but somehow managing not to hurt people, even the bad guys?  I assume the author may have taken his inspiration from the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel “Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde”.
Dial back 12 hours, and I am driving to my weekly Saturday French class.  This is one of only two car outings I regularly do every week (the other is to the gym – don’t ask).  With irregular or ad-hoc outings I probably average four outings a week in the car.  I spend more time on my bike than in the car, although of course I travel less far.
At its very best, with clear roads, in the countryside and with a nice view to admire in front of me, I view driving with mild dislike.  At its worst, in cities, busy motorways, or congestion, I loathe it.  Yesterday was at the worst end.  Forewarned that there was a major tailback on the A3, I decided to take the back roads to Guildford, to my French tutor Anne-Sophie.
Needless to say, the back roads were also congested, thanks to all the motorists rat-running looking for ways around the traffic jam on the main route.  Stuck in slow moving traffic, with queues at every light and junction, I feel blood pressure rising and red mist descending.  I start to mutter angrily, starting off with fairly mild stuff – “Come on, Grand-dad” – and gradually the density of expletives increases.  I am beginning to feel slightly ill, and I start to think “I wouldn’t have to put up with this on my bicycle”.
Indeed I would not.  I could, in principle, get to Anne-Sophie’s place by train.  Guildford is the first stop on my daily commuter journey.  I could cycle down to the station, use my season ticket (valid seven days, used five, per week) get off at Guildford and walk up to her house.  It would take a little longer  - perhaps 40 minutes instead of 25 – but I could read, or relax, on the 15-20 minute train journey.
So why don’t I?  And why do I get irritated about driving?  In either of those respects I am far from alone – I see impatient or aggressive driver behaviour in others every day.  There is probably some psychological research on it, no doubt involving cramming more and more rats into the same small cage.  I see people making car journeys when alternatives would be barely less convenient and certainly cheaper, especially if as so often you have bought the ticket already.
I don’t know, but thinking about my car journey and my impatience and frustration with it, I can’t help thinking of that other famous saying of Robert Louis Stevenson:
"Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Why do I cycle to the shops?

The 2011 census figures revealed a significant variation in cycling modal share across the UK.  The average was a miserable 2% or so, and obviously the share was even lower in many places – that is after all the implication of an average value – while some municipalities stand out as having quite a healthy share.  Cambridge, York, Oxford, Gosport (where?  I hear you ask), Hackney, Bristol have double figure percentages of those who travel to work using a bicycle for that journey.

But the Census only reports commuter journeys.  It has no information on other utility cycling journeys – to school for example, or to the shops, pub, cinema or, dare I say, the gym.  If it did, I am sure the result would look pretty miserable, even in the places listed above.

This form of utility cycling is probably largely the preserve of the committed, those who are Making a Point, capital m, capital p. 

But I cycle to the shops, or at least at weekends when I am not at work our household shopping trips are done on two wheels.  Why?

Is it because it is good exercise, and I need the exercise?  Well, yes, I suppose that is a factor – I can feel virtuous about the fact that I am doing something to maintain my fitness, and I can feel clever about the fact that I am multi-tasking, doing two useful things with the same ration of precious time in a busy world.  Of course, I get the same smug feeling about using a bike as part of my travel to work, riding at either end of my train journey into Waterloo.

Is it because I am saving money by not consuming fuel and paying parking charges?  I suppose so – but I am fortunately not one of those whom the RAC Foundation describe as being in “transport poverty” spending 25% or more of their disposable incomes on motoring.  Note that the RAC is evidently pleased that Gorgeous Georgie has again frozen fuel duties, and promises to continue doing so until the next election, to help “the hard working (or is it hard-pressed?  I am never sure what is the difference) motorist”, but is apparently insensitive to the fact that for low-income people, non-fuel costs like insurance and maintenance still account for 70% of their motoring costs, while fuel duty accounts for perhaps 15%, and for more affluent motorists, driving newer more expensive cars, the influence of duty is even less.  No, luckily 80p for an hour’s parking down town makes no meaningful dent in my wallet.

Is it because I save on carbon emissions, greenhouse effect, NO2 (my car is a diesel so this is a factor) and carbon monoxide, not to mention congestion, noise pollution and potential road danger to others?  I guess – I certainly don’t mind the smug feeling I get from “saving the planet”.

However, the main reason I cycle to the shops is that it is easier, and quicker, than driving.

I live 1½ miles from our town centre, an ideal distance on a bike.  Thankfully, the route is reasonably quiet and safe.  The town centre is poorly endowed with cycle parking but as I am in a minority of not much more than one at the moment, it is adequate.

Driving however is a different ballgame altogether.  The small time advantage for getting there is totally lost hunting for a parking space, even if the road is not already jammed up by all those other motorists hunting for a parking space.  This especially can be a problem because in this prosperous town motorists would far sooner find an on-street space (free) than shell out 50-80p for an hour in one of the borough car parks.  In fact illegal parking on double yellow lines has got completely out of control, so that West St, one of the two principal shopping streets, is reduced to a single lane for two-way traffic.  The Surrey Fire Brigade has expressed concern to the council because this street is its principal route out of its fire station responding to emergencies. 

The congestion spreads, around the corner into the High Street which is also a main road, the A286.  Traffic regularly backs up behind cars wanting to turn into West St but unable to because oncoming traffic has obstructed them.

In the main car park, closest to the Waitrose supermarket, motorists regularly drive round and round, going the wrong way through a one-way system, hunting for a space to suddenly become available.  Just because it is about 50 metres closer to the supermarket exit than the other main car park.

I can load up a full weekend’s provisions for a family of four in two wire baskets hooked over my rear rack.  The baskets double as shopping baskets in the supermarket.  They can get quite heavy, which means I have to watch that the bike doesn’t do a wheelie before I set my weight in the saddle, and the gentle climb home feels steeper, but nothing I can’t manage.  I even get a 60p rebate from my bill, to compensate for the car park costs that I haven’t incurred!

Having become involved recently in our “Localism” project, I have been impressed to discover that many of my neighbours would like to do the same as me, if only they felt safe and comfortable doing so, and are arguing for speed reductions and dedicated infrastructure to make that possible.

Not much chance of that while fat c*nts like Eric Pickles move heaven and earth to remove all obstacles to “hard working people” driving a few hundred metres and parking on yellow lines to pick up a newspaper.

Thursday 12 September 2013

A helicopter saved my life

Before anyone starts, yes, I know, it should be “An helicopter saved..”

This morning, Evening Standard Columnist Ross Lydall tweeted this, with a link to the story:

I have included my rather flippant reply – the air ambulance may well have saved his life just as much as the helmet, so I think from now on I will arrange to have a chopper hover along behind me whenever I am out and about on my bike.

Seriously though, you should take a look at the story on the London Air Ambulance website.  Whether you regard helicopter emergency services as a cost-effective health offering or not, there is no question that the pilots and doctors who work for it are brave, dedicated and conscientious people, and in any case most of the cost is funded by public voluntary donations.
But look at the story.

I think it is entirely possible that Chrishan’s life was saved by his helmet – it does happen, from time to time, even if it is far less significant a factor than some people would have you believe.  What is far more interesting, and significant, though is why he needed a helmet to save his life in the first place.

(The Twitter timeline suggests that Ross Lydall is going to look into whether the cab driver was prosecuted for dangerous driving.)

Update - Ross has reported the incident in the Evening Standard and it does seem that the police are "considering" a prosecution of the minicab (sic) driver - although not until the new year which is nine months after the event!

When you open the webpage, you see summaries of another four case histories down the right hand margin.  Two of these involve falls, from a ladder and at school, but the other two also involve pedestrians run over by cars.

Firstly this

A speeding car
Then this

“Tragically hit by a car”.  Tragic indeed for Ms Bowler, who has suffered grieviously and has had a long and difficult rehabilitation.  The account on the Air Ambulance website however is a little vague about the circumstances of Ms Bowler’s misfortune.

So I did a little more digging, and came up with this from the Huffington Post.

“The car lost control, smashing through railings protecting a central pedestrian reservation”.  (Now, I could quibble with Ms Bowler’s analysis of this event – surely it was the driver who lost control, not the car, but this is her story, in her words, and she is the one who has suffered for it).

The rest of her article talks about her experiences with an underfunded health system letting her down with her rehabilitation, but she did at least manage to get help privately, paid for from an interim settlement by the driver’s insurers after she appointed a firm of personal injury solicitors to pursue a claim on her behalf.

What seems reasonably clear from all three stories, one involving a cyclist, another a pedestrian and the third a child, is that their misfortunes were visited on them by drivers.  Those drivers were driving personal transport vehicles (two cars and a taxi) in central London.  In two of those cases definitely, and probably in the third, the driver was wholly or mainly to blame for the incident.

A snapshot, sure, and not representative of London road casualties as a whole, where a disproportionate number of casualties involve HGVs, but it does beg the question why, when use of a private car in a large city centre such as London is entirely unnecessary and alternatives are always available, we actually permit the use of private cars here?

And, to ram home a favourite hobby horse of mine – I really don’t give a rat’s arse whether strict liability promotes cycling, interferes with progress on better pro-cycling measures such as physical separation, or is entirely neutral.  Kids like Liam, ladies like Kim and men like Chrishan should not be compelled to prove* that negligence on the part of a motorist has caused them damage or injury for which they are entitled to compensation.  In Kim Bowler’s case it certainly looks to me like a slam dunk, but the fact is that the insurers could, perhaps did, prevaricate, obfuscate and obstruct until the bitter end to evade their responsibilities.  We need strict liability, and we need it now.

* On a balance of probabilities, in civil Tort law.