Let’s start by pointing out a fact that some motorists don’t always understand: vehicle excise duty – ‘road tax’ – goes straight into central government coffers and isn’t set aside to pay directly for our roads.

Nonetheless, VED does raise a lot of revenue for the government. And although cyclists ride bikes, most of us also drive cars and hence pay VED too. So when it comes to the state of British roads and wondering where all that money goes, cyclists have just as much right – and often more natural aptitude – to moan as anyone.

Because most road maintenance money is filtered through regional authorities it is incredibly difficult to come up with complete figures. However, piecing different reports together can give us some clue.

According to the Asphalt Industry Alliance’s (AIA) brand new 2011 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) report, the total amount allocated to road maintenance in England and Wales was £2.9 billion. This doesn’t include the money spent in Scotland and Northern Ireland, or funds used for building new roads.

Taking those extra figures into account as well, the total spend on British roads would come to around £7-8 billion – certainly more than the annual national income from VED, which in 2008/2009 was £5.441 billion. So far, so good in terms of the deal for road users.

However, the story doesn’t end there. What about the extra tax income generated by fuel duty? (OK, with our cycling cap on we can’t really claim a piece of this pie, but let’s be indignant on the motorists’ behalf.) That alone generates a whopping £24.615 billion – the overwhelming majority of which will never be used to pay for a pothole repair or a spot of sympathetic resurfacing. Then there’s the money that comes from VAT on cars and bikes, accessories, etc.

Road investment spending graphic 2011

No quarter
In all, it is estimated that the total benefit to the exchequer from road transport is in excess of £40 billion. But less than a quarter of this is put back into road infrastructure.

Of course that might be just how any typical country balances its books. To find out we decided to look at how road expenditure in the UK compared to that of other nations. Using figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) we discovered that in comparative terms the UK spends a smaller proportion of its gross domestic product on its roads than every equivalent European country (see chart opposite).

Not only is this incredibly frustrating, especially when your ride is ruined by endless potholes, but underinvestment in roads also makes poor economic sense.

A figure of £4.1 billion has been mentioned in terms of the total annual damage done to the national economy through poor road maintenance. And another recent report commissioned by the AIA – ‘The Economic Impact of Local Road Condition’ – has stated the annual cost of poor roads to an average UK business is £13,600.

As part of that same AIA report the researchers also asked respondents about cycling. Over half those questioned (54 per cent) said they thought the general quality of roads wasn’t safe enough for cyclists to use, quite apart from the threat of other vehicles or road dangers.

And almost one quarter of people who said they rarely cycle also stated that they would ride more if roads were better maintained. Extrapolated, this would equate to a further 19 per cent of the population riding their bikes.

That last statistic provides one simple message: if the roads were better maintained, more people would cycle.

What do you think of our roads? Email cycling@ipcmedia.com

This article originally appeared in the May 5 2011 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine

  • hoallinvadant
  • Cotter Pin

    Roads in Hampshire and Surrey where I live are appalling. But I would like to point out there has not been road tax since something like 1934, when it was changed to Car Tax

  • MAB

    I’m shocked to see that Belgium spends more on roads than the UK. I don’t know where they spend the money if it is the case as the roads are truly terrible!! Where the roads do get repaired, they are often patched roughly with some tarmac that leaves a raised filling of a slightly smaller hole…..it certainly improves the hadling skills!

  • Hedley Thorne

    I have a 44 mile round commute through the Oxfordshire countryside. The potholes are so bad (particularly around Henley area) that I am forced to use the car in the darker months; I am mainly a road cyclist but even a sturdy MTB would easily be toppled by one of these craters.

  • Rob Taylor

    I live in Harlow, Essex and have to say the roads around our town and estates are appaling, deep pot holes, ruts in the road and where they do repair them they make such a hash of it the tarmac soon comes out.
    My drive into work is over the border into Hertfordshire, Hoddesdon to be exact and again the roads there are grim to the point of being dangerous, cars having to avoid the potholes on one stretch of the busy industrial area by driving on the wrong side of the road, cyclists and morotcyclists stand a very good chance of being injured of even killed if they were to hit some of these holes at speed. As a cyclist I would love to be able to ride the 5.5miles to work but fear the worst on these roads, as a motorist I have already had to replace 3 broken road springs on my car. As an aside its always worth making a claim against the local authority for broken springs if you can identify where it happened, takes a while but you should get your money back. The local authorities dont seem to car, its probably more cost effective for them to ignore the holes and pay out compensation to those drivers who do bother to make a claim.
    I have noticed that yellow or white lines around a pothole , some the size of suitcases means that the authority are aware and can therefore ignore it for some time, cant help wondering what would happen if a serious accident were to happen caused by the hole and they were already aware…surely the health and safety exec would be more than interested….they might take more notice then.

  • mcrmc

    keep ’em as they are. British riders will then have the advantage at Paris-Roubaix. What they call pave, we call standard.

  • Graham Clark

    To be fair, there is quite a lot of resurfacing going on round here (Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire borders). I just wonder how they target the roads that they resurface. I have an 11 – 12 mile commute (depending on which route I take). Recently one very small, infrequently used and generally well surfaced road that I use was closed for 2 weeks for a complete resurface over a 1/2 – 3/4 mile stretch. It’s very nice and smooth now. However the next road I use is much busier and has some quite unpleasant potholes, ridges and troughs that you wouldn’t want to get your wheels in. They’ve resurfaced that too, but all they’ve done is put down some tar and dumped a load of chippings over it. Now it’s settled down a bit, all the holes are still there, allbeit with a few chippings in them. The worst road on my route with a great string of deep holes and gullies just hasn’t been touched. Someone came and drew some nice yellow lines round them months ago, but that’s it. I just can’t see any logic in the process.