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There's also the fact that many cyclists are also drivers. They're paying user fees already. They're just using their bikes instead of cars.

Yes, but a small tax on bicycle parts and maintenance would go a long way in shutting down this oft-repeated criticism of installing bicycle infrastructure. In many ways, I think it would legitimize cycling as a viable form of transportation in the eyes of the motorized public. It would be great to be able to say that a bike tax provided $x million to local road infrastructure improvements, which is $y million more than user fees generated by motorists for the same local roads.

Cyclists, in general, use local roads that are more likely to be funded by general tax funds (as opposed to highways that are paid for by gas taxes).

I would go further and say that the federal gas tax goes primarily to pay for interstates and national highways, and cyclists are often (but not always) prohibited from using them.

The letter linked to is a "Standard Response" two-for, claiming motorists pay for roads and calling for registration of bicycles and licensing of cyclists. The real challenge: how do we get the Post to stop printing ignorant anti-cyclist letters? Should we start a public-awareness campaign with the Ombudman?

Yes, but a small tax on bicycle parts and maintenance would go a long way in shutting down this oft-repeated criticism of installing bicycle infrastructure.

Yes, we could make it 5.25%, the same as the rate on the sale of automobiles. Oh wait, that already exists -- it's called the DC general sales tax.

Also, transportation funding from gas taxes, both federal and state, flows disproportionately to suburban and rural areas, where car use is the dominant mode, rather than urban areas, where greater road spending would be used by the greater share of bicycle trips. See Robert Puentes' research on the topic, http://www.brookings.edu/experts/puentesr.aspx

Another great post!

You might want to consider highlighting a bit more that all non-motorists (not just cyclists) subsidize roads. It's not that you don't say this, it's just that the whole car-v-bike discourse sometimes obscures the fact that there aren't just 2 modes, or 2 mutually exclusive kinds of people. Since you're writing this as 'a standard response', it's likely that whatever it's a response to will be part of that discourse.

Also, I think a lot of people don't immediately get the free parking issue. Maybe adding that you mean "free or subsidized ON STREET parking" would make clearer that this is a giveaway of public space to motorists?

Paying a small bike tax will not shut down the criticism. It will just change to "you are not paying enough", or "only bike tax money should be used for infrastructure used by bikes". Of course the small bike tax will not begin to cover that. If we pay more, then the motorists have had their way.

Why would you want to tax the mode that you are trying to encourage, given that bikes replacing cars on the roads reduces road maintenance costs?

Big question: how would a tax on bicyclists even be enacted? Gas taxes work for cars because cars need gas. Bikes need... occasional maintenance?

IF i had to pay (more) into the system, I would prefer a system where the revenue went to my local government, who could use my funds, their funds, and other private revenue to leverage a new category of competitive Federal funds provided at a 90% match (just like the interstate system), to fund extraordinary bike projects (large scale parking, bike highways, ped/bike bridges, bikesharing, etc).

Projects would have to be innovative, promise to produce dramatic change in a community, complement/enhance an existing bike network (or substantially establish one), and the government proposing would be judged on past and future demonstrated investment in bike facilities in the existing transportation fund categories.

Motorboats need gas, too. So the taxes paid to power a boat subsidize roads. Can we drive motorboats on public roads?? Sure, one could trailer a boat on a public road. Oh, wait. I frequently carry my bikes on the back of my truck on public roads. Darn.

@JTS:

Except the reality is that any tiny tax on bicycle parts/maintenance wouldn't even begin to come close to the amount that the gas tax raises. The bicycle industry was a $5.6 billion industry in 2009, and drivers spent $55.7 billion in gas taxes in the first quarter 2010.

So if we do some really generous math in favor of bicycles (let's say the spending on maintenance is equal to the spending on bikes/parts/accessories AND that there's a 10% bike tax on all of that) you come up with $1.12 billion in bike tax revenue, vs. $222.8 billion in gas tax revenue. You think less than one half of one percent of all gas tax revenue is spent on local roads that bikes use? I highly doubt it.

I'm not anti-bike. I don't own a car. So I'm not arguing that cars pay for the infrastructure they use - they certainly do not even come close. But the bike tax is a dumb idea because the revenue earned probably wouldn't even pay for the structure needed to collect the tax.

I should probably defend myself.

@twk:

You are answering your own question. Even if the criticism shifted in that direction, the argument goes from being, "we're paying and you aren't" to "we're both paying, but you're not paying enough" which I believe is a better position to argue from. After all, motorists aren't paying enough either.

@another david

I think it could be a point of sale tax. Similar to the bag tax in DC and elsewhere. I think you could also tax rental bikes and bike share memberships and the like. However, this could also be (voluntarily or involuntarily) imposed on manufacturers, which would have the added benefit of reducing overhead costs for tax collectors and mitigating 'sticker shock' on the part of the consumer, who has already seen the tax offset by a marginally higher MSRP.

@darren:

agreed. I see this as a local issue above a federal one.

@MLD

I'm not disputing your figures. This is obviously the case. However, what you are forgetting is that states only spend about ~$5 billion collectively on bike ped projects.

So using your admittedly generous numbers, we've just increased funds available to bike projects by 20 percent. Or 50 percent if you assume that only half of that five billion goes to bike projects (I bet the actual figure is less than half). And the best part is that a bike tax produces a dedicated funding stream for these projects, meaning we don't have to worry about as many future projects getting shut down because some dickhead like Eric Cantor is calling the shots.

Either way, the best thing would not be a tax that attempts to cover all bike projects, but a small excise tax that at least demonstrates that cycling is a serious form of transportation.

I'm very much pro bike, and I am definitely anti-car. I understand that this can be viewed as a tool that ultimately creates a disincentive to optimum behavior. Fortunately, in urban areas where people rely on them and in areas like suburban DC, where lots of people ride expensive bikes recreationally, the demand for bikes and bike parts is elastic enough that its implementation would likely have a negligible effect on demand. What it comes down to, to me, is advocating for policy that makes bicycling look serious. A point of sale tax is a serious thing. It makes cycling look like more than a simply recreational activity. I hate to tell you, but the vast majority of American transportation planners, policy makers, and motorists still see bikes as a toys; or they see them as tools, but only in the hands of the poor.

We would not be the first place to impose a tax like this anyway. Bike friendly Colorado has one, as does the UK. Even Earl Blumenhuer likes it.

How is this a bad thing?

Some states are looking into a per mile tax to supplant the fuel tax. Depending on how that works, taxing bicycles might become feasible then. Presumably the rate would be much lower than for cars--it ought be possible to calculate a socially optimal rate that includes both road costs and pollution.

Not sure that non-drivers subsidize drivers, since mass transit is so heavily subsidized on a per-mile basis. Maybe more accurate to say that all motorized transportation is subsidized, the larger the motor, the greater the subsidy.

Navigation gets an even greater subsidy. Diesel fuel is tax exempt, and the navigation channels and jetties are funded from the general fund. Swimmers, by contrast, pay for beaches that cover the cost of life guards

anonymous in the above comment = JTS

If the people or advocate for cars feel put upon and don't like the current system they can move to Antarctica where the taxes are low and you don't subsidize anyone.

The proper response to the comment that cyclist's don't pay for the roads should be a big fat "So what". Kids don't pay for school and turkey's didn't vote for Thanksgiving.

Of course the we know that everyone pays for the roads, but, you will have a hard time convincing this unnamed person. Because we all know it's really Lon Anderson and logic doesn't work with him.

Note that the report, that motorists are subsidized by non-motorists, comes from Canda. Canadians pay a lot more in gas tax (av. 1/3) than US (currently av 1/5-1/6). So, how much more is the subsidy in the USA?

One thing we are overlooking as well is that the value of the land under the road often far exceeds the value of the few inches or so of paving that is the road -- particularly in urban areas. The usual measures of the cost of roads ignore the value of the land, and if you were to include them the costs of roads become much higher and the share borne by motorists much lower.

If you consider that on a typical urban street a quarter to a third of the area is set aside for the storage of motor vehicles -- parking -- and can't be used for any other purpose, it really is the motorists who are the free-loaders.

So what do the Amish pay in taxes to use their horse and buggies on the roads? They are also slow and non-motorized. They "stress" the roads more than a bike, but less than a car or truck.

Re tom, the point isn't "so what" although it is "so what", the problem is that drivers persist in believing that they pay the cost of roads in full. They don't.

I argue about this with people like Mike Dresser and even Robert Thomson (journalists for the Balt. Sun and Wash. Post respectively) and they won't make that point in their stories.

Then the issue gets diverted to bicyclists don't pay the cost of roads. But this isn't true, since roads are built for the most part with general funds.

But the other issue is about spatial optimality and the contribution diversion of trips to more efficient space utilization modes (walking, biking, transit) have on congestion and road use.

In places where walking and transit use is high, and where biking use is high as well (i.e., Montreal), there is tremendous positive impact on congestion reduction on local roads.

(Note that state gasoline excise taxes do pay for some portion of local roads and such fees are collected in all of the regional jurisdictions.)

I argue about this with people like Mike Dresser and even Robert Thomson (journalists for the Balt. Sun and Wash. Post respectively) and they won't make that point in their stories.

I have noticed as well that many "journalists" who cover transportation have no interest in making their readers better-informed, but prefer to reinforce their stereotypes.

One other point. We've had roads and non-motorized transportation for thousands of years, and got along fine. The rise of the auto necessitated wider roads with stronger roadbeds, so it would be reasonable for drivers to pay taxes for those better roads that they need. In fact, most gas taxes pay for the interstate system that does not allow bikes. But most local roads, where biking takes place, are paid by general taxes.

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