Thursday, February 21

Are Cyclists Freeloaders?

I came across a little comment on a Missoula blog from a fellow by the name of Hummer Jake:

"Bottom line: bicyclists don't pay, bicyclists don't count."

I've heard this line several times before. The idea seems to be that since cyclists (and pedestrians, I suppose) do not pay the gasoline surcharge tax and vehicle registration fees then they are not contributing their fair share to public roads. Therefor, they are really only freeloaders on roads that were built by and for motorists.

Where do I start with this?

Let's see how much bicyclists are really cheating the system. The Montana gas surcharge is $0.27 per gallon, and the federal rate is an additional $0.18 per gallon. My Toyota Corolla gives me about 30 miles per gallon, which means that I pay 1.5 cents for every mile of roadway I use. A Prius owner may only pay half as much as I do for the same roads, but I'll stick with my Corolla as benchmark.

Now, a bicycle doesn't require the same road costs that my Corolla does. Automobiles require wider lanes, at least a narrow shoulder, curbs, and some (publicly financed) parking, while bicycles really only need a 6' lane and minimal space for parking. That should cut the 1.5 cents that cyclists owe in half at least. And then there is the wear and tear factor. A good chunk of road costs are due to routine maintenance, such as fixing potholes and repaving. I'm sure we can all agree that bicycles have much less of an impact than my Corolla does. I'll be conservative and shave off another .25 cents per mile for bicycles, leaving us at .5 cents that cyclists should be paying.

But that's only the case if all funding for roads comes from user fees. This is nowhere near the truth of the matter. It's my understanding, based on conversations with a friend who works in the Helena tax office, that most of the gas tax funds are used for state and federal highways. Lower-volume local roads are paid for primarily out of property taxes. So, for example, my regular bike commute to work is almost entirely on residential roads, which I pay just as much as anyone else for. Why should cyclists have to pay for interstates and major highways? I believe it's illegal to ride on them, and nobody in their right mind would do so anyway.

But that's not all. As long as we are nitpicking about costs, we need to consider generalized social costs, what libertarians refer to as public goods. Because automobiles are more dangerous and expensive, they require more attention from local law enforcement. Police departments spend plenty of time enforcing traffic laws and responding to accidents. Perhaps cyclists should receive a tax rebate for alleviating some of this need. This is not to mention the fire department, which must also respond to vehicle accidents. Anyone who eats and sleeps in Missoula contributes to air pollution, but surely regular cyclists contribute marginally less than regular motorists. They should get a tax rebate for this too. And bicycles provide exercise, which helps alleviate the public health tax burden that we all pay. Certainly the millions of auto-related injuries each year are not great news for taxpayers. It's hard to know when to stop.

In the final analysis, as much as Hummer Jake may not want to admit it, bicyclists are the taxpayers who are actually subsidizing motorists. Fortunately, most folks are not too worried about accidentally paying a little to help somebody else out.


Seth said...

it's been shown that damage to pavement becomes exponentially higher with a linear increase in curb weight. Trucks and ice enact the most damage to pavement, not light cars and certainly not bikes. If cars were non existent, we could narrow roads to bike trails, widen sidewalks and auction off the excess Right-of-Way to help pay for their maintenance.

Daniel Nairn said...

You're right, Seth, that a bicycle infrastructure would be much cheaper. An so much land would be opened up for other uses.

I don't realistically see this happening anytime soon, but it's always good to imagine the possibilities!