In an April Community Voices opinion piece mostly focused on tax increment financing, authors Schultz and Mannillo made the argument that people who bike are somehow shirking their responsibility for street costs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This argument has a foundation as weak as many St. Paul street beds, with even more (pot)holes than Shepard Road.
Research shows it is actually drivers who don’t come close to paying for the cost of streets and people who bike significantly subsidize those who drive by several hundred dollars. Why is this? Most damage to our streets is caused by heavy vehicles driving on them, not just winter or freeze-thaw cycles. Cars are far bigger and heavier, so require not only more space and more robust materials, but cause the vast majority of damage to our streets. Sidewalks are often decades or even a century old and not filled with potholes, because winter alone is slow to create potholes and people walking aren’t damaging them. Similarly, a person biking causes virtually no damage to our streets.
Gas taxes alone do not come close to covering the cost of our streets and roads. Motor vehicle registration fees also cover some costs (a similar amount to state gas taxes in Minnesota). A person who owns a car but primarily rides a bike still pays the registration fee, which costs the same no matter how much they drive. So, by usually biking, they’re paying proportionately more of those costs.
How else do people biking subsidize those driving? Perhaps the largest is that the majority of street/road spending in Minnesota, especially at the city level, comes from general fund money, like property and income taxes which are paid by everyone, regardless of whether they drive or how little damage they cause to our streets.
Additionally, someone who rides a bike to a business is usually subsidizing those who drive, because car parking is extremely expensive. Surface parking generally costs $5,000-10,000 per spot, with underground/structured parking costing five to 10 times more. By comparison, installing good bike parking costs about $100/bike and takes up a tiny fraction of the space of car parking. That person biking pays the same price at the store though, which incorporates the overall cost of the business, including those expensive parking lots. The huge amount of space required for car parking also promotes low-value, low-tax-base land use. Comparing two nearby, similarly sized lots, the former Seestedt Carpet building in Lowertown to a surface parking lot across the street, the former brings in ten times the amount of property taxes.
Of course, in addition to the more direct subsidies that people riding bikes provide, giving more people the freedom to choose to bike has numerous other benefits and lower externalized costs than driving. These include more active lifestyles that lead to healthier people and lower healthcare costs; bikes are non-polluting, so going to the store doesn’t involve aggravating your neighbor’s asthma; quality bike infrastructure usually increases spending at nearby businesses; reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and the largest source of climate disrupting emissions and improved street safety for all users, reducing the number of people killed and injured on our roadways.
Overall, infrastructure for cars is extremely expensive. By comparison, infrastructure for people biking and walking costs a fraction of that for driving, because these forms of transportation are so much lighter and more space efficient. Currently, the majority of St. Paul’s bike infrastructure consists of painted bike lanes, which are basically free to install. These are most often added during the mill and overlay street repair process, where the top layer of asphalt is removed and repaved, with traffic markings repainted. Much of the remaining bike infrastructure, like recent off-street additions to the Grand Round or the Capital City Bikeway, has been funded by grants obtained through sources like the federal government. Such additions are usually done during necessary street reconstructions, minimizing their costs and often helping to obtain funding for the projects through multi-modal grants that wouldn’t otherwise be available to pay for the costs of these necessary reconstructions.
In all, there are many things that have contributed to the terrible state of our streets in St. Paul, but people riding bikes aren’t one of them. The reality is that the more people we can empower to choose cycling, the better our chances of actually getting better streets. To fix our streets, we need to take in more money or spend less. Since no one likes higher property taxes, the best way to achieve better streets is through having to spend less, which means giving people safe, accessible alternatives to the most expensive, damaging, dangerous and space-inefficient form of transportation – private cars.
Zack Mensinger rides a bike year-round for fun and function and is the current co-chair of the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition.