Counterpoint: We don’t need no stinking bike tax

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Last week fellow streets.mn writer David Levinson made the case for a Bicycle Trust Fund based on a registration fee, sales tax, or some other means. There was some good discussion in the comment section, and I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise that users should pay for infrastructure. I fully support drivers paying for not only the full share of their direct infrastructure costs, but also mitigate congestion through tolling, better parking pricing, and the host of external costs not paid by drivers (ex. pollution). Similarly, I don’t advocate for free transit (though it’s a complicated discussion, as David has also written).

But in the case local streets, I disagree that a trust fund for bike infrastructure would be very productive. I’ll try to convince you why!

Background

You’ve probably seen similar posts in the past on urban- or bike-centered blogs and advocacy sites. I’m even cool enough to save you a Google search (or Bing, I won’t judge). They go something like this:

  1. Most cyclists (or families where kids ride) own cars and pay wheelage taxes, registration, license fees, etc.
  2. Cycling infrastructure is much cheaper to build and maintain than auto-oriented infrastructure, and bikes cause a very small fraction of wear and tear on roads
  3. Bikes have nearly no negative externalities relative to cars, which pollute, kill or severely injure many in collisions, and sometimes de-value nearby properties.
  4. Operating a bicycle is something a child can do.

These are all great points, and I want to unpack some Twin Cities-specific data to support the argument. But the last one is an important premise – riding a bike is more like walking than driving (or even using transit).

I barely remember learning to ride my bike. I certainly don’t remember learning to ride a tricycle. I was 15 when I was first legally allowed to drive (under parental supervision), and 16 for solo drives. Other countries require even more age & wisdom. It’s possible for kids as young as 6 to safely navigate through a city by bike to school in the Netherlands.  Along with the very low cost of entry ($60 gets you a preeeetty sweet ride), this makes me lump biking in the “basic mode of transportation” camp rather than something more complex andexpensive.

(It’s why I snarkily responded in the super-secret email chain that we don’t charge a sidewalk fee on shoes; why should we charge for bicycling?)

Who pays for our city streets?

Common argument: “Drivers pay user fees, that’s why streets and roads accommodate them.”

Great. Let’s be more specific. You may recall that our streets in Minneapolis fall underfunctional classifications and may be owned or designated as a state aid street or highway. But how does the share shake out?

Just about 60% of all the pavement in Minneapolis (not counting alleys) is owned, operated, and maintained by the city. Another 30% or so are CSAH and MSAS routes, of which only part of the expenses (fixing potholes, plowing, operating street lights, etc) comes from user fees. Hennepin County gets money for its state aid highways from the Highway Trust Fund, as does Minneapolis for municipal state aid streets.

Based on county & city budgets we know the total spend from both Public Works departments (not including parking) is around $69 million in 2014 for roads within Minneapolis. Those very same budget documents detail state aid amounts. Since MnDOT took in less in user fees than it spent (by about 8%), we know that the state contributed about $7.5 million to Minneapolis street spend. Finally, we can guesstimate Minneapolis’ resident contribution to the county’s wheelage tax: roughly 210,000 vehicles in the city at $10 per year is about $2.1 million. In total, users pay for $9.6 million, or only 14% of total transportation spending. This ignores the lost tax base from highways and freeways alone, which I estimated at $43 million for Minneapolis.

Pay attention the next time you drive around on a city street. What percent of the space between buildings is used for moving and parking cars? Is it more than 14%? Probably. That gap, the 86% difference, is basically all general fund. Minneapolis can, and should, use it to allocate spending and public right of way as they see fit to best serve its residents and businesses.

Facility costs, land-use opportunity costs

A very common counterargument is to point out how much less damage bikes do to road surface due to their weight, and damage scales exponentially with weight. That’s nice, but road costs to handle additional weight don’t scale exponentially. But that doesn’t mean a bike lane doesn’t still cost far less than a lane for cars:

Source: VPTI
One data point, there are many.

The city could turn lanes into cycle paths, move the same (or more!) number of people per hour, and actually save money doing it. It’s perplexing to ask a group of people who could lower the cost of government to pay for their infrastructure when the more expensive users are only covering 14% of the transportation budget through user fees. We know there’s a good chunk of Minneapolitans living within biking distance of their jobs (and, presumably shopping/entertainment/etc) who drive instead – 20-30% depending on your distance threshold. I’ve said it before, but this:

..is the basic level of infrastructure, and cyclists fit into that picture very nicely. Building streets (and their collectors/arterials/etc) for cars is the expensive part (please don’t take that statement as “ban cars from streets!!!”).

The last point I’ll hammer home is the opportunity cost in property taxes. Our current land-use intensity combined with lacking bike (and transit) infrastructure makes new development more difficult than it should be. Neighbors fear parking and congestion nightmares, parking minima prevent some lower development forms, and required travel demand management plans discourage infill thanks to years of catering to the automobile on city streets. There’s a non-zero opportunity cost associated with that, and I’m probably too lazy to give it a go. But somehow cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc manage to fit way more people and businesses per square mile without all traffic hell breaking loose. Better travel options means more development is possible without creating a car-congested nightmare, bringing more city revenue as a result (and adding to local accessibility in the process, a virtuous cycle).

Conclusion

It’s probably true that we could be clever and structure the fee to avoid charging for kids, mitigate the impacts to citizens with lower income, prevent racial profiling, and even reduce the cost of overseeing such a system to keep most of the revenues for building and not bureaucracy. (NOTE: I’m not dismissing these valid issues, just saying I agree we could probably mitigate them if we think hard enough.) But those aren’t necessarily reasons why charging bicyclists is a good idea, just that it isn’t a horrible one. We should pursue a strategy that uses our street space more efficiently, saves the city money while doing it, allows more development and tax base, with all the happy positive externalities. There’s just no need to charge cyclists in the process.

This post was written by Alex Cecchini and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 01/12/2015 - 12:05 pm.

    A agree bikes should pay a fee but your argument has lots

    holes. First let’s break bicycling down into two categories recreation and commuting.

    Let’s tackle commuting first and this is street commuting.

    First Bicycle commuters are a small part of the commuting picture 3.8% in Minneapolis
    http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=CF
    This is the second lowest commuting use for work with only commuting by cab being lower. This does not include children who bicycle to schools but that would require doing a separate survey.

    Based on that data there are probably more bike miles per user than there are miles of transit per user. But let us bend to the tyranny of the minority for a moment since bike lanes displace the major users it is doing just the opposite of what you had hoped it has slowed commuting times and extended the time a car is running and “polluting” Minneapolis air.

    Separate transit ways – which are also called trails are good but not covered by the funding sources you have identified. They are generally funded through recreational add-ons to roads that allow it or through trail funding not the funding you are analyzing here. And let’s note that you often require separate facilities from walkers because you don’t travel at the same speed.

    You are a minority user (many of whom have bragged they don’t have a car) and as such should pay because you are asking for special facilities that don’t benefit the majority.

    For that reason alone you should have and be proud to pay a fee of some sort of nominal. Just like fishing licenses people under 16 are exempt.

    So I agree pay a fee then use your weight with the fee beneficiary to focus efforts for what you need.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 01/12/2015 - 02:31 pm.

      I’m not sure any of your points show holes

      1) I never claimed bicycle commuting to be a high percentage of total trips. It’s low because we have such subpar cycling infrastructure (it’s seen as too dangerous) and driving has been made extremely convenient (the time gap between modes is artificially high).

      2) Tyranny of the minority. A bike has not killed a pedestrian in Minneapolis since 1972. Also, car users were the minority in 1920, and the city/county/state were able to miraculously build a system exclusively for cars at great cost.

      3) Yes, I’m calling for strategic conversion of road capacity for cars (or in some instances removal of on-street parking or other uses in our right of way) to bike infrastructure. No, pollution would not increase. People would naturally shift modes. I linked to a previous article I wrote showing a vast number of people currently driving when biking or transit would be suitable alternatives. It’s why places like Amsterdam or NYC emit far less transportation-related pollution per capita.

      4) I specifically did not talk about park trails or grade-separated paths. I would be open to a funding source to build bike highways like the Midtown Greenway. Limited access highways for cars are funded in majority by user fees. This would be equivalent. As I point out, though, once a car gets onto a city street network, user fees cover only 14% of the public works costs. Why should that 86% remaining continue to subsidize expensive infrastructure for moving cars when the exact same amount of right of way can move more cyclists for less money (all of which comes from the general fund). If you are advocating bike users should pay for their own local, on-street infrastructure, do you also advocate cities charge drivers money to drive on their streets?

      5) Most people who own/use bikes also own cars, at least in Minneapolis. They also pay property taxes (again, that pay for 86% of street costs).

      6) Special facilities do benefit the majority. Cycle tracks and other bike infrastructure has proven to reduce auto collision rates (lowering insurance rates), calm traffic, increase overall public health (lowering aggregate health insurance), and it costs less to build/maintain (lowering city-wide property tax burden). We know cold places can have high bike mode shares (like Oulu, Finland, which is every bit as cold/snowy as here and has 22% average annual bike mode share).

      Again, a city that is built around walking and biking, supplemented by transit, that *accommodates* car travel costs a heck of a lot less than the current system where car travel is the expected norm.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 01/12/2015 - 12:20 pm.

    Nice Article

    Alex, you make some excellent points. I’ve often told people who advocate for a bicycle fee that if one is indeed implemented, it should be in proportion to the wear and tear a bike has on a road. Needless to say, that would be negligible as roads are made to a standard that can handle 2000 pound cars. Compared to that, a 200 pound biker is nothing.

    Not to mention the cost of setting up infrastructure to collect those fees. Do you issue a bike a license tab like a car? Then you also need someone to check all the bikes and ticket ones that don’t have a license. Or do you tack a tax onto bike sales. That’s easy enough to do for new bikes, but what about used bikes that are sold through eBay or Craiglist? How are you going to track and collect for those sales?

    Plus there’s the whole premise that some people want smaller and less intrusive government. How would they react to adding to the government and making it more intrusive?

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 01/12/2015 - 01:34 pm.

    what poor infrastructure?

    I question the premise that twin cities cycling infrastructure is particularly deficient. It’s actually pretty good in my opinion (I rode 4000 commuting miles in 2014). So what problem are we trying to solve here? In addition, if you look forward at plans for upcoming improvements, we’re actually making pretty good progress.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 01/12/2015 - 01:53 pm.

      Well..

      We’ve got some really great pieces in place. The Midtown+Dinkytown Greenways (arguably the best bike infra in the country), park trails linking to major population centers, and the start to some on-street facilities that’s more than just paint on pavement. Advocacy groups and city leaders have done a wonderful job getting us this far. And there are some good additions on the way (notably, the Washington Ave cycle tracks).

      But Minneapolis wouldn’t rank in the top 25 bicycling cities over in Europe. Very few non-white males aged 20-40 are willing to head out on our streets. Much of our infrastructure is door-zone bike lanes or sharrows. Our streets are still designed to accommodate 35 mph+ cars. There are huge gaps in many neighborhoods. As a result, we still see sub-4% commute mode share. I agree with David Levinson (who called for the trust fund) – this isn’t “success.” For me, anecdotally, I’ll consider it a success when my wife is willing to bike anywhere but on a park trail with our ~1 yr old son in tow.

      • Submitted by Brian Simon on 01/12/2015 - 02:28 pm.

        time frame / incentives

        In comparison to Europe, 1) automobile ownership is lower & costs are higher, from fuel to licensing to acquisition. 2) they have been promoting cycling as viable transit for far longer. It will take time to get there.

        As far as changing behavior here, as long as driving is cheaper & faster, adding bike paths will only nudge ridership by small numbers. I’m not arguing against bike paths; improving the perception of safety will certainly remove barriers for novice cyclists. But paths alone will not significantly boost ridership until personal driving falls in convenience (like in europe).

        It remains unclear to me what problem this trust fund will solve.

        • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 01/12/2015 - 04:16 pm.

          I’m not..

          advocating for a trust fund for local street bike infra. I think that it should be viewed as a cost-saving measure for cities that happens to allow greater development densities by nature of spatial efficiencies (bikes are easier/cheaper to park in large numbers, 11′ of roadway moves way more bikes than cars, etc etc).

          City leaders need to lose the fear of slowing down driving via cycling (or transit, or walking) infrastructure. That’s one part of your discussion (convenience of the car relative to other modes). Minneapolis is blessed with many neighborhoods that have amenities within short distances and the physical template (or bones) to modify or intensify uses to add even more amenities. Mpls doesn’t really have the power to make owning/operating a car more expensive, except for parking policy. On-street spaces in “parking-crunched” neighborhoods should be metered, and downtown parking ramps owned by the city can/should charge higher rates. Other than that, registration/gas taxes/etc are out of the city’s hands.

  4. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 01/13/2015 - 08:48 am.

    Agree with the headline, but…

    I think you miss the point that America has always had, and always will, have a love affair with their cars and the costs of adding bike lanes will be much more than you think. People love their cars because people really like to be able to go wherever they want to go, whenever they want, and be in something that is protective from other people and the elements. So the behavior change is not going to happen.
    Also, most of the bike lanes used until recently are unused rail lines or in parkland paid by parks. The only places to make more bike lanes are on existing roads. You either have to pay for maintenance along with the existing road or acquire land for new bike ways. No longer cheap propositions.
    Like you state, user fees are good but it’s not always needed. We have a government that places government dependency above anything else. So nice things like bike ways and other transportation takes a lower priority to the elected. Some of these things could easily be funded without a specialized bike fee if our current (and past) government got real about what is good for our state rather than bloat programs in return for votes.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 01/13/2015 - 02:30 pm.

      Thanks for the comment

      I’ll contend that the country’s love affair with cars wasn’t always so (A little background http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/when-pedestrians-ruled-streets-180953396/?no-ist)

      Besides, even in the most bike/walk/transit friendly places in the developed world, car usage still hovers around 40-60% of all trips (depending on location, relation to city core, etc). Such places include cities in car-loving Germany. I’m not disputing any of the advantages cars bring that you cite, but keep in mind many of them are only significant because distances between destinations (home, work, daycare, shopping, etc) are further than they are in other places BECAUSE we changed our land uses and transportation networks so dramatically to accommodate cars.

      Also, there’s still plenty of cheap bike infrastructure to be had. Taking space away from vehicles (in some cases) is the way to do it. As I’ve repeated over and over, this actually saves the city money if done the next time a street is reconstructed (less capital cost to replace with a bikeway than pavement for vehicles) and less maintenance costs over time. Building safe, effective bike facilities simply requires better governance, not necessarily more money (though some facilities might require small amounts up front).

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 01/13/2015 - 05:42 pm.

      Freedom!

      While I appreciate the flexibility that comes with cars and their ability to drive long distances and haul a lot of stuff, I have to say when I think of freedom I think of bicycles. Usually when kids get their first independent mode of transportation it’s not a car when they’re 16, but more likely a bike when they’re 8. For me that meant the freedom to run off to a friend’s house that wasn’t in walking distance, independent from the parental shuttle service. Or I could ride out to the lake or woods on a whim with a snack for lunch and still be home in plenty of time for dinner.

      Now that I’m middle aged, the bike means freedom from getting stuck in traffic on my way to and from work. Given those constraints, it’s usually faster to take the bike to work than the car as traffic down 394 can be horrendous. This summer I’m going to work out a system for getting groceries back from the store. The distance isn’t long, so it doesn’t make sense to fire up the car when you’re only going a couple of miles.

      I’m not saying my experience is universal–there are people who need to drive a car always for work and errands. But at the same time let’s see if we can develop a system whereby people can get around town without having to drive if they so choose. That means fewer cars on the road, less pollution, and more parking for the people who do have to drive.

  5. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 01/16/2015 - 08:28 am.

    I ride….

    my bike for recreation and fitness. I would never consider riding to work because of the dangerous neighborhoods I would be riding through. As was stated earlier many cyclists already pay property taxes, auto registration fees ($$$) gasoline taxes, income taxes, sales taxes, etc.. Enough is enough!!!

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