Actually, cyclists do pay road taxes

I’ve written before about how the Cleveland area is generally pretty car crazy. I would argue that most people see driving as the status quo; any effort to challenge that by promoting alternative transportation modes is seen as an affront to the system and highly suspicious. If you don’t believe me, read the comments on any article at cleveland.com about bikes.

cyclists on detroit superior bridge

Cyclists ride across the Detroit-Superior Bridge during Cleveland Critical Mass in June 2013 (courtesy of Ivan Grieve & Cleveland Critical Mass.)

So as the city has taken some (albeit mediocre) efforts to become more bike-friendly and as cycling rates have increased – the 280% increase over the last decade was the highest for any metro area – drivers have gotten a bit testy. I have been honked at repeatedly, sworn at, buzzed by vehicles, had anti-gay slurs shouted at me, you name it. Fortunately no one has actually caused me any physical harm to this point (knock on wood). I know this is hardly unique to Cleveland – it certainly happened when I lived in DC as well – but it’s definitely par for the course here.

Enter the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC). The organization was created in 2011 as a 12-county effort to foster a more collaborative, sustainable approach to regional development. It received a $4.25 million grant from the federal government to support the effort.

Now whenever government agencies begin talking about regionalism, sustainable development, and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, the tin foil hat brigade that sees sprawl-based development and car-centric infrastructure as their God-given rights start to freak out. And so they start talking about socialism, Agenda 21, and how the UN’s black helicopters are just over the horizon. See Beverly Goldstein, the chairwoman of the Youth Outreach Committee of the Cuyahoga Valley Republicans:

NEOSCC intends to subject citizens of Northeast Ohio to 1) the elimination of individual rights, private property and local sovereignty through the blurring of political boundaries in order to redistribute local resources and revenues for the general use of the region as a whole…

These types of hyperbolic, patently absurd rants are nothing new and have occurred throughout the country at various times. But it’s worthwhile to note that they continue to plague the NEOSCC effort.

In August, the group released four potential scenarios of what Northeast Ohio could look like in 2040, based upon the economic growth and development models we follow. The “Trend” scenario – the status quo to which people like Ms. Goldstein so fervently cling – would ensure that the region loses 18 houses a day to abandonment, sees 3,000 miles of new roads built to support the ongoing sprawl, swallows an additional 31,000 acres of agricultural land, and has its expenditures outpace revenues by 33%. In all, a cheery proposition.

After publishing these scenarios, NEOSCC held a series of public workshops throughout the region to garner input on the way forward. Now, let me just say that workshop attendees (including me) were far from representative of the population. They were overwhelmingly white (88%), highly educated (three-quarters had at least a Bachelor’s degree), and affluent (nearly half had incomes above $75,000).

On the whole, most of the respondents seemed eager to work towards a more sustainable region. Many were concerned that, while the alternative scenarios seemed like good ideas, they would be difficult to achieve. And then there were the handful of people from the Agenda 21 set. My favorite response to the questions NEOSCC posed would have to be this answer to “What does your ideal community look like”:

1) Hands off my personal freedom, 2) Mix as the market allows, 3) Keep your bike out of my way. You don’t pay road taxes.

Ah yes, that argument against bikes. We should stay off the road because we don’t pay gas taxes or tolls. Of course, it’s completely untrue. The federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993; since this point, inflation and improved gas mileage have continued to chip away at its value. Adjusted for inflation, the current gas tax is at its lowest level since the mid-1980s and risks falling below the value when it was introduced in 1932.

nominal & inflation-adjusted gas tax

The value of the federal gas tax, in nominal and inflation-adjusted dollars, from 1932-2011. As you can see, while the nominal value has jumped, the inflation-adjusted value continues to drop (courtesy of Greater Greater Washington).

Moreover, user fees do not, in fact, cover the cost of road construction and maintenance. According to a report from the Tax Foundation, “user taxes and fees do not cover the costs of road spending in any state.”

In Ohio, which ranks 11th, user fees account for all of 58.7% of road costs. Alaska, which unsurprisingly is last, sees user fees make up just 19.9% of all road spending. The rest of this shortfall is covered by general funds, which – you guessed it – are borne by all taxpayers, including cyclists and those who don’t drive at all.

In effect, non-drivers and occasional drivers are subsidizing the cost of road maintenance for people who live in their cars. When you take into account the respective amount of space taken up by cars and bikes, along with the respective wear they put on roads, this subsidy becomes even larger.

This graphic shows the amount of space occupied by 60 people in cars, a bus, and on bikes. As you can see, cyclists and people utilizing transit occupy far less space on the roads (courtesy of the Press office of the City of Münster, Germany).

This graphic shows the amount of space occupied by 60 people in cars, a bus, and on bikes. As you can see, cyclists and people utilizing transit occupy far less space on the roads (courtesy of the Press office of the City of Münster, Germany).

Blogger Elly Blue has noted the discrepancy for people in Seattle.

The cost of road maintenance is averaged at 5.6 cents per mile per motor vehicle. Add the so-called external costs of parking (10 cents), crashes (8 cents), congestion (4 cents), and land costs and that’s another 28 cents per mile! Meanwhile, for slower, lighter, smaller bicycles, the externalities add up to one meager cent per mile.

The average driver travels 10,000 miles in town each year and contributes $324 in taxes and direct fees. The cost to the public, including direct costs and externalities, is a whopping $3,360.

On the opposite pole, someone who exclusively bikes may go 3,000 miles in a year, contribute $300 annually in taxes, and costs the public only $36, making for a profit of $264.

So the next time that you roll down your window and yell at a cyclist to get off your road, dear driver, please keep two things in mind.

  1. In many areas (e.g. downtown Cleveland), you are likely ordering that cyclist to violate the law by riding on the sidewalk, which may endanger pedestrians.
  2. You are essentially telling that cyclist that s/he cannot ride on the road that s/he is helping to pay for. In essence, you are trying to force that cyclist to continue subsidizing your driving habits, which is a form of transportation socialism. And we all know we can’t have that.
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