5 ways the Opportunity Corridor is like Keystone XL

keystone xl protest
keystone xl protest

12,000 people rallied around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

Angie Schmidt has a post on Rust Wire that explores how all large development projects in Cleveland, including the so-called Opportunity Corridor, are framed through a “jobs” lens. It’s a good piece that’s well worth reading, but it got me thinking about the similarities between the Opportunity Corridor and the Keystone XL pipeline.

[For those of you who are unfamiliar with road projects in the city of Cleveland, the Opportunity Corridor is a proposed three-mile boulevard that would pass through some of the poorest neighborhoods on the East Side of Cleveland. The road would more readily connect I-490, a freeway that ends abruptly at East 55th Street, to University Circle, the heart of Cleveland’s biomedical and arts industries. The Ohio Department of Transportation calculates that the project will cost $331.3 million to complete, putting the cost per mile at an astounding $110.4 million.]

In the first post I ever wrote on this site, I examined the fight over Keystone XL according to social movement theory. Many of these insights are surprisingly relevant for the Opportunity Corridor discussion as well. So let’s explore a few of these similarities.

Bipartisan support from powerful decision makers

Keystone XL has enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle. Although the pipeline has become increasingly partisan in recent months, particularly as House Republicans have made it a cause célèbre in budget and debt ceiling negotiations, it has enjoyed broad support from powerful players. TransCanada’s main US lobbyist, Paul Elliot, was the national deputy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, while a majority of Democrats (54%) still favored the project as of last September.

Similarly, the Opportunity Corridor has enjoyed support from a wide array of political leaders in Ohio. Republican Governor John Kasich is, unsurprisingly, firmly behind the project, using it as a way to garner additional support in heavily Democratic Northeastern Ohio. But several Democratic lawmakers, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cuyahoga County Executive (and gubernatorial candidate) Ed FitzGerald. Possibly the project’s biggest booster has been the center-left Plain Dealer, whose editor is a co-chair of the panel backing construction.

No longer a done deal

As recently as 2011, most policymakers assumed that Keystone XL was an inevitability. More than 70% of “insiders” in an October 2011 National Journal poll said the project would get final approval before the end of that year.

But the insiders underestimated the opposition to Keystone, which coalesced in the summer of 2011. Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org, worked to build a coalition of environment, labor, and social justice organizations that has effectively stalled the project for almost three years.  The fact that President Obama has publicly dismissed many arguments that Keystone proponents have made demonstrates just how effective this organized action has been.

Likewise, a movement has begun to build in opposition to the Opportunity Corridor. Angie Schmidt has been a leader in this movement, and she formed Clevelanders for Transportation Equity last year as a focal point. While the project still seems fairly likely to go forward, it has not been without backlash. The GreenCityBlueLake Institute continues to question its utility, while residents of the “Forgotten Triangle” have begun to speak out against the impact the project will have upon them.

Social and environmental costs

Thirdly, both projects would carry clear social and environmental consequences for populations that are politically, socioeconomically, and ecologically vulnerable.

Poor, marginalized communities of color live along both ends of Keystone XL. The pipeline begins in the tar sands fields of northern Alberta, where a number of First Nations tribes have lived along the Athabasca River for generations. This area has undergo dramatic changes in the past several years. Tar sands extraction has polluted the water extensively, and cancer rates in the region are 30% higher than average. At the other end of the proposed pipeline – Port Arthur, Texas – extensive pollution from oil refining creates severe health issues for residents who are overwhelmingly low-income persons of color. Children living in this area are 56% more likely to contract leukemia.

Likewise, the Opportunity Corridor is slated to run through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland. Five of the six affected neighborhoods have poverty rates higher than Cleveland’s 31.2% rate; in two of them, roughly two-thirds of residents live in poverty. The people living in these are also overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic and suffer from health outcomes more common in least developed countries than the United States.

minority populations opportunity corridor neighborhoods

The six neighborhoods affected by the proposed Opportunity Corridor are overwhelmingly home to persons of color (courtesy of ODOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement).

In 2008-2009, the asthma rates in this area stood at 15.6% (PDF), nearly double the national average (8%). In 2009, infant mortality rates in these neighborhoods were staggering, reaching as high as 69 deaths per 1,000 live births; that number is higher than the rates for Bangladesh, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of these health disparities are due, at least in part, to extremely high rates of air pollution. Even ODOT acknowledges that truck traffic will increase in these neighborhoods and will run at much higher speeds (approximately 45 mph), which may exacerbate these issues further.

Given the severe environmental health implications of these projects, it is unsurprising that the EPA has cast shade on the environmental impact statements done for both projects.

Symbols of a larger issue

Both projects are major symbols of the paradigms they represent. Keystone is part of our fossil fuel-driven economic model that is slowly destroying our climate with every ton of greenhouse gases emitted. The Opportunity Corridor, in turn, is a microcosm of Northeast Ohio’s obsession with the sprawl-based, car-centric development model. While stymieing either project would fail to topple the superstructures that they represent, it would be a symbolic victory that allows us to say we are not going to be blindly beholden to such models any more.

It’s all about jobs

Except when it isn’t. Rather than portraying these projects for what they are – a pipeline that will benefit Canadian oil companies and a large highway project that will supposedly reduce nonexistent congestion – proponents have framed them as jobs projects. And it’s certainly hard to argue with the need to invest in our infrastructure and provide employment opportunities to the hard-hit construction industry.

Keystone XL’s supporters have used industry-driven studies to claim that it would create tens of thousands of short-term construction jobs, along with thousands of permanent jobs in related industries. Opportunity Corridor backers have also claimed that it would create jobs for construction workers and help spark a manufacturing renaissance on the city’s Southeast side.

But the evidence suggests that these claims are overblown. If you really dig into the numbers, you find out that, not only are these projects unlikely to live up the hype, but fixing our existing infrastructure would actually create more jobs.

Economics for Equity and Environment and the Labor Network for Sustainability recently released a report that considered the economic impact of repairing our existing oil/gas and water pipelines, rather than building Keystone XL. It found that investing $18 billion to repair these pipelines would create more than 300,000 jobs. This amounts to five times as many jobs and 156% as many direct jobs per unit of investment as Keystone. This endeavor would both counter the fossil fuel behemoth and pay greater economic dividends; it’s a clear win-win.

In turn, it seems likely that spending the money allocated for the Opportunity Corridor to repair Cleveland’s existing roads would be far more beneficial. While no one has directly analyzed the economic impact of such a proposal, a 2009 study from the Political Economy Research Institute found that repairing existing roads creates 16% more jobs than expanding road infrastructure (PDF). Using their numbers – 17,472 jobs per $1 billion invested – would suggest that repairing Cleveland’s roads would create 6,890 jobs, compared to the 5,940 from building the Opportunity Corridor (interestingly, even proponents estimate it would only create 5,300 jobs).

Overall, the similarities between Keystone XL and the Opportunity Corridor are striking. So it makes sense that the two movements opposed to their construction are following similar, grassroots tactics. While it’s too early to say how either fight will end up, I encourage Opportunity Corridor opponents, who seem to have a steeper hill to climb, to take heart. Even if the road is eventually built, you now have an opportunity to start building a strong coalition to fight for sustainable development and transportation equity over the long haul.

Suburbs are terrible for the climate

carbon footprint map northeast ohio
carbon footprint map northeast ohio

Map of household carbon footprint intensity by zip code in Northeast Ohio (courtesy of the Cool Climate Network).

That’s the message of a new study from researchers at UC Berkeley. The research, which analyzes spatial differences in household carbon footprints (HCF) was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (paywall).

Unsurprisingly, the study finds that suburban areas have, on average, HCFs that are up to twice as large as the national average, which the authors place at 48.5 tons of CO2 per household. In dense urban centers, these numbers can be half the national average. On the whole, principal cities account for just 30% of total carbon emissions, while suburban areas account for 50% of emissions, despite having less than half of the total population. The significantly higher level of HCF in suburban areas, which reach above 85 tons of CO2 in certain areas, has the effect of offsetting many of the efficiency gains made by living in dense urban cores.

As Christopher Jones, a co-author of the study, notes:

“Metropolitan areas look like carbon footprint hurricanes, with dark green, low-carbon urban cores surrounded by red, high-carbon suburbs,” said Christopher Jones, a doctoral student working with Kammen in the Energy and Resources Group. “Unfortunately, while the most populous metropolitan areas tend to have the lowest carbon footprint centers, they also tend to have the most extensive high-carbon footprint suburbs.”

I decided to take a look at the variation of HCFs within Northeast Ohio. As expected, Cleveland and Akron both fit the model of a “carbon footprint hurricane,” as described by Jones. As the study notes, carbon emissions already start from a higher baseline in the Midwest due to the region’s heavy reliance upon coal for electricity generation (fortunately, in 2012, coal generation fell to 67% [PDF] of Ohio’s electricity generation from 85% in 2008).

HCF numbers stretch from lows of 21.1 tons and 26.5 tons in downtown Akron and Cleveland, respectively (numbers which are 57% and 45% below the national average), to highs of 75.4 tons in Hudson (155% of the average) and an astonishing 85.6 tons in uber-wealthy Gates Mills (176% of the average).

household carbon footprint for 44113

Household carbon footprint numbers for my home zip code, 44113

The two factors that ultimately supercharge HCF levels in Northeast Ohio’s suburbs are two of the central features of our sprawl-based development model – transportation and housing. In my neighborhood on Cleveland’s near West side (44113), housing – which includes emissions from electricity use – accounts for approximately 13 tons of carbon annually, while transportation generates just 7 tons.

Compare those numbers to 44139, the zip code for Solon, which saw its population increase by 9.56% from 2000 to 2010. In Solon, the average household generates 21 tons of CO2 from transportation and roughly 23 tons from housing.  Not to mention that the average HCF in the suburb is 95% higher than households in 44113.

household carbon footprint for 44139

Household carbon footprint numbers for Solon

As I’ve discussed before, sprawl has been at the heart of development throughout Northeast Ohio since at least the advent of the Interstate Highway System. Despite seeing its population grow by just 0.32% from 1948 to 2002, the amount of land developed in Cuyahoga County increased to 95% from just 26% during this period.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

As the population continued to spread out, vehicle miles traveled climbed, while public transportation utilization decreased apace. Annual ridership on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority plummeted from a high of 129,691,743 riders in 1980 to 44,680,000 in 2010 – a decrease of two-thirds in just 30 years. As a result, transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions (PDF) in Northeast Ohio.

These data clearly suggest that a suburban lifestyle is one of the leading drivers of carbon emissions in the US. Consistent with the fact that climate change is a massive environmental justice issue, the individuals in Northeast Ohio who generate the majority of carbon pollution are the least likely to endure the effects of climate change. Instead, as I’ve noted before, it is the poor, the elderly and infirmed, and persons of color living in urban areas – where carbon emissions are lowest – who will bear the greatest burden.

Unfortunately, Jones and Kammen also conclude that increasing population density is not the solution to this challenge. They find that increasing population density 10-fold only reduces HCF by one-quarter. Accordingly, they conclude that there is “no evidence for net [greenhouse gas] benefits of population density in urban cores or suburbs when considering effects on entire metropolitan areas.”

Instead, the authors argue that we need to increase energy efficiency in suburban areas by retrofitting homes, increasing penetration of electric vehicles, and expanding renewable energy generation. This suggests that urbanization is not a silver bullet to climate change, which is an important lesson to keep in mind as we move towards a world in which roughly 70% of people live in urban areas by 2050. We cannot afford to see US-style suburbanization expand into the developing world, or we may eliminate any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Cleveland’s parking policies are stuck in the 1960s

cleveland parking meters
cleveland parking meters

Parking meters in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

I never realized that the best way to treat a junkie was to pay for his next score.

Northeast Ohio’s addiction to free parking and the toll it has taken upon the region have been well documented. But apparently Cleveland City Council didn’t get the memo. Back in 2008, Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed introduced legislation that provides free meter parking for drivers in downtown Cleveland on Black Friday and the day after Christmas. Councilman Reed prominently displays the fact that he helped usher this legislation through Council on his website.

It’s worth noting that Garrett Hardin condemned this exact practice back in 1968 in “The Tragedy of the Commons”:

A simple incident that occurred a few years ago in Leominster, Massachusetts, shows how perishable the knowledge is. During the Christmas shopping season the parking meters downtown were covered with plastic bags that bore tags reading: “Do not open until after Christmas. Free parking courtesy of the mayor and city council.” In other words, facing the prospect of an increased demand for already scarce space, the city fathers reinstituted the system of the commons.

As if we needed further evidence that Cleveland’s transportation policies are stuck in reverse, our best parking strategies still haven’t caught up to the 1960s. So let’s explore why providing free street parking on Black Friday and December 26th is a terrible idea.

First, the economics of this idea make no sense. Depending on the location, parking meters charge roughly $1-1.50 per hour in downtown Cleveland. They generally carry a 2-hour maximum, meaning that shoppers will pay, at most, $2-3 to park. But people visiting Tower City Center, which houses nearly all of downtown’s retail businesses, can already park in the attached parking garage for $6.

tower city at christmas

Tower City Center, all lit up for Christmas (courtesy of All Things Cleveland Ohio).

But, smartly, Tower City ties the cost of parking to the amount that shoppers spend at its retailers. If a person spends $30, Tower City offers parking validation, which reduces the cost of parking to $2. And on Black Friday, if a person spends $100, Tower City will provide free parking and a $20 gift card. Effectively, rather than providing an incentive to people who have already spent money on retail, Councilman Reed and his colleagues are providing a parking incentive to people in the hope that they will spend money on retail. This is a terrible strategy.

I have no doubt that having to pay for parking keeps some people from coming downtown. But are people who base their shopping choices around whether or not they have to spend $2-3 to park their cars really likely to spend a lot of money on retail purchases? As Donald Shoup argued (PDF) when discussing parking fees for restaurants:

And who is likely to leave a bigger tip for the waiters in a restaurant? Drivers who are willing to pay for convenient curb parking if they can always find an open curb space? Or drivers who will come only if they can park free after circling the block a few times to find free parking?

Secondly, providing free on-street parking for retail businesses does not appear to increase actual retail purchases. When free parking is available, people who are not shopping may access it and those who are shopping will tend to remain parked for longer periods of time. Retail businesses depend upon customer turnover to increase their sales. Research from the Netherlands has demonstrated that higher prices for retail parking increases shopper turnover, which can lead to higher retail sales. Accordingly, Councilman Reed’s plan to increase retail sales may have the opposite effect.

Lastly, providing free parking creates an inequity issue for people who do not own a car. As I’ve noted before, more than one-quarter of Cleveland households lack access to a vehicle. Yet, because the cost of parking is already factored into the price of retail goods, these individuals will have to pay for the hidden cost of parking, despite the fact that they will not take advantage of it. Ohio’s transportation policies are already skewed heavily enough towards driving. The round-trip cost of taking public transportation to Tower City ($4.50 per person) is higher than the price for two hours of on-street parking. Requiring the City to pick up this tab only serves to widen the gap between drivers and non-drivers.

We’ve been told time and time again that downtown Cleveland is experiencing something of renaissance with more than $12 billion being invested in capital improvements. Residential occupancy rates have been above 95% for at least two years. The city and other organizations have spent vast sums of public and private money to attract businesses and tourists to downtown.

But let’s face it. We can either be experiencing a renaissance and revival of downtown, or we can be so desperate for one that we’re willing to pay people to park. We can’t have it both ways.

Free parking is terrible public policy

warehouse district surface parking

I don’t normally make a point to reply to letters to the editor in the Plain Dealer. To do so would be to write myself a one-way ticket down a slippery slope into the Valley of Derp. That said, this letter from Nancy Kosmin was so wrong-headed that it called for a response.

shoppers at cleveland flea

Shoppers explore two of the dozens of vendors at the September Cleveland Flea (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

In the letter, Ms. Kosmin lamented about how difficult it was for her and others to find parking on the streets around Sterle’s Country House. Sterle’s is home to the Cleveland Flea, a new monthly flea market that features food, drinks, clothing, and wares from a variety of Northeast Ohio vendors. Ms. Kosmin could not believe that there was limited parking on the narrow side streets around Sterle’s or that Cleveland Police had the audacity to ticket people parking on East 55th Street – despite the fact that it is illegal to park on East 55th.

I’ve written in the past about Cleveland’s car culture, but I’ve only touched briefly on the issue of parking here. If you thought people were obsessed with driving here, you’ve never spoken to them about parking. From epic battles over charging for parking at the famed West Side Market to entire articles published on which suburban mall parking lot is safest for your car, Clevelanders seem to think that free parking is a God-given right.

Of course, this love of free parking ignores the various externalities associated with the practice. Donald Shoup, an expert on the economics of parking and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has documented these impacts at length over the decades. Although 99% of all car trips include free parking and 95% of all automobile commuters park for free in the US, there is no such thing as “free” parking. As Shoup has written (PDF):

When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking…Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for “free” parking.

All this “free” parking carries serious costs. First, parking represents a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Free parking is a common-pool resource, and everyone has an incentive to exploit it. However, as with all commons, when every user consumes too much of it, it quickly becomes depleted. Because the free parking commons are typically exhausted, drivers often cruise around cities, searching for open spots.

Sixteen different studies from 1927-2001 have shown that drivers cruise for 8.1 minutes (PDF), on average, when looking for a parking spot; as a result, up to 30% of all traffic in downtown areas can be attributed to drivers searching for parking. In just a 15-block area in Los Angeles, this search for free curb parking led to 950,000 additional vehicles miles traveled, equivalent to four trips to the moon, 47,000 wasted gallons of gas, and 730 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (more than the cumulative GHG emissions of 49 countries in 2010).

Secondly, free parking constitutes a massive subsidy for drivers, promoting both excessive driving and sprawl-based development. In 2002, off-street parking received roughly $135-386 billion in subsidies; that same year, the US Government spent $231 billion on Medicare.

In 1997, Shoup estimated (PDF) that if a parking space that cost $124 per month was provided for free, the parking subsidy provided per mile driven was $0.27 per mile. In contrast, AAA estimated that the total cost of operating a car per mile was just $0.092 per mile. Accordingly, the subsidy provided by free parking is roughly 2.9 times greater than the cost of driving to work. This driving subsidy is greatest for shorter trips, helping to skew transportation choices away from walking, biking, and public transportation. Accordingly, “parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars.”

warehouse district surface parking

The massive surface parking lot once known as Cleveland’s Warehouse District, as seen from the Terminal Tower Observation Deck.

Thirdly, free parking and parking requirements drive up the cost of living and stymie redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods. As Professor Michael Manville has noted (PDF), forcing developers to include the cost of parking when building new housing units drives up the cost of development and becomes a barrier to investment. This crowding out effect should be greatest in areas where the cost of parking is high, where there is a large stock of older buildings, and where there is a large number of vacant buildings – in other words, the inner city.

Research from Brian Bertha in 1964 (PDF) showed that, when Oakland instituted parking requirements in 1961, construction costs increased by 18%, housing unit density fell 30%, and land values dropped by one-third. As a result, developers built larger, more expensive housing units, which negatively affected low-income residents. Manville’s work in LA supports these findings. He noted that condos without parking spaces cost $31,000 less than those with parking spaces.

Sterle’s is located in the 44103 zip code, an impoverished area. From 2007-2011, 44103 had a poverty rate of 34.5%, nearly one-quarter higher than for Cleveland as a whole. Moreover, while 26.7% all households in Cleveland lacked access to a vehicle, this number was 36.9% for households in 44103. Increasing the availability of free parking in this neighborhood may help a few visitors to the Cleveland Flea, but it would come at a high cost for residents of this neighborhood, who would face higher housing prices and even less development.

Furthermore, parking requirements have a sordid and racialized history in Northeast Ohio. In United States v. City of Parma (1980), the US District Court found that the City of Parma’s parking requirements had “the purpose and effect of severely restricting low-income housing opportunities in the City,” which “have been taken with the purpose and the effect of perpetuating a segregated community.” Bending over backwards for people driving into the city once a month would further play into these dynamics.

Call me crazy, but I had a completely different takeaway from this letter than Ms. Kosmin. Rather than seeing this episode as evidence of the plight of the poor suburban driver simply trying to exercise his/her God-given right to free parking, I see the Cleveland Flea as emblematic of the complete opposite. The event shows how parking lots can be more than just a cheap motel for your car. If utilized properly, they can actually serve as worthwhile public space that provides social, cultural, and economic value.

Actually, cyclists do pay road taxes

cyclists on detroit superior bridge

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.