Sunday, September 16, 2007

From the P-I

Cyclists ride on roads their taxes pay for


When Dean Trier ("Cyclists need to soft-pedal their wants," Sept. 10) assures us that he has "nothing against bikes, bikers, bike clubs or bike trails," it's sort of like the fellow who assures you he's not a bigot, but then proceeds to tell you an ugly racist joke. Because for the rest of his guest column, Trier describes cyclists as "freeloading sponges" pushing "gimme-gimme-gimme agendas" and a string of similar pejoratives.

Well, Trier's entitled to his opinion about cyclists, but he isn't entitled to his own facts about them. And the contention that cyclists are "freeloaders" (a charge made frequently by bike-bashing P-I letter writers) is not only wrong-headed, it actually inverts reality on its head. The hard truth is that cyclists subsidize automobile drivers such as Dean Trier.

Trier, like a lot of misinformed folks, seems to believe the only road taxes we pay are motor vehicle licensing fees and fuel taxes. But the truth is that those fees largely pay for state and federal highways, and even then only a portion of them. The rest of the costs of those roadways are borne by all taxpayers generally, including bicyclists, through local, property and sales taxes. Local roads, where you find most cyclists, are another story altogether.

Indeed, most bicyclists in fact also own cars, so they're also paying the licensing fees and gas taxes as well. But by using their bikes in place of cars, the wear and tear (and subsequent maintenance costs) they inflict is exponentially less than that caused by cars and trucks.

A 1995 study titled "Whose Roads?" by cycling advocate Todd Litman laid all this out in detail. The study estimated that automobile users pay an average of 2.3 cents per mile in user fees, including fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, while they actually impose 6.5 cents per mile in road service costs. Who pays the difference? It's picked up by general taxes and property assessments. So while bicyclists pay an equal share of those taxes, they impose costs averaging only 0.2 cents per mile in road service costs.

The amount bicyclists overpay leaps out when you look at the costs of local roads, the roads cyclists use most. Litman found that only a third of the funds for their construction and maintenance comes from vehicle user charges; local property, income and sales taxes pay the rest. Automobile user fees contribute only about 1 cent per mile toward the costs of local roads but simultaneously impose costs more than six times that amount.

Perhaps it would further ease Trier's animus toward cyclists if he contemplated some of the other benefits they bring to the rest of the population:

  • They reduce congestion by taking cars off the road.
  • They reduce pollution and its associated costs.
  • They improve the general health of their users and drive down health care costs.
  • They reduce the use of gas and oil, reducing our dependency on Middle East oil for energy.

    Now, it is true that cycling advocates are becoming more aggressive in seeking to carve out their fair share of the city roadways. But there are a couple of reasons: (1) they've been much too passive in the past, and (2) there are many thousands more of us out there now.

    And despite what Trier might think, those are the "everyday cyclists" that he says he has nothing against.

  • David Neiwert is a Seattle-based author and freelance journalist.