Why Bikes Pay A Fair Share.

A Chicago Alderman is currently proposing a $25/bike registration fee for all bikes in the City of Chicago.  Your kid wants to get a bike for Christmas?  Don’t forget that annual registration sticker.

The Chicago plan is notable for what it is: a pure grab for money.  Chicago has a hole in the budget, and is looking for a plug.  One Alderman believes that bikes could be that plug.  But for just a minute, let’s pretend that there was something more to this than just a money-grab.  Let’s pretend that someone tried to justify a tax on bikes to pay for the “cost” of bikes using public infrastructure.  There are people who claim that bikes are not legitimate road users because they don’t have to pay for license plates, and don’t pay tax on fuel use, etc.  There are a myriad of studies that have been done on these issues, and I’d encourage you to go out and do some research.  Here’s what I’ve come to understand, after much reading.

Bikes used as car replacements save society money from a transportation infrastructure perspective.

In Illinois, much of our road maintenance is paid for with motor-fuel tax, or MFT funds for short.  MFT funds, as the name implies, are gathered from a special tax levied on the sale of gasoline and diesel fuel for road use.  That said, nearly every municipality has to use other sources of revenue in addition to MFT to pay for their road use.  Many communities use their general taxes (sales tax, property tax, etc.) to make up the shortfall in MFT.  So we are subsidizing the use of roadways by cars, with general money from the public, to make roads functional.  Why don’t bikes pay a share, as well?

  1. Bikes do pay a share.  Bike owners are taxpayers as well, and they pay the sales tax, property tax, and other governmental charges that are used to supplement MFT.
  2. Bikes do not cause deterioration to roadways.  With an asphalt street, you can calculate how many trips a car or truck can take down the road and what the lifespan of the road will be based upon that traffic.  Cars and trucks break down roads and cause them to deteriorate.  Bikes, on the other hand, do not generate any palpable/measurable damage or wear to a properly constructed roadway.  A road will wither from the weather long before bike traffic will impact it.  (Some talk about deterioration and potholes on bike paths as evidence that bikes damage roads.  What deterioration on bike paths typically shows is that the bike paths were not constructed to the same standard as a road (did not use adequate gravel and asphalt), and deteriorated because the ground underneath did not properly support the asphalt).
  3. A bike used as a car replacement generates a positive impact.  As noted above, cars are not self-supporting; MFT taxes from fuel sales are inadequate to pay for road repair.  So with a car, you have a taxpayer who pays income tax, sales tax, property tax and MFT, and who drives a car that uses up all of the benefit of the MFT (by generating offsetting damage to roadways), and uses up part of the benefit of other taxes paid to offset damage to the roadways.  With a bike, you pay all of those taxes other than MFT, and don’t generate the damage to the roadways.  It’s a net positive impact.  We’re not just paying a fair share…we’re also paying to subsidize cars that don’t pay their own way.
  4. Bike infrastructure is far cheaper than road infrastructure.  Bike parking is amazingly cheap when compared to car parking.  Bike paths are amazingly cheap when compared to roads.  Bike bridges or tunnels are amazingly cheap when compared to grade-separated roadways.  Moreover, if you engage in smart design of public improvements, you can design a system where bike improvements are cleverly integrated into the overall transportation scheme, and where bike improvements don’t generate any significant additional expense.

Bikes used for any purpose have a positive societal impact.

Whether used for transportation or recreation, bikes used for any purpose have a positive impact on society.  Look at the amount of money that we spend on preventable medical issues that could be addressed through prophylactic measures such as….exercise.  The more people ride, or the more exercise they get in general, the less likely they are to have preventable medical issues such as the myriad of complications arising out of obesity (diabetes, coronary disease, etc.).  If our healthcare system didn’t have to spend as much money as it does treating preventable disease…think of what it could do, or how much less expensive it would be.  Or if we could refocus medical research from dealing with preventable disease and developing new statins into something like cancer research or ______________ (fill in the blank with your own currently incurable disease)…the possibilities are limitless.  Americans spend more than $20,000,000,000 a year on statin drugs for cholesterol on an annual basis.  That’s $64 per US Citizen, per year.  What if we could redirect that money?

It’s not just cycling that has a positive impact in this regard.  Running, walking, rollerblading–many things can have that impact.  Cycling is unique in that it can serve as car-replacement and generate that disproportionately positive impact as well.

The next time you talk to someone and they suggest that bikes aren’t paying a fair share, engage them.  Talk it through.  Educate.


5 thoughts on “Why Bikes Pay A Fair Share.

  1. Just got my annual bloodworm back a week or so ago. My cholesterol is the lowest it’s ever been (since it’s been being checked). I turned 46 this week and can say that I’m easily in the best health and shape of my life. Biking is a huge part of that (along with diet and other exersize).
    This bike tax is a joke and will never happen, or be able to be enforced!
    Thanks for the great column as usual Dean.


  2. Not to mention the cost of stormwater infrastructure required for the incredible amount of non-permeable surfaces roadways and parking lots add to an area (deep tunnel Chicago!). Nor that bikes don’t add to the air pollution. Nor that bikes aren’t responsible for deaths (804 car crash deaths in Illinois alone so far this year) except in extremely rare circumstances.

  3. I also wrote a post about this ridiculous proposal! I’m glad someone linked to yours from the Chainlink because now I found your blog — hello 🙂 I look forward to more of your posts!

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