Atlantic Cities

Why a Bicycle Tax Might Not Be Pointless After All

Why a Bicycle Tax Might Not Be Pointless After All
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Last week Democrats in the Washington state legislature introduced a $10 billion transportation package with a number of revenue elements. According to the Seattle Times, the proposal increased the gas tax by 10 cents every five years until it reached nearly half a buck per gallon, created a "car-tab tax" for .7 percent of a car's value, and a $25 sales fee on bicycles that cost more than $500. The latter item was included as "a nod to motorists who complain that bicyclists don’t pay their fair share."

As one might expect, the reaction from bicycle bloggers was swift and sharp, with Streetsblog calling the bike tax "pointless." A number of strong counter-arguments were raised in the discussion. In explaining why the tax "simply makes no sense," the Seattle Bike Blog pointed to a study showing that riding actually saves local governments money. Cyclelicious noted the disproportionate nature of a bike tax compared to the excise tax on new vehicles purchases.

There are any number of reasons why a bike tax makes for poor public policy. For starters, the idea that bike riders don't pay for the road is rather hollow. The vast majority of riders also own cars, after all, and riding creates negligible wear and tear on the road. Bike infrastructure costs public money, especially if it's done right, but the bike tax wouldn't even pay for much of it — with the state's proposal expected to bring in only a reported $1 million over a decade.

The list doesn't end there. Small business owners stand to suffer from a tax on expensive bikes, as casual riders might be compelled to buy cheaper models at big retailers, or to purchase a bike on Craigslist and avoid the tax entirely. Implementing the new tax might end up costing more than it brings in. Last, but not least, there's the fear that permitting even a small tax would open the floodgates for more to come.

Still, with all that said, there is an inherent value to a bike tax like the one proposed in Washington as an important starting point in an inevitable discussion about sharing road costs. For decades a $4 excise tax in Colorado Springs has helped the city leverage federal matching grants. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a major proponent of livable cities, has said the riding community would be "better off" with a small fee.

Bike advocates aren't completely against it, either. The state representative who helped put together the package said that when she showed the bike tax to her "bike people," they didn't tell her to remove it. When Oregon was considering a bike tax, back in 2008, the Portland-based Bicycle Transportation Alliance actively supported the measure, according to the blog Bike Portland, as a political tool to show that riders are willing to do their part.

Rob Sadowsky, current executive director of the B.T.A., wasn't with the organization back in 2008, but he says that while he's often skeptical of bike fees, he also sees them as a chance to begin a dialogue with legislators about the best ways to achieve an equitable system of road funding.

"We would never sit there and say we outright oppose it," says Sadowsky. "We like to lead, here at B.T.A. with, 'Is this a door that's opening for us to have a conversation that's much bigger?'"

Case in point, says Sadowsky: last year a local lawmaker proposed a bill to ban the use of bike trailers for kids. Many members of the bike movement called the legislator and screamed and yelled. The B.T.A. approached him about opening a dialogue, and now he's interested in supporting one of the organization's proposals for lowering residential speed limits to improve rider safety.

"We wouldn't have had that opportunity if we went in and said, 'We hate this,'" he says.

Sadowsky says the B.T.A. has a number of criteria for what makes a successful bike fee proposal. Above all it has to be fair — not penalizing people of low incomes, or inviting racial profiling (as bike registration programs might do). Another important factor is what the bike community gets back in the deal. A bike tax that goes straight into road building is one thing, but a fee that funds theft prevention or rider safety programs would be much more compelling.

"What if that went to investing in the purchase of lights or helmets for underserved communities?" says Sadowsky. "If that's part of the deal, now we're starting to get excited."

In an ideal world, he says, communities would understand that more bikes on the road mean fewer cars on the road, which in turn means a great deal of maintenance savings. But while bike advocates "can easily rationalize how we pay our fair share of the road," the fact is it's hard to explain that position to a car-centric world in a brief window of time. For that reason, a reasonable bike fee can be seen as a small price to pay for silencing the critics.

"If [a fee] is what's necessary for the community, so be it, but I think we want to move to that situation where people are understanding the value of bicycling and what we bring," he says.

Top image:  tarasov/Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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