Thursday, December 21, 2006

Paying Our Way

Our local fishwrapper, the Tallahassee Democrat ran a Letter to the Editor last Friday in which a local resident implied that bicyclists aren't paying their way. At the end of this post I include two excellent responses that ran in the paper this Wednesday. I'm going to take the opportunity to use the blog to fisk this letter and put to rest the ignorant argument that cyclists keep having to repudiate about paying their fair share for roads.

Here is the link to the letter along with the original text.

Bike riders should help pay for roads, too

It's all well and good to give up parking for the downtown area and put in bike lanes on every street in Tallahassee. But cyclists should be good citizens and pay their fair share of the road projects, have a license plate for the bike and get a license that shows they know the rules of the roads they're riding on and can be held liable for their actions.

I have no problem sharing the road with cyclists and would rather they have a safe environment to ride in, but they need to share the responsibility and expense of the improvements to the roads.


Let the fisking begin:

It's all well and good to give up parking for the downtown area and
put in bike lanes on every street in Tallahassee.

This claim is probably a reaction to the changes underway on Call Street, adjacent to Florida State University, a known destination for significant amounts of bicycle traffic. The plan accepted by the City Commission removes 33 parking space, leaves the 20 closest to downtown merchants and is part of a larger plan that opens a 980 space parking deck.

Bike lanes on every street? Hardly. The vast majority of streets in this city do not have bike lanes. Most neighborhood streets don't need them. Many arterials and collectors that should have them do not. While a list of streets with bike lanes would be rather long, it pales to the length of the list of arterials and collectors alone that should have them but don't. Hyperbole undermines credibility.

But cyclists should be good citizens and pay their fair share of the road projects,

This is the one that gets my hackles up. Let's be clear: Bicyclists and pedestrians and transit riders subsidize roadways for motorists. I say this based for starters on the common facts that local roads are built with local tax dollars that come from property tax and sales tax. State sales taxes pay for state roads, supplemented by federal money that originates as gas taxes. Interstates come from federal gas taxes. Bicycles are not allowed on interstates, so let's forget about those.

In their May 1990 paper, "Highway Subsidies and User Fee Diversions in Federal, State and Local Public Finance", Robert G. Hebert, Jr. and Richard T. Stasiak found by reviewing data from 1972 to 1987 found that during that time "the federal government provided a net subsidy to highways on the order of $20.3 billion." in the state of Florida. That is federal general fund taxes that were used for subsidizing highways. In 1987, the last year in the study, the amount was only $15 million.

The same study found that local governments in Florida during the same period subsidized roads with $107.7 billion in taxes unrelated to roads. Those taxes outweighed road-related revenues by 4 to 1 during that period. That dwindled to a 3 to 1 ratio in 1987 when it totaled $11.9 billion for the year.

A more thorough study, "The Going Rate: What It Really Costs To Drive" by James J. MacKenzie, Roger C. Dower and Donald D.T. Chen, of the World Resources Institute published in June of 1992 found that in 1989 the annual market costs not borne by drivers of driving in the United States was over $174 billion. That includes highway construction and repair, highway maintenance, highway services like police and fire, and the value of free parking. On top of that, they estimated the annual external costs not borne by drivers to be over $126 billion. That includes health costs of air pollution, reduction of CO2 emissions from cars, accidents, noise, and security costs for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and military expenditures.

While all of us benefit from having an efficient highway system to transport goods and people, the revenues to pay for that system come from many sources that are unrelated to automobiles.
have a license plate for the bike

Let's assume this is a good idea. What does it mean logistically? According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), whom bicyclists help fund with their federal income tax,
Despite the presence of almost one adult-size bicycle per household, on average only about 8 percent of adults report taking a bicycle trip in the last week.

According to 2003 Census data, we had over 111,278,000 households in America. That number has grown since then. That is an awful lot of data to manage and maintain. Someone has to pay for it. Taxes? User fees? Are you going to drive up the cost of buying a bike for a kid by the cost of data management for a giant licensure database? What is the benefit? So you can track bicycles? These are vehicles that range from very expensive to practically free to obtain. I see them cast out in trash piles every week. You really think we should license every one of them? Maybe just the ones for adults? Or just the 8% that BTS tells us have been ridden in the last week? Trying to figure out which ones to license just makes it a more complex problem.

We license automobiles because they are expensive and dangerous. If they are stolen they can be tracked. If they are used to kill or injure someone or cause damage, they can be traced back to a person. Bicycles are far cheaper and far less likely to cause damage. What is the compelling argument for licensing them?

and get a license that shows they know the rules of the roads they're riding on

Here he is talking about licensing the operator of the bicycle. Same logistical problem as licensing the bike. Same lack of a true benefit. How does it increase safety to anyone other than the bicycle operator to provide training? Bicyclists who screw up put themselves at risk and usually not anyone else.

The idea that licensure helps anyone know the rules of the roads they're riding on is laughable. I got my driver license in high school over 20 years ago. I spent one semester in driving class with an hour a week behind the wheel. I took a ten question multiple choice quiz and got three wrong, made four right turns, turned on the blinkers and wipers and parked in a diagonal space. Did that make me a safe driver?

and can be held liable for their actions.

Here is the payoff. The reason for licensing bicycles and bicyclists is so we can hold them liable. Liable for what? Property damage? Injury to persons? Criminal behavior? Traffic violations?

Let's start with property and injury. These are the things you get insured for when you drive a car. Many motorists have the attitude that if they have pay for insurance then so should everyone else on the road. I drove a motorcycle exclusively for three years. I paid about $50 a year in insurance. You know why it was so cheap? Because the insurance companies had figured out that motorcycles just don't do that much damage to cars or to people in cars. Yeah, they just don't incur that expense. They don't have the mass to cause much damage. My motorcycle probably weighed a few hundred pounds. My bicycle weighs about 30. That is an order of magnitude of difference of mass.

The fact is a bicyclist is more likely to incur damage than to cause it. The likelihood of a bicyclist injuring a motorist is practically nil. The ability to incur significant structural damage to a car is likewise almost zero and the impact of a bicycle is almost guaranteed to be localized to a single panel or possibly two. Insurance companies aren't concerned with property and injury liability from bicycles and they are the ones who would make money off of it, if it were a legitimate concern.

Criminal activity. Should we hold bicyclists liable for that any more than we hold pedestrians liable? You can commit a crime with or without a car, with or without a bike, with or without a skateboard. This is clearly a red herring. There is no reason why licensure has any impact on criminal activity.

This liability issue must be about traffic violations. It's a common attitude among motorists that bicyclists are flagrant violators of the law who always get away without punishment. Waaaaaaaaaaahhh!!!

Bicyclists break the law for the same reasons motorists break the law, they are trying to get somewhere quickly and conveniently. That's why motorists speed. That's why they run red lights. That's why they make illegal U-turns, don't use their turn signals, park in fire lanes to use the ATM, turn right on red without stopping completely, stop in crosswalks, block intersections and roll through stop signs. Every motorist breaks the law. When bicyclists do it, they stand out. They are more visible as a group. It's easy to cast the first stone at them.

Try this: pick a target group of vehicles. Blue sedans. White minivans. Jeeps. Watch for them on the road. Watch how often they break the law. Are they more likely to break the law than anybody else? Probably not, but you might convince yourself they are once you start to single them out.

Bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities on the road as the operators of other vehicles. They can be pulled over and ticketed for traffic violations just the same as motorists. They can be required to show identification and show up in court and pay fines just like motorists. None of that requires a license of any kind. A bicyclist or pedestrian or any person can be compelled to show ID to police and detained if they refuse. While Florida's "Stop and Identify" statute(F.S. 856.021(2)) relates primarily to loitering and suspicious activity, the 2004 Supreme Court ruling in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada makes it clear that refusing to provide identification causes more headaches than it solves.

When it comes to law enforcement, cops have way more laws to enforce than they ever possibly could. They have to prioritize. A lot of that prioritization works against bicyclist because the cops are not enforcing laws that would help prevent bad motorist behavior (passing too close, failure to yield). Some of that prioritization means that bicyclists are not likely to get pulled over. Protection is more important than nuisance correction. If motorists want to complain about how the law is enforced, they can take it up with the local police. Or better yet, go on a ride-along and see what higher priorities the local police really have.

Bicyclists aren't necessarily breaking the law as often as motorists think. Many motorists are ignorant of the law themselves. They see behavior they don't like and they assume it is illegal. Every motorist who wants to complain about bicycles needs to sit down and read the bicycle regulations in statute (F.S. 316.2065). Note the provisions in this statute for penalties for violations. Yeah, the law says bicyclists get tickets and fines and stuff. Motorists: educate yourselves.

Every bicyclist should also read the same statutes. Repeatedly.

I have no problem sharing the road with cyclists and would rather they have a safe environment to ride in, but they need to share the responsibility and expense of the improvements to the roads.

I love this little parting pleasantry to establish reasonableness. The author is saying "Hey, I'm not a bad guy. I don't hate bikes. We can all get along..." and then he shows how ignorant he is and shoots his credibility clean off.

I don't mean to pick on this particular guy. He obviously had strong enough feelings about this to write a letter to the local paper. Give him some credit for starting a dialog (though he won't return my emails). He's probably about average when it comes to what people don't know about how their taxes are spent. He is just one of millions of people who make the same wrong assumptions. He's just the straw man I needed to fire up the old rant machine and set the record straight on just how wrong, wrong, wrong this idea is that bicyclists don't pay their way.


Here are the response letters that ran on Wednesday in the Tallahassee Democrat

The majority of cyclists own vehicles, too

Re: "Bike riders should help pay for roads, too" (letters, Dec. 15).

Charles Wright would have a valid point, except that he left out a few things. Most cyclists also own cars and pay all the same taxes, fees and expenses as all other motor-vehicle owners. Anybody who decides to own a car also decides to pay these expenses for the privilege of driving. A significant amount of money used for road building, repair and maintenance also comes from the general fund. All taxpayers, including cyclists, pay taxes into this fund. Admittedly, I don't know what the tax situation is in Leon County, but down here in Wakulla County there also is a county road tax on all taxable merchandise.

He also left out a few things about bicycles when compared to motor vehicles. Bicycles don't contribute to air pollution, noise pollution, road wear or traffic congestion. Bicycles do not have the same potential for death and destruction if operated carelessly, negligently or irresponsibly. Cyclists tend to not contribute to litter problems to the extent that motorists do.

Cycling can help get America off foreign oil without the need for more domestic drilling. If everyone physically able in and around Tallahassee would commute by bike, Tallahassee's traffic problems would be solved overnight.

Cyclists do pay their fair share of road use taxes.

Cyclists' tax money pays for the roads

A myth continues. A letter writer says that bicyclists should help pay for roads. Bicyclists do pay for roads in this community. They pay sales tax and directly or indirectly pay property taxes, both of which are used to build and maintain roads. The majority of adult bicyclists are also motor-vehicle operators and pay the related motor-vehicle fees and taxes.

The sales tax on some bicycles in this town would actually amount to well over $150. In fact, analysts of transportation funding have found that motorists themselves are heavily subsidized. A large portion of the roads (including maintenance activities) supporting infrastructure and services in place for the motor vehicle are paid for with non-user fees. Examples are roadway capacity projects in Blueprint 2000 being funded with the sales tax and the abundance of free parking.

Actually nothing is "free"; someone pays the cost. The average cost of a surface parking lot stall is around $4,500, and the average cost of a parking spot in a parking garage is over $10,000. Motorists receive these benefits (subsidies) whereas pedestrians, transit users and bicyclists do not.
State Pedestrian/Bicycle Coordinator
FDOT Safety Office


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