Cycling Myths Debunked, part II

by Bill Oetinger
Column reprinted courtesy of BikeCal.com

A few years ago, I had one of those stupid run-ins with an irate motorist that are all too common on our otherwise peaceful rides. I was working my way slowly up a hill, well over onto the shoulder of the road, when a guy in an SUV pulls up behind me and lays all over his horn, then pulls alongside me and starts jawing at me through the open passenger window.

I should have let it go, but I yelled back, "I'm already in the gutter here...where do you want me to ride, off in the tall weeds?" Which is of course exactly what he did want: for me to get the hell off HIS road. He appeared so enraged that I finally just stopped, before he decided to use his vehicle to reinforce his argument. He eventually drove off, and I was left there, standing over the bike, fuming.

Then I noticed a man standing a few yards away. He'd been puttering in his front yard and had watched our little contretemps. And he says to me, "You know, I'd be a lot more sympathetic toward you cyclists if you paid registration fees to use the road, like the rest of us." I was so surprised at this barb that the only thing I could think to say was, "Listen, if paying a registration fee on my bike would stop jerks like that from hassling me, I'd be the first guy in line at the DMV!"

I wish I'd been able to respond with something really witty, or better yet, with some facts that would have refuted his assertion. But at the time, I wasn't all that clear myself on the details of that point. I wasn't entirely sure he wasn't right. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been delighted to disabuse him of his smug little notion...to debunk that particular myth.

Last month, I began a two-part series on debunking two commonly held myths about cyclists and their legitimacy as a part of the transportation mix. This is part two of the series. If you didn't read last month's column and want to digest this all in order, stop now and go read that column first. Part one dealt with one cycling myth and this column deals with the second one, to whit...

"Cyclists don't pay their own way on the road because they don't pay registration fees or other use fees such as gas taxes."

This opinion is frequently thrown in the face of cyclists, not only in roadside confrontations such as my little tiff, but in meetings of county supervisors and city staffs and others formulating transportation policy. What's more, it is an opinion accepted by many cyclists as true. In fact, not only is it not true, it isn't even close to being true. The real facts support a much different reality.

Many studies have been done in recent years on the subject of how much it costs to build and maintain our roads, and who pays the bills. The numbers I will cite below come from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, which has pulled together statistics from many of these studies. If you want a more in-depth analysis of this question than you'll get from my short column, you can crunch numbers til your eyes cross at their website: http://www.vtpi.org/whoserd.htm.

Briefly, here is the gist of the facts: studies estimate that motor vehicle users pay an average of 2.3 cents per mile in user charges such as gas taxes, registration fees, and tolls. However, they impose 6.5 cents per mile in road service costs. In contrast, cyclist impose road service costs averaging a miniscule 2/10ths of 1 cent per mile.

If I'm reading and understanding the studies correctly, this 6.5 cents per mile represents costs for infrastructure--roadway acquisition, design and construction of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc., and maintenance of same. I don't believe it covers other, associated costs such as law enforcement, emergency services, etc. Further--again, if I'm reading these studies correctly--the disparity between user fees and actual costs is even greater on local roads...the ones most commonly used by cyclists.

So, we have a shortfall of over 4 cents per mile in user fee revenues to cover the expenses of building and maintaining our roads. Where does the money come from to make up the difference? It comes from the general tax rolls: property, income, and sales taxes. All of us--cyclists and motorists alike--pay these taxes, so we're all contributing to the construction and upkeep of our roads, regardless of how much or how little we use them, or how much our particular vehicle imposes in costs on the system.

In fact, when you consider the extremely low costs associated with non-motorized travel, the case can be made that cyclists are actually paying way more than their fair share of road costs. Or to put it another way, if we're all sharing the burden of road expenses equally (on average), then those imposing lower costs on the system (cyclists) are in effect subsidizing those who impose greater costs (motorists). Consider further that the average cyclist logs many fewer bike miles per year than the average motorist logs in his car, so that the per-mile disparity is multiplied many times over by the difference in total miles on the road(s).

Bear in mind too, that although we might wish it to be otherwise, most of us who cycle a great deal still own a car, or live in a household with at least one car in the garage. I own a car, but because I work at home and ride a bike as much as possible, I only put about 3000 miles a year on it (less than half what I put on my bike), and yet I have to pay the same registration fee on that car as the fellow who logs 10,000 or 15,000 or more miles in his car. If you divide the registration fee by the number of miles, it's easy to see the full-time motorist is getting a much better deal than I am. Wouldn't it be nice if our registration fees could be pro-rated on the number of miles driven?

Finally, remember that these studies on road expenses are only dealing with dollars in federal, state, and county budgets. If you also consider the larger "costs" associated with motorized travel in terms of pollution, congestion, and accidents, and the dramatic relief in all those areas provided by switching to cycling, then the question of who is paying their fair share to use the roads is even more compelling. I'm not climbing up on a soapbox here to declare that all cars should be banned. I appreciate having and using my car when I need it. All I am trying to say is that cyclists should never have to be apologists for taking up their little bit of space on the side of the road. Aside from the fact that the Vehicle Code guarantees us the right to be there, we are more than paying our fair share of the price of admission, and don't ever let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

Bill can be reached at srcc@ap.net