The Vexation of Bike Taxation


I read a story in the Gazette via the KCRG web site about Tower Terrace Road, and commented on it because it mentioned bike commuting. I even wrote about it on my biker blog.

Then, some guy named Mark made an anti-biker, and, to my eyes, anti-grey-haired man comment. Clearly Mark is not shy about sharing his “wisdom,” since he’s a “top commentator” on the site, which says something a bit depressing.  Click on the picture to enlarge it to read our brief exchange, unless you saw it on the KCRG site already.

Selection of comments on KCRG site. My minor tussle with Mark.

Anyway, I’ll ignore the ageist Social Security reference. I’m not there yet, rude dude. Instead, I wanted to write about his vexation on taxation.

Should bikers pay taxes for the roads they use? As I noted in my response to Mark, I, like most bikers, already do. But then again, let me concede that roads are largely maintained by gasoline tax revenue, and clearly I’ve reduced my “buy in” to local roads through my use of a bike.

Do I feel guilty? No.

Personally, I clearly benefit. I enjoy biking or I would not do it. I also enjoy driving—if I’m going to be in a car, I have a clear preference to be behind the wheel of the car and preferably a fun car. It’s a guy thing. It’s also my only excuse for owning a vehicle as impractical as a manual transmission VW Beetle.

Still, all things considered, I’d rather be on a bike. I’m up higher, I’m enjoying God’s nature, I’m doing myself some good—exercise and all that. It gives me some satisfaction to know my habits might end up in Mark being able to enjoy paying me Social Security for many more years in the future.

It’s true. I’m selfish, therefore, I bike.

But, Mark and all other anti-bike bigots out there, there’s more to the story. While I’ll admit my motivations for being a bike commuter are clearly selfish, and my habits cost society some road-use revenue, I’d argue that everyone else benefits from my biking, too.

From cleaner air. From more gas available for your SUV. From less congested roads.

Now, now, don’t e-mail me that you were on I-90 and some biker was there and he slowed everybody down, etc. etc. As a bike commuter, I’m choosey about where I ride, and based on the quiet streets and sidewalks I use, I personally don’t slow anybody much. I occupy much less road space and take up far fewer parking lot square footage due to my use of two wheels.

So I think it’s a wash, at least, and some karma in my favor, at best.

There is a logic about taxing bikes for road use.  Bikes and streets predate cars. One could argue that, in the historic sense, roads were paved for bikes before any asphalt was laid down with cars in mind. The “safety bike” craze was a 19th century fad, and our friend Ford didn’t foul the air with millions of Model Ts until the 20th century.

If I use the roads, should I not also pay for the roads?

Sort of. Except that you have to balance that logic against the amount of road damage I do on my bike (none at all) and the fact that others (pedestrians, joggers) are sometimes found on the public rights of way, too. By the logic that bikers use the roads and thus should be taxed for them, we would charge a sales tax premium on running shoes, too.

And there are other practical matters that argue against taxation for bikation. If you licensed bikes or required a spoke tax, or some such scheme, it would involve 6-year-old kids and their toys. My daughter Amanda learned to balance on two wheels while she was in kindergarten. Do we want to charge kids who can’t be licensed drivers for their bikes?

Plus, any bike license scheme creates a law enforcement hassle. When I lived in western Iowa, the city of Storm Lake required bikes to be licensed. I actually lived in Early, Iowa and commuted to Storm Lake, and rode on a bike trail there often on an illegal, unlicensed, Schwinn. Clearly, I was a criminal. Clearly the Storm Lake PD didn’t give a damn. Even in quiet Iowa villages, the cops do not have time to case after old grey-haired hippies on bikes to collect small license fees. Besides, in 10 years of flouting the Storm Lake laws, I wasn’t even aware that the law existed until I was about to move away from the area.

Bike licensing would be expensive to administer, hard to enforce, irritating to parents of young bikers and to old men who commute by bike—and in the end, would produce little revenue.  That’s why bike licensing is so rare.

And if the bikers are taxed under the premise that the streets have to be paid for by those for whom they were created, we’re back to having to tax skateboards and running shoes, too.

So, Mark, what are we to do?

Well, for one thing, look at ways to support roads beyond gas taxes. With more fuel-efficient pickup trucks, electric vehicles and hybrid cars, the gas tax alone probably shouldn’t be the only way roads are maintained. Even if I don’t drive on them or pedal on them, I live in a society whose existence and commerce depends on roads, so as a taxpayer, I say, go ahead, make my day, take my pay, use general tax revenue to put some tar in a pothole.

Not that I’m opposed to gas taxes. They not only make sense as a kind of road user fee. They also make sense for the same reason that tobacco taxes make sense. Those who purchase a known carcinogen and burn it in the environment in a way that causes all of us to suffer should pay some premium for their bad behavior.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Vexation of Bike Taxation

  1. Jon

    Arguments like Mark’s occasionally get popular in letters to the editor here in Seattle. Personally I liked the proposal one biker suggested–sure, I’ll pay an extra tax for riding my bike on roads, though since damage to roads is roughly proportional to the weight of the vehicle, surely Mark wouldn’t object to his car being taxed at the same rate. So if we say I’ll pay $25 annually, which works out to about a dollar a pound, Mark should happily pay somewhere north of an extra $4000 annually. Deal? It sure would help solve the city’s budget problems.

    • crgardenjoe

      I like the weight tax. I’ll even go along with taxing the driver, too, although I’ll reduce the rate–at 50 cents a pound, I might pay $140 bucks, but Mark can pay $2,000. There, I cut his taxes. You’re welcome, Mark!

  2. Pat

    Cate hasn’t said it, so you were “flouting” the Storm Lake ordinance, and you “pedal” on the street. Ha! Take that!

    • crgardenjoe

      Ah, the sisterhood of the copy editors. Thank you and I’m still in my 24 hour window, so I reserve the right to correct!

  3. Cate

    So sad to have read this too late to see the typos. I like it when Joe flaunts his petals.

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