Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cyclists Subsidize Drivers

During the recent municipal election campaign, our local chapter of the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (VACC) sent out a survey to be filled out by all the candidates (both School Board and Council). Most candidates took the time to answer the questions (which were posted here).

Reading the responses, it is pretty clear that a sizable portion of taxpayers believe that cyclists (and pedestrians) somehow are being subsidized by drivers. It then follows that in order to pay for the bike lanes, dedicated signals, etc, cyclists should be licensed in order to capture revenue. Sort of a user-pay idea. The idea is, I guess, that since drivers pay for insurance (liability), gas taxes, and vehicle licensing, that they "own" the road.

In fact, this is untrue. There have been numerous studies showing that the reverse is true: cyclists subsidize drivers!

A nice little piece on the true state of affairs can be found here (with lots of references in there too). I summarize:
  • cyclists and pedestrians use the local roads and not the freeways
  • local roads are funded by (mostly) municipal taxes - which everybody pays.
  • cyclists and pedestrians are far less likely to use the freeway system. But they pay for these as well, through general taxes.
  • total road costs are about $400 per year, per person (this is the costs from wear and tear). Only about half of this comes from gas taxes and licensing fees, the other half comes from general taxes.
  • the wear and tear on the road system due to pedestrians and cyclists is about 10% of that due to cars - $40 per person per year, in other words.
  • So, a  person who relies primarily on non-motorized travel pays $200 annually in general taxes but only imposes about $40 in costs, and so subsidizes this system by $160 per year. Conversely, a motorist who drives twice the average mileage imposes $800 in roadway costs but doesn't pay any more taxes...and is therefore being subsidized.
In addition, there are costs like parking: there are an estimated 2 to 3 off-street parking spots per car available in any municipality, with a total estimated cost of $1000-$2000. These costs are being borne by cyclists and pedestrians as well as drivers through municipal taxes.

Then there are the so-called externalities of pollution and accidents, which are borne again by everyone - through the health care system. These aren't even added into the numbers above, but will make the degree of subsidization even worse.

In fact, driving is so costly to society that it makes drivers selfish. If you have no alternative but to drive, you will strongly resist any move to level the playing field (for instance, to increase the gas tax, or to impose road/bridge tolls).

The way out is to improve the alternatives, not to make cyclists pay more!

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