You Pays Your Money, and You Takes Your Choice

A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay called Who Pays, Who Plays: the Gas Tax Fallacy, which explores the cherished delusion most drivers desperately cling to that they pay for the roads through the gas tax, and that no one else—especially not cyclists!—merits even one square inch thereof.

Now, this wasn’t true even in the days when 8mpg behemoths crowded our nation’s roads, and it’s even less so in these days of gas-sipping imports and hybrids and the occasional EV. Cars still crowd the roads—more than ever, in fact, given that drivers see the roads as “theirs,” free for the taking—but gas taxes and car fees pay an ever-shrinking proportion of the cost of building and maintaining all those broad lanes and parking spots. And continent-wide, they never paid for more than half of those costs.

Worse, they never paid at all for the rest of the costs of driving: police patrol, emergency response, the public health costs imposed by pollution, stress, and the long hours spent sitting in cars, and so forth.

Now the issue is surfacing in the mainstream so-called news, especially with proposals to charge for driving by the mile, using “black box” GPS systems to monitors a vehicle’s yearly use of road space.

Of course both right and left are terrified of being tracked by the NSA, so the promise is (yeah, right) that the boxes will track only the number of miles, not where they are incurred. If driverless cars even do become prevalent, of course, they will be utterly dependent on GPS and those pesky military satellites it uses, so the point will become moot. Private, miniature, inefficient little half-assed driverless buses will then crowd the roads, furthering our obsession with taking up too much room and pretending that the public realm is our private salon…paid for by that mysterious “someone else.”

The black box will then become normal.

But miles driven alone don’t give a full accounting of what it costs to provide asphalt wallows for road hogs.

The Portland Transportation Alliance recently made the comparison that it would take 9600 bikes to wear out a road as much as a single car, and this gives us a clue to what a true-cost accounting of road use might look like. In fact I have been mulling this over during the years since I wrote my rant on road costs, and this is how I see it….

A motor vehicle’s tax should be based on all the following factors:


  • Miles driven per year
  • Weight with a standardized load
  • Footprint (large vehicles force cities to build large lanes)
  • Rated engine power (more powerful vehicles tear roads up faster)
  • Type of motive power (gasoline, Diesel, electric)

This should be applied to commercial motor vehicles as well; trucks are overused in North America, especially for long-distance transport where they are most inappropriate. One of the more perverted market distortions the US suffers is its favoring of truck freight over railroads. Trains are four times more energy efficient than trucks, and many times more spatially efficient, using far less land per ton mile of cargo. Railroads also build and own their rights-of-way, which they pay taxes on (along with fuel taxes)—and those taxes are then used to subsidize their inefficient competitors in trucks!

Pretty sick, huh?

That leaves bikes and shoes. How much should we charge bicycle riders and pedestrians for the tiny bits of infrastructure they require?

Probably nothing at all. As Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute notes, in North America, where general taxes are used to subsidize private driving, carfree cyclists are overcharged around $250 per year to subsidize those nasty motorists who keep yelling at them to get off the road.

Furthermore, a Danish study recently showed that in that country—even though cars are much more highly taxed than in the US—every mile driven costs the government around twenty cents, while every mile bicycled gains the public treasury forty-two cents!

Grist has a nice synopsis here, with links to more details.

Anything that makes it easier for more Americans to ride bikes instead of driving, even if just occasionally, saves the public money. And as we now know, commercial streets with bikeways bring greater prosperity to merchants, further enriching both private and public sectors.

That’s just how it is.

Time to adjust taxes so that those who insist on driving pay more of their fair share.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted May 1, 2014 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    Great article.

    But, fuel used for powering diesel locomotives is NOT subject to normal fuel taxes for the simple reason that it’s not used to power motor vehicles on public roads.

    The freight railroads are their own worst enemy: Bad management, horrible customer service, questionable reliability. If the railroads were properly managed, they’d take a huge chunk out of truck traffic, but they’re corrupt and mismanaged. Until they run the infrastructure into the ground and get bailed out by the federal govt (which seems to be their plan, while the top managers stuff their pockets and defer basic maintenance) the US rail system will continue to deteriorate.

  2. Posted May 1, 2014 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Atom, the railroads pay fuel taxes in various states, though hat changes with political sentiment and the railroads’ lawsuits.

One Trackback

  1. […] Just Ride LA has scheduled a bike race to benefit the Philippines on the 21st. Time is running out to save the Riverside-Figueroa bridge. Gary Kavanagh discusses mainstreaming bicycle lessons learned from bike-friendly Davis CA. Manhattan Beach approves sharrows, but not on Pacific. Women on Bikes’ Pedal Love project is raising funds to inspire women and girls to ride as part of their daily lives. Calabasas gets a new bike and pedestrian plan. While bike haters claim we don’t pay our fair share for the roads, Rick Risemberg points out it’s drivers who need to dig a little deeper. […]

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