[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Should Cyclists Pay to Use The Roads?
Countering arguments to motorists who don't understand rights and taxes and who feel cyclists have no right to ride bicycles on roadways because we don't pay "user fees."

Why is a bigot angry at cyclists because they don't buy gas or pay registration fees for their bicycles? Do all expenditures on roads and highways come from motor vehicle taxes and fees? Does all money collected from automobile fees and taxes go into the highway system? What would happen if all taxes came from user fees? Do taxes grant special priviledges? Why is the tax on automobiles and gasoline high? Do taxes and fees from motor vehicles pay for all the expenses connected with their use? Are there two different kinds of road users, cyclists and motorists? Who has the right to use public roads? Why are motor vehicle operators required to pass tests and get licenses? How can one travel free?


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Should Cyclists Pay to Use The Roads?

One angry motorist (bigot) wrote: I am fed up with the people who ride bicycles. . . . AND THEY DON'T PAY ONE DIME OF FEES TO PAY FOR ANYTHING. Ever see how much a car owner pays in registration fees and gas tax?

This argument, that cyclists don't pay taxes, is an old one.  It is a big lie.

It's based on the idea that all expenditures for roads come from registration fees and gas taxes. Actually, the idea of linking gas tax receipts to road-building is a fairly recent one, starting with the funding for the interstate system. Since then, politicians have discovered that people would support new gasoline taxes if the money was dedicated to paying for road building and improvements. But local, state, and federal governments have been funding massive projects for years based on whatever money was available to them.  Money from other sources has always gone into road and bridge construction, and money from motor vehicle fees and taxes has always gone wherever it was needed.

If we take this idea seriously that only those who pay gasoline taxes can use the roads, then we are going to live in a very odd world.  Grade schools will have to be funded entirely from taxes on candy and toys, libraries from taxes on books and magazines, and police from taxes on guns and home security devices.  People from one town won't be able to use any public services in another town, and foreign visitors will be out of luck altogether.

But the simple truth is that taxes are taxes.  You pay a tax on your car, not because you drive it somewhere nor because the tax gives you any privilege to do anything, but just because the car is an expensive piece of property, just like your house.  You pay a tax on gasoline just as you pay a tax on anything else you buy, and the tax on gas is higher for the same reason that that taxes on tobacco and alcohol are higher: their use creates a greater expense for the community. Motor vehicles tear up the roads, and bicycles do not; they pollute the air, and bicycles do not; they require heavy structures and large parking areas, and bicycles do not. There is no reason why every cent collected from automobiles should be spent to encourage their use. We don't do that with any other tax.

Actually, we don't recover all the costs of our motor vehicles through taxes on them anyway.  The taxes collected approximate the costs of the federal highways and some of the state highways, but can't also cover the cost of county roads and city streets.  In addition, motor vehicles taxes don't begin to cover the indirect and hidden costs of automobile use, which include: 1) indirect construction costs and problems caused by the roads, 2) maintenance, 3) the costs and problems of providing parking spaces for the vehicles, 4) police, fire, and emergency assistance, 5) local and global health problems caused by pollution, 6) health problems created by lack of exercise and by auto accidents, and 7) global warming and other long-term adverse effects.  Everyone pays these costs, whether in taxes or otherwise, motor vehicle user or not. See the sources in the right column for further details.

And, of course, this argument ignores that fact that most cyclists are motorists also.

This argument kind of parallels two others: 1) cyclists shouldn't be allowed on the road because they haven't had to pass a driving test, and 2) cyclists don't have to obey the traffic laws, for the same reason.

This argument falls into a class that I've never seem mentioned under fallacies, yet it should be because I encounter it all the time; for instance, if you're not a woman, you can't say anything about gender issues.  You never smoked pot?  Then you can't speak out against using drugs.  We might call it the exclusionary fallacy.  This fallacy is halfway true (as most fallacies are).  Men, of course, have never had firsthand experience at being women or at having babies.  But if men really can't say anything worthwhile about women, why do most women go to male gynecologists and male psychologists?  Having smoked pot gives you some insight, but it hardly makes you an expert.

Here the idea is that there are two types of people in the world, motorists and cyclists, and the motorists are being treated unfairly, poor things.

The roads in the United States are Public Roads.  You do not have to pay any taxes at all to use them. You do not have to buy a license or pass a test either.  You can walk, you can ride a horse, you can drive a buggy, and you can drive a farm tractor legally in every state without paying one red cent.  On the other hand, owners of automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles are required to pass driving tests and to buy licenses.  Why?  These vehicles cause a lot of deaths and get stolen frequently.  The government wants the operators carefully trained and their accidents recorded, and it wants to help them recover stolen vehicles.  If cyclists were killing a lot of motorists, the government would go to the trouble of training and licensing them too.

The answer to our bigot's comments is that he doesn't have to pay any taxes or fees or take any test at all. He is free to ride a bicycle.  Or, at his choice, he can drive his car wherever he wants, just as long as he stays on his own property.


My article on automobile costs, in this directory (Auto Costs) gets into the details of automobile expenses more directly, although my primary point in that article is to the comparitive efficiency of riding a bike, time included.


Steven Goodridge has posted a Generic Dear Editor Letter for anyone who wants to reply to this kind of attack. It provides a very sound argument for sharing the road.

Whose Roads? Defining Bicyclists' and Pedestrians' Rights to Use Public Roadways  Todd Litman discusses the same issue I have, but in much greater detail (my argument was written independently of his, and they don't cover the exact same ground).

America's Autos On Welfare: A Summary of Subsidies This is a chart showing how much gasoline would cost if all costs were included, data from a number of sources.

The Right to Travel by Human Power  by Steven G. Goodridge. Like me, Steven likes to go back to the source of our rights. However, he has drawn a more complete picture than I have.

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