Should Cyclists Be Paid to Use the Road?
I started thinking
about this topic when there was a discussion on National Public Radio,
Morning Edition, December 17, 1997, about pollution trading. Basically,
the idea is that if a company is pumping black smoke into the air and raw
sewage into the water, instead of cleaning up its act, it can buy pollution
credits from some already squeaky-clean company. Our government, which
had already been using this policy for some years in the US, wanted the
other governments at Kyoto, Japan, to accept this idea as a way to deal
with global warming. In a way, this idea is an old one. During the middle
ages, a rich king, living an immoral, sinful life, could always pay a poor
priest, who was living a very moral, sinless life, to pray for him and
absolve his sins.
Now, why not apply
this to transportation as well? And to cycling in particular? We would
figure out how much environmental damage each airplane, each tractor-trailer,
each light truck, and each car is doing. Then, instead of the owners having
to move the vehicles to zero pollution, the owners can just pay so many
cyclists to ride their bikes.
I can see it now:
the airplane taking off, leaving black clouds of smoke behind as it heads
for NYC from LA. At the same time, the ticket agent is paying off a crowd
of bicycle tourists who are going to make the same trip on their bicycles;
in fact, there's more people pedaling from coast to coast that there are
It would be perfect
for me; I could live the rest of my life doing what I love to do best.
Of course, the pay would not be great, but I'd settle for $10 a day anytime.
Now, when I printed
the above statements, some people took the suggestion literally, when I
was actually being sarcastic and really wanting to demonstrate my disagreement
with the idea of pollution trading.
One complaint was
that the corporations couldn't bear the cost. It seems to me that if these
polluters are dumping so much bad stuff into the air that it would ruin
them to pay for the damage, then they ought to be ruined. But I don't think
it's quite that bad -- anymore. However, run a search on the web under
acid rain, ozone, and global warming, and it's easy to see that major problems
remain and that some kinds of pollution are getting worse. After all, there
are more people every year driving more cars and using more consumer products.
was that having people ride bicycles wouldn't actually remove any pollution;
however, if the people were already intending to make the trip, traveling
by bike instead of by car would prevent creating a great deal of pollution.
An average US passenger vehicle traveling 3,000 miles would burn over 150
gallons of gas and produce nearly 4,000 lbs. of CO2.
The whole idea
of pollution trading seems very weird, I know, but it is already happening,
and many examples are found on the web. It seems that the big guys are
already swapping pollution credits every day. Why should big business get
all the benefit and us little guys get nothing?
We know that one
third of the people in the US are dying from a sedentary life, not from
old age. We know that four people out of five would benefit from additional
exercise, especially walking and cycling. We know that people all around
the world spend 1.1 hours traveling each day whether walking to the village
on a stony trail or driving into the city on a busy highway, and we
know that 1.1 hours of cycling would provide the necessary health benefit.
We know that over 40,000 people are killed and a million and a half injured
each year in motor vehicle accidents. We know that we are pumping huge
quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, almost one third of which
comes from transportation. We know that CO2 was predicted to
cause a greenhouse effect that would warm the earth, and we see obvious
signs that such a warming is taking place. We know that forests and wild
plants are endangered by ozone and oxides of nitrogen. We know that there
have been massive oil spills. We know that our roads are congested no matter
how many we build, and that building them is destructive of natural areas
and of many communities. We know that massive amounts of space are given
over to parking lots rather than to trees, plants, and birds. We know that
the run-off from parking lots causes flooding. In short, we know of many
ways in which automobile use is expensive and harmful.
Most people are
willing to acknowledge these shortcomings of an automotive society, and
most people are willing for others, at least, to travel by bicycle, but
the power and status still belong to those who travel around in their powerful
automobiles. Can anything be done to change this?
What if, as a modest
change, cyclists were paid for riding their bikes? Since the number of
cyclists is not that great, it would be no great fortune for the government
to pay every cyclist who tore up his or her driver's license say $1,000
a year. However, I can think of two great reasons for not doing so: 1)
It would raise resentment among motorists, instead of status, just as welfare
has done. And 2) it would lead to a great deal of cheating.
However, if it
was seen that cyclists were being paid to provide actual benefits or to
reduce actual problems and if they were being paid directly in proportion
to the amount of benefit/reduction that they were responsible for, wouldn't
that raise their status?
My suggestion is
also to not pay a lump sum but to pay as cyclists earn their value. In
this way, those who travel very little by bike would get paid very little,
and those who traveled quite a bit would get paid more. By paying separately
for items, we reduce the risk of cheating, and we help make it possible
for exercisers, walkers, and car-poolers to share in the profits whenever
appropriate. Thus, cyclists would be rewarded for helping society, not
for riding bicycles per se.
The three areas
in which these paybacks can come are from the employer, on the road, and
from the merchant.
One of the greatest
benefits of cycling is the health benefit, and insurance premiums are usually
paid through one's employer. Much research has proven that those who exercise
2,000 kCal or more a week have less heart disease, fewer strokes, less
chance of diabetes, less lung disease, and less chance of being overweight.
So, this reward should be passed on to cyclists (and others who can prove
they exercise sufficiently) and allow them to pay lower health premiums.
Probably the best way to discover if the health target has been met is
by a couple of fitness tests each year. Of course, there would have to
be a provision to insure the company didn't rule against anyone if exercise
was prevented by accident or disease. By making this distinction between
those who exercise and those who don't, the ones who don't exercise will
be given an incentive to do so. The amount of money saved by cyclists ought
to be substantial, perhaps even a cash refund, since employers pick up
much of the insurance cost. There are already some companies providing
small benefits for non-smokers and people who exercise, so we would just
be extending an already good policy a little further.
Cycling to work
should decrease the number of accidents over driving, so those who are
not driving or riding in cars to work should get some smaller health cost
reduction for that as well. However, this benefit needs more research and
documentation before implementation.
Cycling to work
ought to also increase the alertness and vigor of the cyclists, and perhaps
there should be an incentive for this as well; however, if this benefit
is already seen to be affecting promotions, perhaps the company needs to
pay no extra amount. However, the company should be willing to go to as
much trouble for its exercising employees as it is for the sedentary by
providing showers for the former just as it provides coffee breaks for
Cycling to work
will also decrease the need for employee parking space, since 2,800 bikes
will fit on the same land as 100 cars. I heard of parking spaces on parking
decks costing as much as $20,000, while cars parked in lots take up valuable
real estate. This amount will vary greatly from place to place. But at
any rate, cyclists, walkers, and car-poolers ought to get a small repayment
for not using that space and leaving it available for company use.
Cycling to work
also avoids increasing the amount of CO2, oxides of nitrogen,
and ozone in the air. While some cars are cleaner than others, they all
produce CO2, about 25 pounds per gallon. The cost of dealing
with CO2 has been estimated at $10 to $53 a ton, with the lowest
figure being a little suspicious, since the next highest figure was $24.
Since the average passenger vehicle produces eight tons of CO2
a year, this would amount to a cost of $80 to $425 a year (from 12¢
to 65¢ a gallon). That cost, once finally determined, could be added
to the gasoline tax, and the cyclist could get a "refund" as a reward
for not using a car. One problem lies in determining how much the cyclist
actually rides. Here, the work place is handy, since about 1/3 of all mileage
is to and from work. The employer could simply report the distance the
employee had to drive (or this could be done by computer) and could also
testify that the employee had indeed arrived by bike. Thus could be sent
in with the W-2 form, and the worker could claim a tax credit, just like
any other tax credit.
Other ways of claiming
the additional mileage create more problems. In some places, motorists
are charged by the mile for using certain highways by using magnetic strips
placed under the car which identify who to bill (that way the car doesn't
have to stop). On such a road, a magnetic strip on a bicycle could result
in the cyclist receiving a small credit on the credit card. However, I
would think the cost of equipping all roads in that manner would be excessive.
However, since bike tires wear out at 2,000 miles and the amount of CO2
reduction would be worth from $13.33 to $70.67 for that distance (and this
is figuring, very conservatively, that a mile of cycling equals a mile
of driving), why not provide cyclists with free bike tires -- which wear
out at 2,000 miles -- provided they can turn in worn tires in return? Then,
this benefit could come through the bike dealer (we could do the same for
chains, sprockets, brake shoes, and other parts that wear out as well if
the larger amount of money was the correct figure). This collecting of
bike tires would have a second value since unrecycled bike tires are the
one environmental problem of bicycle travel. Some would argue against providing
free tires, I am sure, because there is no proof that the bicycle travel
actually replaces any car travel, other than the fact that the person couldn't
be doing both at one time. If we use that strict of a definition, payments
must be restricted to travel to and from work only, since those are the
only miles we can prove are necessary. However, a great deal of driving
is recreational or at least unnecessary, and since the same person would
take two to four times as long to travel the same distance by bike, I think
this kind of payment is justified. Perhaps the cyclist, in exchanging tires,
would have to provide a non-driver's license as addition proof that the
mileage was used for transportation.
Of course, this
still leaves most of the pollution allowance untouched. Considering that
there are 150 million passenger motor vehicles in the US and only about
seven million cyclists who ride every day, the amount of money claimed
would be small, with the bulk of the $12 to $64 billion left over each
year. In comparison, one auto-centric writer claims our entire highway
and interstate system, construction, maintenance, and enforcement cost
less than $90 billion a year. It certainly would be important to spend
most of this on tree planting and direct measures to absorb CO2;
however, spending some of this money to promote cycling would also reduce
CO2 production. For instance, in places with a high volume
of cyclists likely, why not a bicycle interstate with a roof to protect
against rain? Not only would this highway be much cheaper to construct
than a conventional highway, but it could also carry more people as well.
Someone is bound
to claim that cyclists don't deserve the pollution credit since they don't
remove the pollution, they only avoid making it. Actually, pollution that
is not produced is much less of a problem than pollution that is. In the
case of CO2, for instance, one method of "clean-up" is to grow
trees, about 170 per motor vehicle. However, these new trees can not be
grown in previous forests, then when they are harvested, the wood can not
be burned or consumed in any way, or it just becomes CO2 again.
objection might be that an automobile can carry up to six people while
a bicycle carries just one. However, estimates are that we are currently
down to 1.4 people per auto and dropping. Certainly, people who prove that
they car-pool should get a break based on the actual reduction in parking
or driving to work that they bring about. But the person who takes his
family by motor vehicle on a long vacation deserves no break whatsoever.
In the above estimates,
I talked about CO2 only because I don't know what benefit cyclists
could claim for reductions in the production of ozone and oxides of nitrogen.
Some credit should be given too for the reduced amount of material in the
manufacture of a bike and the subsequent reduction in indirect pollution.
After all, a bicycle is made of only 1/100th the material that goes into
There are other
places where the cyclists should receive some payment for cycling, and
an obvious place is at the store, restaurant, or other place of business.
In order to have customers, these businesses are forced to provide expensive
parking lots. However, cyclists reduce the need for parking lots; therefore,
cyclists (and also walkers) could receive some sort of a payment when they
stopped. An actual cash payment would encourage unnecessary stopping, but
what about a small discount? Senior citizens already receive such a discount.
an item is purchased in a store, the buyer has to pay sales tax. Some of
this tax is spent on local roads, on road repairs, and on police and emergency
services on roads and highways. Since bicycles are responsible for virtually
no road damage, the cyclist could also receive a small tax break, equal
to this amount, right at the store. Perhaps everyone else would pay a 7%
sales tax and the cyclist 5%. This is not a great deal of money, but a
In addition, some
of the local road money comes from property taxes and state income taxes.
In those cases the cyclist would have to mail in proof of some sort with
the discounted payment.
However, in my
opinion, a discount for local roads would be a partial overpayment, since
if everyone traveled by bikes, there would be still be wear and tear on
the roads due to the weather, and cyclists also benefit directly from police
and emergency services when they are using the roads. Finally, everyone
indirectly benefits from the roads, due to the goods and services that
are delivered on them (although the delivery man would be paying the direct
costs). Perhaps a better solution would be to shift some of these costs
away from general taxes and toward motor vehicle taxes; however, I don't
think it's unfair for the cyclist to have to pay some of these costs.
could be paid in other areas besides transportation as well. For instance,
we could charge a CO2 fee for the use of electricity and pay
that money back to the people who install solar panels or windmills at
their homes. Now instead of the fellow being laughed at as an eco-nut,
he gets a cash reward for being environmentally conscious.
The total cash
benefit to cyclists is going to probably be a lot smaller than the $10
a day I first mentioned, with the health benefit being the largest; however,
it would be a constant reminder that being healthy and environmentally
sound is good for everyone. The idea of being rewarded for cycling (instead
of punished, which the harassment on the highway amounts to), might be
enough to cause a new boom in cycling.