Yet Another Modest Proposal
March 11, 2014
It is common to read car aficionados claim that people on bicycles don’t pay “their fair share” of the roads, even though anyone with a lick of sense would worry that a gas tax not adjusted for inflation since 1997 might not be covering costs — right now, it’s only covering about half, and the rest comes from other taxes.
However, it is also true that cyclists don’t pay any tax or user fee specifically targeted at the roads; sure, the drivers are 50% subsidized by other taxes, but cyclists are 100% subsidized (that the subsidy for drivers is four orders of magnitude larger(*) is irrelevant, of course, we’re talking about the principle here). This compromises our smugness, and that cannot be allowed. We must devise a user fee for bicycle riders, and pay it. Furthermore, we must not just pay 50% of costs; we should pay 100%, so that we may remain the smuggest of the smug. It may be a high price, but for smug, it will be worth it.
The best route for administering this user fee is through bicycle tires. Bicycles don’t run on any special fuel, but they do consume tires at a steady pace, and there is even some correlation between the size of the load and the size of the tire — larger tires, expected to carry heavier loads and last longer, could be assessed a higher fee.
How much should this fee be? The standard, conservative formula for road wear is that it is proportional to miles driven times the sum of the cubes of the weights on the wheels — that is, a 3000lb car with 4 wheels has 750lbs per wheel. Cubed and summed, the result is about 1.7 billion (1.7e9).
A moderately heavy cargo bike might weigh 400lbs, or 200 per wheel. Cubed and summed, you get 16e6, or about 105 times less. That car might get 25mpg in city driving, and pays an average tax of about 50 cents per gallon, or 2 cents per mile. Given that this is only 50% of cost, the full price would be 4 cents per mile. (Yes, gas taxes ought to be $.50 per gallon higher, if we are to stop subsidizing car use from other revenues. Can’t you feel a good smug coming on?). Since the bicycle does about 100x less damage, a fair user fee for a cargo bicycle traveling 1000 miles would be about $.40. In my case, at about 2500 miles per year, a whole shiny dollar. Per-tire, since a tire lasts about a year for me, $0.50.
However, my calculations are not exactly fair to all the non-cargo bike users. Someone who weighs only 170lbs riding a 30lb bicyle has only half the weight per wheel as my bike (when well loaded), and thus does only one eighth as much road damage — that is, $0.05 per 1000 miles. To account for this, I would tie the bicycle user fee to the tire size, since that correlates loosely with load; for a 60mm tire, it should be about $.50, but for a 30mm tire it should be closer to $.10 or perhaps even less. Perhaps a tiered pricing scheme would be best — $.50 for 60mm or more, $.35 for 50mm or more, $.20 for 40mm or more, $.10 for 30mm or more, and $0.05 below that, because those tires wear out faster and their users tend to be lighter yet. (Fine tuning these numbers might take a little more analysis, but they are clearly in the ballpark.)
It’s a stiff price, but I think it’s necessary to preserve optimum smugness and superior attitude. We’ll pay our full share, not just our fair share, and we can look can drivers in the eye again and say “hah! who’s the freeloader now?” We can call the highway department, “goddammit, I PAID MY ROAD TAX, why aren’t these potholes fixed?!” It will be awesome.
(*) back-of-the-envelope estimate — about 100 times as many people putting serious miles on a car as putting serious miles on a bike, and a bike is at least 100 times less damaging to the road, and a typical car is driven at least 3 times further. Roughly, 30,000x more road damage done by drivers, assuming they’re all driving average-sized cars.