Who Pays, Who Plays: the Gas Tax Fallacy

Now that city after US city–from behemoths such as Chicago, New York, and even Los Angeles, to red-state burgs from Columbus, MO, to Alpharetta, GA–has begun to implement administrative and on-the-ground infrastructure to support and nurture utility cycling in our urbanized areas, the inevitable backlash has followed.

Never mind that daring to nibble away at the monumental swathes of the built environment dedicated almost solely to the driving and parking of private cars is serving to increase the options our citizens have in choosing how to travel; never mind that making it easier for ourselves and our neighbors to ride a bicycle to work, or the store, or a dinner out improves the public health by bolstering each individual’s health; forget that a street parking space for a car can cost $25,000 these days, and could hold twelve to fourteen bicycles in a bike corral (bike corrals are common in Portland, and the first one just showed up in Los Angeles); ignore the fact that every mile you drive is a vote for al-Qaeda.

None of this matters. Somehow, bicycling has come to be seen as a left-wing practice, and so the more reactionary elements of the American Right, emboldened by their midterm election successes (even though midterm elections typically swing away from the party in power, no matter which one it is), have fired up their bike backlash propaganda generator, unleashing waves of dittoheads onto the comments boards of blogs and newspapers nationwide to diss any statement even mildly supportive of cycling, transit, livable cities, or anything else–except shareholder return, and more asphalt handouts for private driving.

The irony is that conservatives should love cycling–it asks very little in the way of government expenditure, improves personal health, builds self-reliance, strengthens community, reduces the impetus to involve ourselves in foreign wars, and conserves resources (how can conservatives hate conservation and dote on waste anyway?).

The latest wave of anti-bike arguments hammers on the following theme: “Cyclists don’t pay the taxes drivers do, so they don’t deserve road space!!!”

Ignorant but well-meaning cyclists sometimes respond, “Well, I own a car too, so I do pay.”

Both of them are wrong.

Parking and street in downtown Los Angeles and downtown Portland–you guess which is which!


The facts and figures aren’t simple, and I’ll link to them at the end of this post, but one snippet from a report by the US Public Interest Research Group sets the tone: Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called “user fees” by $600 billion (2005 dollars), representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways.

General government funds means income, sales, and property taxes that everyone pays, and which are higher than they need to be in order to pay for drivers’ “free” roads.

In fact, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute has calculated that since cyclists require so little lane space and parking room, and impose so little wear on roads, we actually deserve a rebate of around $250 a year on our taxes, if we don’t also drive.

In other words, the “cyclists don’t pay” is simply false. Drivers don’t pay, or at least don’t pay enough for their use of all that land–land that could be supporting homes, businesses, parks, schools, libraries, farms or other productive or pleasurable uses–most of which would pay property tax.

Those cyclists agitating for bike lanes, bike paths, bike racks (so they can park and spend money at your business)–they just want something back for all those taxes they’ve been overpaying for over half a century.

The same applies, of course, to transit users, or anyone else who isn’t comfortable with being forced to drive in a country where almost all development has been made only for car use, where almost all public space is reserved for those alone in cars.

Drivers? They’re just addicted to government handouts. Supporting them has been a money-losing proposition at least since World War II.

Here are some links to articles and analyses laying out the facts:

In a country worn down by oil wars, congestion, diminishing tax bases, Global Warming, and the ever-increasing loss of farmland to sprawl, it’s well past time we get real about driving, the damages it costs, and whose pocket gets picked to support it.

About Rick Risemberg

Rick was born in Argentina but grew up in Los Angeles, and has lived most of his life in Hollywood. He also spent several months living in Montmartre, in Paris, France, one of the most delightful as well as effective human scale communities anywhere, and now resides in the Miracle Mile district of Los Angeles, a high-density and eminently walkable neighborhood where nearly his every need is within a twenty-minute stroll of the apartment. He maintains the Bicycle Fixation Webzine and Urban Ecology Forum; you may see them atwww.bicyclefixation.com. You may visit portfolios of his writing, photography, and web design work at www.rickrise.com.