The road is your road


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By Randy LoBasso

After I testified at City Council on a Vision Zero issue in the spring, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, where I work, put up a blog post with a bit of context and the transcript of my testimony, which was then shared far and wide on social media, including in the local Fishtown neighborhood group Fishtown is AWESOME OLD/NEW/EVERYONE!

That’s when the commentary on cyclists began. 

It was your usual mix: stuff about how all bicyclists “break the law”; about how people who ride bikes act entitled; and, in one case, a commenter threatening to run down cyclists with his pickup truck.

That sort of commentary is pretty commonplace, but what made it strange for me was that I had, a few years ago, taken my car to that commenter’s auto garage, and I liked him. His rationale for his rage came from the idea that people who ride bicycles don’t pay for roads and, therefore, shouldn’t be allowed on them.

The idea is that people who ride bikes don’t pay their fair share because they’re not actively paying for gas taxes at the pump or paying road tolls. It’s a popular, and dangerous, misconception.

A report looking at what we all pay for roads was authored in 2015 by Tony Dutzik and Gideon Weissman of the Frontier Group and Phineas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

“Roads don’t pay for themselves. We, the American people—whether we drive a lot, a little, or not at all—increasingly pay for them through other taxes and uncompensated costs,” the report concluded.

The authors note that, once upon a time, the money for roads actually did come from gas taxes—but that share (more than 70 percent in the 1960s and early 1970s) has decreased over time due to changes in lifestyle, inflation, more fuel-efficient cars and “slower growth” in driving. As the federal government brings in less money for the costs of roads, governments have had to get creative in paying for them.

Today, according to the Build America Transportation Investment Center Institute at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, 48.6 percent of highway funding comes from “user charges”—which include fuel taxes, vehicle taxes and fees and tolls—with the rest (51.4 percent) coming from property taxes, “other taxes and fees,” bonds and general fund appropriations.

Dutzik, Weissman and Baxandall also crunched the numbers and figured out how much we’re paying for our streets.  On average, U.S. households—whether they’re a “driving household” or not—pay about $1,100 in taxes and other costs imposed by driving, per year. That includes, according to the authors, $597 in general tax revenue for road repair; between $199 and $675 in driving subsidies, like the sales tax exemption for gas purchases and commuter benefits; and $93 to $360 in costs related to “air pollution-induced health damage.”

Unfortunately, of the money bicyclists pay into the system for roads they don’t damage, governments typically spend more “non-user” tax dollars on highways than on transit, walking and passenger rail—combined.

This isn’t to say that our taxes shouldn’t go into roads—they absolutely should. 

One look at Philadelphia’s streets shows that not enough money has gone into maintenance and paving. But streets are in bad shape because we, as a society, have chosen not to invest in them. 

You can’t hold cyclists responsible for the state of the roads. We are, indeed, paying our fair share.

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