A guest blog from: Bill Oetinger

Bill is a free-lance graphic artist and illustrator (and writer). He is the Ride Director and newsletter Editor for the Santa Rosa Cycling Club as well as the Director of the Terrible Two Double Century. Bill is one of my favorite folks. He has a great deal of insight and is a long time supporter of the Sonoma County cycling scene. Check out his column at BikeCal.com .

Note: this article appeared originally a few years ago at the BikeCal.com website. In that venue, it was written for a cycling audience; preaching to the converted, as it were. Now, for a general audience, I have rewritten a few bits. Also, some of the statistics mentioned in the piece are now a few years old (from a report published in late 2004). The numbers have probably changed. However, I believe the relative proportions of costs and fees cited in the original data will still be essentially the same, even if the absolute values have risen with inflation.

If you listen to enough discussions between cyclists and non-cyclists about the legitimacy of cycling, you will hear two opinions, passed off as fact, which are used to marginalize cyclists as second-class citizens of the road…

1. Most cycling miles are “recreational”–people out playing around–and are thus somewhat frivolous and of a lower order of importance than real road-user miles (car miles), which involve working or commuting.

2. Cyclists don’t pay their own way on the road because they don’t pay registration fees or other use fees such as gas taxes.

Both of these notions really bug me, not only because they’re wrong, or at least flawed logically, but also because they have such widespread credibility, even among the ranks of cyclists. My goal here is to debunk these myths so that, if you’re not a cyclist, you won’t be inclined to promote them, and if you are a cyclist, you can refute them whenever someone proposes them.

First myth first: “Bike use is mostly recreational and therefor frivolous and of a lower order of priority on the roads than car and truck use.”

The idea persists–in the minds of most motorists and many cyclists–that no-fun miles are more legitimate than fun miles. I take exception to this. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love the idea of cycle-commuting. I did it for many years and the only reason I don’t do it now is because I work at home. I try to use my town bike for errands, and I ride to club rides whenever it’s practical (instead of driving there in my car, with the bike on the roof).

But do I think those “working” miles entitle me to a larger chunk of the moral high ground in the debate over road rights, and that my recreational miles are less worthy? Hardly.

First off, let’s look at who is using the roads and how legitimate their uses are. I will accept all freight hauling and delivery work as worthy, along with such services as meter reading. (Even though a lot of meter reading could be done easily on a bike, and at a fraction of the cost and pollution, and that some freight hauling could be better done by rail, etc.) I will also accept errands such as grocery shopping as legitimate, as only the hardiest cyclists are going to pack a week’s worth of food into a trailer to pull home behind the bike.

But commuting miles? Where is it ordained that living an hour from work and chugging back and forth in a single-occupant vehicle is legitimate? Sorry, commuting doesn’t compute. I’m not saying we have to radically reinvent our society, but we do need to consider all the alternatives to long commutes in cars: living closer to our jobs; telecommuting; mass transit; car pools, AND cycle-commuting. And while I’m not saying everyone who commutes by car has to stop doing it, I am saying that anyone who is doing it has no room to criticize anyone else for taking up space on the roads, especially cyclists.

Now, about those recreational miles… While in many parts of the world, the bicycle is a primary form of working transportation, it is true that in highway-happy California, most bike miles are recreational. But then, how many car (and truck and SUV) miles are also recreational? How about the soccer mom hauling the kids to the playground, or to ballet or piano lessons? That’s all in aid of some form of recreation. How about the family driving to Disneyland or Yosemite? How about the ski weekend? How about folks hauling ski boats or bass boats up to the lake? How about the Sonoma County couple driving to San Francisco for a Giants game or a night at the Opera? How about the San Francisco couple driving to Sonoma County for wine tasting? How about equestrians hauling their horses to the trailhead or surfers heading for the beach or teenagers cruising the drive-in? How about the folks in their sports cars and motos, ripping along the country roads, just for the fun of it?

What about those gas-guzzling RVs? They actually call them “recreational vehicles”…at least they’re honest! (An aside: motorists are forever getting stuck behind dawdling, waddling RVs on our country roads. They may fume and fuss while they’re stuck, but do they lay all over the horn and scream and flip the driver the bird when they finally go by, as so many motorists do with cyclists? I don’t think so. Why cyclists and not RV drivers?)

I’m sure if I dug around on the ’net long enough, I could find statistics that tell us what percentage of total miles in this country would be working miles and what percentage would be recreational, but I’ll bet it’s close to 50/50. Check out the monster traffic jam on the south-bound approach to the Golden Gate Bridge on any Sunday afternoon, and consider that probably 90% of those vehicles are logging recreational miles: returning to the city after a day of play in the country. And consider further that not only their miles to and from their recreation use energy, but in many cases so does their recreation itself: running the boat or jet ski at the lake or the quad runner or snow mobile in the woods or the golf cart on the links; powering the ski lift; lighting the score board, stadium, or concert hall, etc.

By comparison, a cyclist’s use of the road for recreational pursuits looks positively clean and green, even when it involves a little drive to and from the start of a ride. If legitimacy is enhanced by generating less pollution, causing less congestion, consuming fewer resources, and doing less damage to the infrastructure, then cycling–for work or play–deserves to be ranked at the top of any highway pecking order, not at the bottom.

Speaking of damage to the infrastructure, let’s move on to myth number two: “Cyclists don’t pay their own way on the road because they don’t pay registration fees or other use fees such as gas taxes.”

This opinion is frequently thrown in the face of cyclists, not only in roadside confrontations, but in meetings of county supervisors and city staffs and others formulating transportation policy. What’s more, it is an opinion accepted by many cyclists as true. In fact, not only is it not true, it isn’t even close to being true. The hard facts support a much different reality.

Many studies have been done in recent years on the subject of how much it costs to build and maintain our roads, and who pays the bills. The numbers I will cite below come from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, which has pulled together statistics from many of these studies. If you want a more in-depth analysis of this question than you’ll get from my short column, you can visit their site and study all sorts of information on the topic.

Briefly, here is a summary of the facts: studies estimate that motor vehicle users pay an average of 2.3 cents per mile in user charges such as gas taxes, registration fees, and tolls. However, they impose 6.5 cents per mile in road service costs. In contrast, cyclist impose road service costs averaging a miniscule 2/10ths of 1 cent per mile.

If I’m reading and understanding the studies correctly, this 6.5 cents per mile represents costs for infrastructure: roadway acquisition, design and construction of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc., and maintenance of same. I don’t believe it covers other, associated costs such as law enforcement, emergency services, etc. Further–again, if I’m reading these studies correctly–the disparity between user fees and actual costs is even greater on local roads (the ones most commonly used by cyclists).

So, we have a shortfall of over 4 cents per mile in user fee revenues to cover the expenses of building and maintaining our roads. Where does the money come from to make up the difference? It comes from the general tax rolls: property, income, and sales taxes. All of us–cyclists and motorists alike–pay these taxes, so we’re all contributing to the construction and upkeep of our roads, regardless of how much or how little we use them, or how much our particular vehicle imposes in costs on the system.

In fact, when you consider the extremely low costs associated with non-motorized travel, the case can be made that cyclists are actually paying way more than their fair share of road costs. Or to put it another way, if we’re all sharing the burden of road expenses equally (on average), then those imposing lower costs on the system (cyclists) are in effect subsidizing those who impose greater costs (motorists). Consider further that the average cyclist logs many fewer bike miles per year than the average motorist logs in his car, so that the per-mile disparity is multiplied many times over by the difference in total miles on the road(s).

Bear in mind too, that although we might wish it to be otherwise, most of us who cycle a great deal still own a car, or live in a household with at least one car in the garage. I own a car, but because I work at home and ride a bike as much as possible, I only put about 3000 miles a year on it (less than half what I put on my bike), and yet I have to pay the same registration fee on that car as the fellow who logs 10,000 or 15,000 or more miles in his car. If you divide the registration fee by the number of miles, it’s easy to see the full-time motorist is getting a much better deal than I am. From the point of view of a dedicated, everyday cyclist, it would seem more equitable if our registration fees could be pro-rated on the number of miles driven.

Finally, remember that these studies on road expenses are only dealing with dollars in federal, state, and county budgets. If you also consider the larger “costs” associated with motorized travel in terms of pollution, congestion, and accidents, and the dramatic relief in all those areas provided by switching to cycling, then the question of who is paying their fair share to use the roads is even more compelling.

I’m not climbing up on a soapbox here to declare that all cars should be banned. I appreciate having and using my car when I need it. All I am trying to say is that cyclists should never have to be apologists for taking up their little bit of space on the side of the road. Aside from the fact that the Vehicle Code guarantees cyclists the right to be there, we are more than paying our fair share of the price of admission. Anyone who tries to assert otherwise has simply not done their homework.

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