Why bicyclists and hybrid drivers should pay more taxes

A bicyclist commutes along Grove Street in San Francisco.

As a country, we're paying less in federal fuel taxes, partially because we're commuting in new, more efficient ways, and partially because the gas tax hasn't increased in a while. Which means, in turn, there’s less money for the upkeep of our roads and bridges.

So how do you replace a tax loss like that? With a new tax on hybrids, electric cars and bikes.

"Since about 2001, the amount of vehicle miles traveled per American has gone down for every age group and particularly for Millennials," says Douglas Shinkle, a policy expert at National Conference of State Legislatures. 

He adds that at all types of cars are getting more fuel efficient. That means everyone is paying less in fuel taxes and so states and cities need to find ways to make up for that shortfall.

"Chicago is certainly one of those cities that’s struggling to pay the bills," says Jim Merrell, the campaign manager at the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago, which advocates for bikers and walkers.

A councilwoman in that city recently floated the idea of levying a $25 fee on bikers, in part, to pay for their use of the road. Merrell says in Chicago, fuel taxes pay for less than half the cost of maintaining roads. The rest of the money comes from the general fund. And, he notes, most bikers drive too.

Increasingly, states are also imposing fees on electric cars and hybrids, says Jay Friedland, the legistlative director of Plug In America, which advocates for electric cars. 

"We’ve already seen Virginia and Washington state pass laws, there’s laws under consideration in New Jersey, North Carolina, Indiana," he says. 

And come Jan. 1, electric car owners in Colorado will have to pay a fee of $50 a year.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.
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How about we get rid of the federal subsidies on fuel and use them for road construction in the form of block grants and the like instead? That way, we don't penalize people who make choices that leave all of us better of by reducing pollution and our dependence on fossil fuels..

Great responses. If there is less usage of the infrastructure that's great, logically it will not need to be replaced as often, leading to a decrease in expected capital expenditure on roads and bridges, freeing up spending elsewhere or reducing taxes. If you want to tax cyclists, fine but offer some alternatives to a bike lane 4" from traffic moving at high speeds.

This argument really fails on a number of levels.

1. If you live in nearly any city in the western world, infrastructure costs come mostly from property tax, not road/gas taxes. This means that even if you don't own a car, you're paying for infrastructure. This is a good thing since we all, in one way or another, rely on roads.

Meanwhile, cyclists cause little to no wear and tear on roads, while cars (and especially large trucks) cause a great deal. This means that by taxing them, what you are really doing is subsidizing the damage that a drivers vehicle does to the road.

2. Gas/Road tax is often used to relieve stresses caused by vehicles. In particular, carbon taxes and their like, often go towards environmental initiatives that help curb the damage of traffic on the environment. These are not needed if more people resort to cycling.

3. Western society badly needs to wrench itself from the grip of car heavy lifestyles for a number of reasons, including the environment, health costs, infrastructure costs, and more. By taxing cycling you're putting barriers in the way of the easiest, and most efficient, way of doing this.

Taxing bicycles? Sure, I'd be glad to pay my fair share for highway upkeep, relative to how much stress my bike puts on the system, offset by the stress I'm NOT causing since I left my car in the garage. In short, if somebody actually did a cost benefit analysis and didn't just pull these regressive tax ideas out of thin air, we would be PAYING bicyclists $25 a year.

Gasoline tax hasn't been raised for a long time. It only makes sense that now is the time to raise gasoline tax.

Raise it about $3-$4 per gallon, to reduce the use and dependence on gasoline. Reduce noise, reduce the number of cars on the street, make the roads safer for pedestrians, seniors, children, handicapped.

Discourage the use of gasoline just like we discourage the use of tobacco: tax it and then tax it more.

A story about taxing methods of transportation that aren't causing climate catastrophe without a single word about carbon taxes?

...without a single word about the oil companies that are obviously pushing this regressive nonsense?

I'm tired of Marketplace acting as a mouthpiece for right-wing propaganda. You can dress it up all you want, your listeners are too sophisticated to be fooled by it.

Perhaps it makes sense to assess fees for non-carbon-fuel vehicles some day, but now is not that time. This is an industry and energy paradigm in its nascent stages and rather than immediately slapping onerous conditions on it all, we should instead be encouraging buyers to make the switch.

I'd propose more tax breaks and incentives -- along the lines of those given SUV's for inexplicable reasons -- or even some tax credits for those jumping from dirty carbon-based fuels and hiking fees on gas-guzzlers and taxes on gasoline and diesel.

As for bicycles, there should NEVER be a fee assessed on someone on a bike. That's such a counter-intuitive notion as to beggar disbelief there's anyone who would think it was a good idea, ever.

Ed (comment below) makes a very good point. This is an idea only an oil exec could love.

This is the type of public policy that only an oil company executive could love. Which probably explains why ExxonMobil funds much of the "research" into tax schemes that would charge hybrid cars the same as non-hybrid cars, and SUVs the same as SmartCars.

For example, raising the federal gas tax by 8.9 cents would cover gaps in the highway fund, but somehow it's more rational to charge cars that create less serious damage in accidents, create less pollution, and require fuel that's far less dangerous to acquire. Like I said, it's the kind of public policy that only an oil executive could love.

Probably the best option is to increase the gas tax for engine-driven cars, or monitor the electric power used by an electric vehicle. In these cases, the size, weight, and miles the vehicle is using the roads is still the major factor in determining the amount of tax.

Taxing bicycles a flat fee isn't fair because it doesn't account for the amount bike uses the road, which is very little compared to cars, anyway.

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