Calculating the Costs: Cars and Bicycles

There’s been a rumor going around that bicyclists have been stealing from taxpayers. You see, some people have been saying that while motorists pay for their infrastructure, bicyclists don’t.

Let me squash that rumor right now, ’cause it ain’t true.

First, the false idea that motorists pay for their infrastructure. In theory, the gas tax is supposed to pay for the Highway Trust Fund, which works to maintain the Interstate Highway System. Unfortunately, that just hasn’t happened. In 2008 and 2009, the Transportation Secretary had to request billions of dollars from Congress to keep the Fund going. I can’t find a specific article on it, but I doubt the situation has improved as a result of the continuing recession. Although the amount of gas that Americans use has declined in the last year, this deficit is mainly because Congress has not been willing to raise the gas tax since President Clinton. So if drivers want to come close to paying for the roads they use so much, they need to accept much higher taxes on gasoline. Which is a policy I suspect those who make this argument aren’t exactly eager to embrace. Now, the gas tax only pays for federal highways, not state or city roads. Those are paid by the states and cities themselves, who we all pay taxes to, no matter how much or little we drive.

And the roads are only the beginning. Although these critics of cycling are only addressing infrastructure, it doesn’t seem right to leave out all of the other costs. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. lost $45 billion in potential GDP because of our dependence on oil. Considering that light-duty vehicles use 47% of the petroleum the U.S. consumes, those cars aren’t looking so cheap for the taxpayers anymore, are they? I believe we could have used that $21 billion this year, in fact. That doesn’t even include the health costs from pollution. Although emissions from vehicles have declined drastically over the years (thanks, EPA!), light-duty vehicles still cause $36 billion annually in unaccounted costs (mainly health), according to the National Academies of Science.

On the other hand, cycling infrastructure is very cheap compared to highways and has many “hidden” societal benefits. The vast amounts of bicycling infrastructure that New York City has recently installed cost $8.8 million, with only $2 million of it from the city itself. Compared to regular road projects, that’s a tremendous bargain. On the jobs front, a new study quoted on the Secretary of Transportation’s blog reports that bicycle-related construction creates twice as many jobs per dollar as typical road projects. Pretty good bang for the buck there! There’s also the health benefits of burning about 400 calories an hour while biking, which most Americans are starting to recognize. A new peer-reviewed study reveals that 67% of Americans say they want urban design that encourages physical activity, including sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Hell, even business magazines recognize the benefits! And that’s not to mention the national security and economic benefits of lessening our dependence on oil.

So which form of transportation doesn’t pay for itself again?

Post-post note: Grist’s bicycle blogger throws out even more good numbers about why cyclists shouldn’t have to pay a road tax.

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