Biking should be encouraged, not taxed further to support roads
Let's use public dollars to encourage those who travel by bike in our communities, as they are doing a service for the economy and the environment while paying more than their fair share in taxes.
Special to The Times
WHILE James Vesely's attempt to stir the pot may seem reasonable ["Impose a license fee on bicyclists," editorial column, Dec 7], it ignores much of what we know about who subsidizes whom on our roads, sidewalks and trails. It also casts people who travel by bicycle, or walk for that matter, as the "fringe" who don't participate equally in our society and communities. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is that less than 3 percent of the region's total transportation funds are spent on bicycle and pedestrian projects and programs, while 37 percent of the region's population — the old, the young, the disabled, the poor and those who don't own cars — cannot or does not drive. What's more, 60 percent of Washingtonians want to walk and bike more than they currently do.
Investments in transportation overwhelmingly tilt in favor of moving as many cars as quickly as possible — often to the disadvantage of walking and bicycling. This makes it easy to forget that these streets are in fact not the sole domain of the private automobile, but public rights of way where we, the public, should be able to travel with equal ease.
It is this historical bias that has created an environment where many feel unsafe or uncomfortable making even the shortest trips on foot or by bike. Modest investments in walking and bicycling not only improve health, safety and mobility, but also reduce congestion by removing cars from the roads.
People who attack nonmotorized travelers as freeloaders may not know that drivers don't pay their own way. For starters, local roads — where the vast majority of travel occurs — receive almost no funding from user fees like the gas tax. They are funded by sales and property taxes, which we all pay. The 37 percent of people who don't drive, or drive less, pay far more in taxes dedicated to roads than they receive in return.
If we broaden our perspective to include driving's externalities, like crash damages, medical expenses, congestion, pollution, and public safety costs, subsidies for driving are estimated at a dollar per mile. Further, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimated the monetized benefits for shifting trips from cars to bicycling or walking to be between $1.43 and $2.75 per mile.
Failing to adequately support investments in walking and bicycling has led to a $1.2 billion backlog in unfunded capital projects statewide, according to a 2007 state study. Even though more than 2 million people in Washington do not drive, they are often deprived of safe, equitable access to our public rights of way.
Compare the cost of serving this unmet need with a recent billion-dollar project begun on Interstate 90, which serves a mere 29,000 vehicles a day. For the price of a project that moves fewer vehicles than many arterial streets, we could build every planned trail, sidewalk and bike lane in the entire state.
Despite enormous subsidies for driving, and routine underinvestment in other transportation choices, bicycling is the fastest-growing form of transportation in the Puget Sound region's urban centers. According to the American Communities Survey and the U.S. Census Bureau, bicycling trips grew 27 percent and walking trips grew 15 percent in Seattle from 2000 to 2005, while drive-alone trips grew by only 4.5 percent over the same period.
Growth in bicycling and walking also works in tandem with public transit. Making transit centers more accessible to people who choose to leave their cars behind can double ridership, giving buses, streetcars and trains more bang for their buck. Every one of us who finds a new transit stop within walking or bicycling distance knows the freedom of new transportation choices.
Finally, facing tremendous challenges in combating global warming, now is hardly the time to undermine growth in walking and bicycle use. Extreme weather brought about by human activity is taking its toll on our crumbling infrastructure. Bicycles not only produce zero emissions, but have nearly zero impact on road surfaces when compared with motor vehicles.
Despite his sarcasm, Vesely may be onto something when he dubs bicyclists "the most green of our population." Let's use public dollars to encourage those who travel by bike in our communities, as they are doing a service for the economy and the environment while paying more than their fair share in taxes.David Hiller is advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.