Wednesday, April 10, 2019

You Don't Pay Taxes!

I'll bet a lot of you have heard this one. An angry driver puts you at risk, either by their inattention, ignorance, impatience - or just homicidal hostility. When confronted, they respond with some variation on a theme:

"You bikers think you own the road - you don't even pay taxes."

"I'm in a car - you're on a bike. I pay taxes - you don't."

Any time the question of a cyclist's right to the road comes up, ignorant anti-cyclists bring up taxes. Sometimes they're raging drivers screaming at a cyclist on the road. Sometimes it's some smug loudmouth pontificating at a social gathering. Sometimes it's a self-serving politician trying to score points with the anti-cyclist constituency. At some point, they all make the same preposterous claim. "Cyclists don't even pay taxes!" It's such a widespread view that many rarely get challenged on it.

The thing is, if all these drivers really believe there's some magical tax exemption for cycling, why don't more of them do it? Either they don't really believe it - or they're mathematically challenged. But that's somewhat beside my point.

First off, where does this idiocy even begin? Exactly what taxes do cyclists supposedly not pay? First and foremost, these anti-cyclists are probably referring to gas taxes. And many drivers have been convinced - or more likely deluded - that their gas taxes pay for the roads. These gasoline taxes currently consist of a federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, along with state gas taxes that can range anywhere from around 7 to 39 cents per gallon, depending on the state. So in total, we're talking about 26 to 57 cents added to a gallon of gas. (You can see a state-by-state gas tax breakdown HERE) Because these taxes are rolled into the price at the pump invisibly (that is, they aren't itemized and don't show up on the receipt), very few people are aware how much they're paying - they only know that they're paying.

The other thing that the "Cyclists Don't Pay Taxes" crowd may be referring to is license fees - whether for drivers' license, or auto registration/license plates. Again, a small portion of these fees may be earmarked for roads - but to think that the fees cover the true costs of road maintenance and construction is not only naive, it's demonstrably untrue. More on that in a bit.

What is completely ignored by these anti-cyclists is that the vast majority of adult cyclists in this country are also, in fact, drivers, and as such, pay all the same gasoline taxes and license/registration fees that other drivers pay. The anti-cyclists seem to believe that because you're on a bicycle now - you must always be on a bike. You never drive - you don't buy gas - you don't have a driver's license - you don't own a car. Hell - you're not even a person to many of them - you're a biker or a cyclist. Something "other." You're not someone's husband or wife. Not someone's father or mother. Not someone's son or daughter. You're an obstacle. And you don't pay taxes.

Except that you do. We all do.

Let's say, just for a moment, that these anti-cyclists are correct and you really don't drive or own a car. Does that mean you aren't paying for the roads and therefore have no right to use them? Hell no.

The notion that gasoline taxes, license, and auto registration fees pay for the roads is one of the biggest myths going. The truth is, driving is one of the most heavily subsidized activities the average American engages in day in and day out.

Consider the gas tax. The 18.4 cents/gallon federal tax goes almost entirely towards interstates and federally funded highways - many of which cyclists aren't allowed to use - and even then, the gas tax only pays a portion of the true costs while the remainder is picked up by other tax sources, such as income taxes. The state portion of the gas tax is, likewise, used mainly for state highways which may or may not permit bicycles (depending on their design), and generally not used for local roads where bicycles are more commonly found. And again, the gas tax only covers a portion of the true cost, while the remainder is picked up by other tax sources. Local roads are mostly paid for by local income taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes -- and these, like federal and state income taxes, are paid whether a person drives or not. Anyone who has an income, makes purchases, or owns or rents a home or apartment pays for the roads.

Here's another thing: Most road projects are too expensive to simply be paid in full from a community's budget, and so they are paid for by bonds - such as municipal bonds. The interest on these bonds is not covered by gas taxes or license fees, but through general tax funds which are (again) paid by all of us, whether we drive or not. Add to this the less obvious costs of driving - like the tremendous acreage of land set aside for "free" parking,  along with the environmental impact, and quality of life issues (health, safety, etc.) and you can see that the driving subsidy is pretty massive.

So, how much of the cost of road maintenance and construction is paid by gas taxes and other "user fees" (license, registration, etc.)? Approximately one-half, and falling. According to a study by the US Pirg Education Fund and the Frontier Group, the percentage back in the 1960s was around 70% - but because politicians are strongly averse to raising gas taxes, and because cars have become more fuel efficient, the amount brought in by gas taxes has steadily fallen while the cost of road construction has risen.

Here in my home state, Ohio, our newly elected governor proposed raising gas taxes for the first time in about 15 years to cover badly needed road maintenance, but immediately met resistance from legislators. Though they did eventually approve an increase, it was barely more than half of what was requested and likely necessary. Where will the rest of the money come from? As usual, from other tax sources paid by people whether they drive or not. And here's a fun fact: many states have found a creative way to generate more gas tax revenue without pissing off drivers who remain ignorant of how much the rest of us are subsidizing their addiction. Have you noticed that a lot of states are raising speed limits on their highways? People complain when their gas prices go up, but they don't complain when they get to drive faster on the highway, even though the end result (paying more money for driving) is the same. But ultimately, none of these little "half-measures" come close to reducing the driving subsidy.

A lot of what I'm saying here is probably pretty clear to most people who are reading this. The anti-cyclists who remain convinced that they are totally paying their own way, or who believe that cyclists are "freeloaders" on the public roads, aren't likely to be reading The Retrogrouch, and aren't inclined to do any reading (regardless of the source) that might make them question their narrow worldview. The problem comes down to how do we make people aware?

Just a couple of weeks ago on my ride home from work, I had a driver pass me within inches just to get in front of me at a stop sign (by the way, Ohio has a "minimum 3-ft. passing" law). I yelled out "HEY!" (just "HEY!" - nothing more). He opened his window and proceeded to scream at me to go find a bike path and get off the road -- the road that he and other drivers (and only drivers, as he seemed convinced) pay for. Predictably, he went there. He screamed "You don't even pay TAXES!" As usual, I'm incapable of just letting it go. My temper and my indignation at someone's willful ignorance and arrogance means I can't just ride away. Despite knowing how these things always end up going - despite the absolute folly of it, I totally took his bait and engaged in the argument. And as usual, the adrenaline and the anger took control of my tongue. It was all kind of an emotional blur, but I think I sputtered some really brilliant retort - like "YOU'RE the one who doesn't pay taxes." He drove away after threatening to run me down if he ever saw me again. It's just a reminder that there is absolutely no point in engaging these morons. Even if you can remain calm and rational, there's nothing you can say to people like that that would convince them.

One of these days I'll finally reach a point where I'll be able to just shrug it off. Maybe smile and wave ironically. It will be then that I'll have truly reached enlightenment.


  1. If you rode your bike over a newly laid roadway for a trillion years would you manage to noticeably wear out the surface as much as a car would in one day or a truck with one pass?

    In the UK the push to improve the roads to safe rideable surfaces came from cyclists, then the car drivers came along and ruined everything.

  2. i've gradually come to accept over the years that it serves no useful purpose to engage with folks who are dead set on having such a confrontation on the road. If i react at all, i'll usually just smile and wave and say "Howya doin'?" That usually shuts them up. Life's too short to waste my breath arguing with moron motorists.

    When the setting permits, i have been able to have a reasonably rational discussion using the points you've mentioned, and even occasionally get someone to see my point of view.

  3. To Coline’s point, the amount you pay through sales and property taxes alone is more than enough to cover the amount of damage you cause to the roadways.

    In this country as well it was cyclists — the League of American Wheelmen — who pushed for safe riding surfaces.

  4. I'm reading Streetfight by Sadik-Khan, transportation commissioner who transformed NYC streets. A good look at many road ueses. I highly recommend this read. She addresses many misguided notions about who pays for what.

  5. I'm with you Mike w., the nutso's aren't worth a breath of speech or a brain cell of thought. If the nutso's want to tax every vehicle on the road, I'd say it should be by vehicle weight. The nutso's would shut really quick with a 4000 pound tax bill.

  6. And yet another oxymoron; You are not required to have a driver's license to ride (operate) a bicycle, however commit moving violation, or get caught operating one under the influence and they will charge you and add points to your DRIVER'S license. Here in NC there is a legislator that is attempting to start a bicycle licensing scheme to make sure cyclists "pay their fair share".


  7. If roads were wholly funded by gasoline tax then gas would be about $6.00/gallon.

    As for when meatheads scream gobledeegook at me I now blow them a kiss which really seems to get their goat.

  8. My standard retort to "get off the road" screed, that actually rarely happens (thankfully) is to cheerfully say " you first" I try to keep the profanity in my head. YMMV