Streets.MN recently published a thorough and intelligent article about user fees and roads. It's titled, "Yes, Bicycle Riders Should Pay Their Fair Share," and it's well worth a read. The author, Walker Angell, writes the piece in response to a recent op-ed in his local paper suggesting the bicyclists do not pay their fair share for use of the road. Angell begins:

I’m a strong believer in personal responsibility and that we should each pay for what we use. This makes for better decision making and creates much more efficient use of scarce resources than when the costs of using these resources are not tied to our choices. 

Historically we paid for our roads with taxes on gasoline. In theory the amount of gas you used was roughly equivalent to the wear and tear you placed on the road system. In reality it was extremely rough but it sort of worked. As the costs to build and maintain our roads and bridges have increased, gas tax revenue has not. This largely due to increased fuel economy and the tax being a fixed amount per gallon instead of tied to inflation. Politicians were afraid to increase the gas tax appropriately, so either maintenance was foregone or the gap was filled with easier to vote on general funds.

Today, less than half of the costs to build, maintain, and operate our road system are paid for from such user fees, with the bulk coming from general tax revenue — mostly property taxes.

Image from Streets.MN

Image from Streets.MN

Taking the time to sincerely #DotheMath, Angell lays out three main aspects of a vehicle that incur road cost—vehicle weight, speed, and size—and calculates the relative costs that car drivers might be expected to pay based on those factors, if they were really paying their fair share:

There is a base cost of things like signs and signals that has nothing to do with what vehicle you operate. This is about 1 cent per mile. Assuming you have a 3,000 pound car then your weight cost is about $0.05 per mile. Your car is 15’ long so 15/5 cents is $0.03. This gives us a base rate of $0.09 per mile.

At an average speed of 30 MPH (a speed factor of 1.3) times $0.09 gives us $0.12 per mile or $1.20 for a 10 mile journey.

Head over to the article to read the origins of these numbers and see further illustrations. After calculating the base $1.20 for a 10-mile journey by car, Angell goes on to do the math for bicyclists and pedestrians:

We can do this for a bicycle rider as well. Weight cost is $0.001 per mile plus size of 1/15 cent per foot (bicycles require 1/3 as much lane width as cars) times 5 feet gives us 5/15 = $0.0033 per mile. There is no speed element or fixed base cost with bicycles so we’ve got $0.0053 per mile or $0.05 for a 10 mile journey.

A pedestrian costs about 2 cents for that 10 mile journey (and the cost of a pint after walking 10 miles).

Just to spell that out for you:

  • Car: $1.20
  • Bike: $0.05
  • Person walking: $0.02

Angell goes on to take a stab at calculating costs that might also be associated with the immense loss of life that results from car driving every year. I highly encourage you to read the whole article.

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