ReImagine This: Bikes Pay for Our Roads, Too


…because it’s nice to share, but especially because we all paid for it.


I’m a little irked today, friends.

This week, we received the draft of the ReImagine Reno Guiding Principles & Goals [PDF], which will be discussed in a focus group at City Hall next Tuesday. As far as I can tell, this is a document designed to guide the ReImagine Reno initiative, which itself is a multi-year effort to redesign the city’s Master Plan, which is supposedly informed by but does not fully include the Reno Sparks Bicycle & Pedestrian Master Plan [PDF]. Never mind this telescoping set of initiatives and plans-to-create-plans-to-guide-plans; what’s ruffled my feathers is a little one-off comment included in the Transportation section of the guiding principles document (page 17, bottom right, for those of you following along):

“Nobody rides a bike in Reno. Stop narrowing the streets to inconvenience thousands of people a day for one bicyclist, who doesn’t pay any road tax. Focus on the 99%: the drivers.”

First, is it no cyclists, or one cyclist, or a minimum of 20 cyclists (1% of 2,000)? Mathematical mockery aside, what the hell is up with the City of Reno including blatantly counterfactual statements in its discussion section, couched as “what we’ve heard”? Whoever wrote this comment clearly doesn’t believe that cyclists shouldn’t be considered in road design. That’s their opinion, and they’re free to share it. But when they start tossing around one-offs like “bicyclists don’t pay road tax”, and the City chooses to incorporate that comment as if it’s a valid opinion and not simply a false statement, I get annoyed.

I’m not going to write a super-thorough explanation of how cyclists do pay, and in fact over pay, for the roads crisscrossing our cities, states and nation because the point has been so well made in so many other venues. If you want a nice, broad technical analysis of the subject, go read this 2003 paper [PDF] from the Brookings Institution. Otherwise, here are the highlights of the argument:

  • The money to build roads in this country comes from a variety of sources, including but not limited to vehicle taxes and fees, property taxes, general income and sales taxes, tolls and gas taxes. As you can see, some of these sources are specific to car drivers, but some are general, paid for by everyone, regardless of whether they walk or bike or drive or never leave their house.
  • Most of us who regularly bike also own cars, which means that we pay for roads through the same licensing and registration costs that regular drivers do. The only things we pay proportionally less are gas taxes and tolls.
  • Motorized vehicles cause far, far more damage to the roads we all share than bikes do – this should be pretty intuitive. Check out this handy infographic from the Oregon Bicycle Transportation Alliance – according to their sources, it would take nearly 10,000 bikes travelling along a road to equal the damage done by just one car.
  • When you look at the share of road funding that comes from car-specific taxes vs. general taxes and compare that to the relative damage (i.e. road-building and maintenance costs) that drivers, bikers, transiters and walkers incur, it turns out that non-drivers are actually heavily subsidizing drivers on the roads. If we all actually paid for the costs we incurred, I’d be looking for my refund check in the mail. Surprise!

These are the facts. They’re readily available and they’re actually pretty obvious. But if you’re not familiar with the issue and you read a breezy, thoughtless, totally false comment in an official city document discussing the future of transportation in our region, even if it’s couched as an opinion, then your starting point for thinking about transit is that bikes are freeloaders who are just taking advantage of the rest of us and yeah, maybe they should get off our roads. That’s why I’m disappointed that this comment is taking up precious space in this document, and why I’ll be there on Tuesday, attempting to make sure that the plan that guides the plan that informs the real plan reflects the facts as well as the opinions of all who live in Reno.


3 thoughts on “ReImagine This: Bikes Pay for Our Roads, Too

  1. Great post. We need to get people in Reno thinking that it’s a good thing to encourage biking here. I think this is tough because so many of us live in areas for which bikes will never be useful (north valleys, Caughlin Ranch, Sommerset, etc.).

    Some ways biking benefits those people are: roads with bike lanes have higher overall capacity (both driving and parking) so when they do drive downtown there will be more room for them, and biking’s a building block (unlike oversized/underutilized roads) of a nice city dense center which they are free to enjoy as well.

    I think the fact that bikes pay for roads too isn’t obvious to a lot of people and it’s something we need to get good at explaining if we want to increase bike infrastructure here. I think folks take it for granted that gas tax pays for all roads, or that since there are no bikes, why should money be allocated to them.

    1. Great points, Andrew. I’m working on a post about how bike infrastructure and complete streets benefit all road users, from pedestrians to bikes to drivers. We have a lecturer at UNR who teaches this concept in her community health courses, so I’ll be getting her thoughts as well.

      You bring up a really good point about the outlying suburbs (though I’m not sure I’d include Caughlin Ranch – I actually think that neighborhood is totally bikeable, with the added benefit that you’ll never have to pay for a gym membership again!). We do have some areas in Reno that probably aren’t feasible for bikes, but those people’s transit needs are just as valid as those of us who live in the middle of town. The challenge for our city is accommodating those that need to drive while simultaneously making the urban core as ped- and bike-friendly as possible. It’s definitely an interesting time to live in Reno if you’re interested in transit!

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