Taxing S.F. Cyclists Is a Dumb Idea

Categories: bikes

Maybe you've heard the rumors. Lane-splitting, stop-sign-flouting, tax-evading cyclists have seized control of City Hall.

It's true -- I read all about it on the Internet.

It all started earlier this week when the cycle-sympathizing quislings at the SFMTA put forth a new six-year plan to dramatically increase municipal spending on bike projects. Presented at an agency board meeting on Tuesday, the Draft Bicycle Strategy offered three distinct investment scenarios, ranging from the modest $60 million "Bicycle Plan Plus" to the over half-a-billion-dollar "System Build-out Scenario" -- the Cadillac of urban planning initiatives specifically designed to make it inconvenient to own a Cadillac.

Given the City's stated goal of boosting regular bike ridership, (20 percent of all trips by 2020 is still the plan) and given the fact that the SFMTA currently dedicates less than 1 percent of its annual budget to bike-program funding, a reasonable person might be forgiven for deeming the SFMTA's triple proposal worthy of consideration.

But according to many of the comments posted beneath this Examiner story written on the agency plan, such reasonable persons are nothing but "A BUNCH OF BIKE NAZI LOSERS." (capped emphasis and flecks of spittle taken from the original quote).

Indeed, a common refrain from those registering their opposition to the free-spending ways of the SFMTA (so obviously in the pocket of Big Bicycle) is that cyclists have no right to demand better infrastructure when they pay so little for it. Combining that old-time anti-bike vitriol with righteous Tea Partying indignation, commenter after commenter declared themselves to be mad as hell: "It's time to make the bikers pay," they say.

Via the Examiner:

"Bicyclists complain that they should have the same rights as cars yet as been noted here they pay no registraiton fees, no license fees," complains one commenter.

"Put license plates on bikes, charge a nominal fee, and *they* can pay for their lanes!" echoes another.

To my great surprise, the above comments are not the arguments of a strawman, but a surprisingly popular line of thinking -- and not just on the Internet!

Just the other day I got into the very same debate with a family member of mine. Since cyclists demand their own special infrastructure, he argued, surely it's only fair that they cover at least some that expense. After all, he said, cyclists are always clambering to be treated as equal members of the vehicular community. And what confers legitimacy like a license and registration?

I'll admit that when presented to me in this way, I did pause to think it over. And here's what I concluded: Mandatory registration and taxation of bicyclists is a really dumb idea.

There is the impracticality of it all to consider. Even with record levels of commuters biking to work each day, unless the plan is to charge a fee that makes up a significant fraction of the value of the average bicycle, revenue would be pretty meager. And that is assuming that most cyclists would comply with the law, which, given the number of bikes out there and the policing required to ensure that each one is properly registered, should not be assumed.

Some believe that forcing bicyclists to display an ID number would somehow keep them on the straight-and-narrow. Ah, we already see the frustrated and ineffectual fist-waving at law-breaking bicyclists. "That stop-sign-running fucker won't get away with it now that I've got his license number. Because now I'm going to report him." And just imagine how doggedly the police will pursue that lead.

But, efficacy of the law aside, I think those on the other side of this argument are either forgetting or purposefully overlooking one obvious point: We want people to bike.

Unless you are the guy from the aforementioned comment thread trying to make the argument that bikes are somehow worse for the environment than cars, I think most would agree that as the city continues to grow (and grow more congested), that it would be nice if more people opted for the more energy- and space-efficient mode of transportation. And to the extent that we can encourage people to make that choice -- by making the city a safer, easier, and more fun place to get around on a bike -- we should. And that is worth paying for together.

Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.




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22 comments
sfbobbyman
sfbobbyman

When cars start paying even a fraction of the cost of renting the real estate they use, then we can talk about the costs bicycle infrastructure amounts to.

briansays
briansays

the goal is to cloak private self interest with public good so they can make you pay for something which benefits them even thou the beneficiary is middle class employed

we recognize the scam

clean up the homeless filth and fix muni first if you want any credibility

AverageJoeSF
AverageJoeSF

The broader point is that the city streets simply can not sustain the continued increase in automobile traffic. The real purpose of these bicycle initiatives isn't to favor the far-out exercise nuts and spandex warriors on bike- it's meant to alleviate congestion by deliberately reducing the number of cars in traffic. It's laughable that the rest of the country thinks SF is some hippie environmentalist paradise where bikes reign supreme and citizens care about the common good. Most people in the bay area are utterly obsessed with using their goddam cars to get everywhere, more so than any other place I've lived (and I'm from Detroit, btw). A city like SF has literally no room to build more roads or parking spaces. Cutting the number of cars - or at least the rate at which that number grows -  is the only way to reduce congestion.

davidbakerfaia
davidbakerfaia

Cars actually account for about about 46% of the total people trips in SF. What this comes down to is sharing available resources in a fair way, just like we (hopefully) learned in Kindergarden. If you have strategy that's inexpensive it makes sense to include it. More people mobility for far less money per person.

briansays
briansays

cyclists

entitled welfare class

the city should add a luxury tax say 5-10 percent of the price on every bike

you add nothing to those who drive and pay for everything

and pedestrians who at least use the sidewalk 

Prinzrob
Prinzrob

I was all ready to hear a detailed explanation of how our local streets and roads that bicyclists ride on are funded largely by non-user fees that everyone pays, including people who bike, and not by vehicle registration fees and gas taxes, but that explanation never happened. I was also hoping to hear an explanation of how much more value-driven bicycle infrastructure is when compared to motor vehicle infrastructure, as it is significantly cheaper per mile and more of the funding goes to labor instead of materials, which then makes its way back into the local economy, but that never happened either. I even thought I might hear an explanation about how bicycle registration requirements have existed and still do exist in some cities around California, but most cities opt out as they consistently equal a net loss, financially, and don't amount to any positive impact on safety. Or I might have even expected a description of all the external costs cars have on our cities, such as increased congestion, health and safety issues, air quality and environmental damage, increased sprawl and impacts on local businesses, etc, but even that didn't happen. Kinda missed the boat on this one, Ben.

jymdyer
jymdyer

≎ It's a strange mindset that looks at a small but visible amount of bicycle spending (%0.46 of the SFMTA's budget) and panics.  The thing is, most people don't really grasp the staggering amount of money that goes into propping up motoring, because much of it is hidden subsidy.  This despite our saddling ourselves with decades of bond debt at both the state and city level to dump yet more money into our streets.

Bottom line, the costs inflicted by cars are way higher than the payments made specifically by motorists.  The difference is paid for by all of us, and those of us who bike (and therefore inflict the least cost of all) are subsidizing it the most.  Given that, taxing us one penny more is a ridiculous notion.

@rmajora - Rob Anderson, never surrender, never give up, eh? What you call "faith-based" is actually well-studied phenomena, and indeed the deployment of bike lanes in San Francisco was followed by an increase in bicycling.  Your nuisance suit delayed it but didn't disprove it.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

The real issue with cyclists in SF is not money but taking away traffic lanes and street parking on busy streets to make bike lanes. Street space is a zero-sum game in the city, since most of our streets have limited traffic lanes with street parking on the side. The Fell/Oak bike project eliminates 100 parking spaces, and the Masonic bike project will eliminate all the street parking on Masonic between Fell Street and Geary Blvd., a total of 167 parking spaces. The city is doing these projects without any idea how many cyclists will use these new lanes to justify making it more difficult to park and drive in this part of town. In short it's a faith-based traffic policy, but once it's done we'll be stuck with it.

hubig
hubig

Dumb? perhaps in this conceptualization, but. Looking ahead to the coming world of "alternative" transportation styles there will be a need to reorganize and pay for the changes .... Or transportation could just become an free for all free-for-all.

sparky777
sparky777

Cyclists DO pay for their infrastructure.  According to a really recent breakdown of gasoline tax, tolls, and other user fees by the Tax Foundation, all local and state road spending is heavily financed by general revenue which any sales and income tax paying cyclist pays.  The drop in the bucket of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure investment is more of an insult to tax paying cyclists and pedestrians than a handout.

Tax Foundation Report can be found here:
http://taxfoundation.org/blog/statelocal-road-spending-covered-user-fees-user-taxes-categories-separated-out

AverageJoeSF
AverageJoeSF

@briansays A luxury tax for owning a bicycle is absurd, unless you deem getting soaked in the rain and facing death by motorists at every corner 'luxurious'. Every person commuting by bike means one less car in front of you at the intersection, and one less car fighting with you for parking. Do you honestly believe the vehicle registration fees on your car cover the full cost of infrastructure that cars require?

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@jymdyer That there has been a "surge" in cycling is the Big Lie City Hall uses to justify redesigning our streets on behalf of your obnoxious minority to the detriment of 96.5% of those who use city streets. According to the city's own studies, cycling was 2.1% in 2000, and it's now 3.5% after more than 10 years!

The successful "nuisance" suit at least forced the city to do an EIR on its radical Bicycle Plan. Funny that two judges agreed with the injunction and Judge Busch ruled in our favor on the merits. Of course that didn't stop the fanatics in City Hall from continuing the anti-car jihad, even though the EIR told us that, as predicted, the Bicycle Plan will slow traffic all over the city, including delaying a number of Muni lines in our supposedly "transit first" city. But that's the way it goes when you try to deal with religious fanatics.

I bet if the Bicycle Plan was on the ballot it would be rejected by city voters. But of course City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition will make sure the people of SF never get a chance to vote on these issues.

Prinzrob
Prinzrob

@rmajora But the city HAS been performing detailed traffic studies before pushing forward on lane or parking conversions. The results of course indicate that there will be a net loss of service for drivers assuming the same or greater number of vehicles using the street in the future, but even without the lane and parking conversions the level of service will go down via increased congestion and population growth.

As you said, street space is a zero-sum game so there is basically no realistic way to manage future projections of motor vehicle traffic (what you call "faith-based traffic policy") beyond razing and paving over more of the city, so it seems to me that the SFMTA is being very proactive and rational about making sure that there are safe and comfortable facilities to accomodate and encourage more folks who can and/or want to bike for transportation to do so. Even with less than 1% of the city's budget devoted to bicycles SF has seen a boom in ridership, so why would one not expect this trend to continue with spending increases?

Devoting more space on our streets to bicycles actually increases their potential throughput, but only if one cases to think about the throughput of PEOPLE, not just cars. Building an unsafe, inefficient, uncomfortable, or piecemeal network for bicyclists will indeed not boost ridership enough to reach the city's 20% goal, just as I wouldn't expect building a similar system for cars to encourage growth in that mode either.

jymdyer
jymdyer

@rmajora - Your miss-the-forest-for-the-trees reading of the EIR shows an impact on traffic in some places, but ignores the overall improvement, which disproves your premise.  The "merits" of the lawsuit are about paperwork, not your premise.

tahoe3
tahoe3

@rmajora @jymdyer Rob - I'll take that bet. Get to work on getting that ballot measure on the ballot, stat!

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@Prinzrob @rmajora Creating new streets is a non-issue in SF. We'll only ever have the existing streets to deal with, and those streets have limited space. There has in fact been no big surge in cycling in San Francisco. Please provide evidence for that claim. While you're at it, please provide city studies showing that there will be a significant increase in cycling after all these projects are implemented. The studies don't exist, just like the surge never happened. It's all PC baloney. "People" drive cars in our rapidly gentrifying city. Making it more difficult to drive in SF---taking away traffic lanes and street parking to make bike lanes---is only going to make traffic worse for everyone.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@jymdyer @rmajora You're bluffing, Jim---or "Jym"---since the projects in the EIR, and the EIR itself, are based on the assumption that the Bicycle Plan will be an "improvement," but the city admits that it really doesn't know how many people will stop driving and start riding bikes. What the EIR does say many times is that the projects will have "significant unavoidable impacts." They will only be avoided by not implementing the Bicycle Plan.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@tahoe3 @rmajora @Prinzrob 

Yes, the city is becoming a playground for rich white people, and cyclists are mostly young, well-off white guys.

tahoe3
tahoe3

@rmajora @Prinzrob wait a minute....


I keep hearing that cycling is for the elitist, rich snobs.


Now Rob says "out rapidly gentrifying city"


Seems to me that if the city is becoming a bunch of elitist rich snobs, planning for cycling is the savvy move!

Prinzrob
Prinzrob

@rmajora Typically one resorts to name calling when they have no more good arguments to make, but in this case I would say you are partially correct in labeling me a "bike zealot", as I am certainly a devoted advocate but not unreasonable. I grew up in a community that was dependent on the auto industry for survival, and worked for many years as a professional driver myself. As such, being pro-bike was by no means an easy or obvious position to take, but one that I came to via sound reasoning, self-examination and data, rather than tradition and emotion.

What do I mean by "sound reasoning and data"? Well, for starters it means considering all of the available information, and not just cherry picking the facts that support my pre-supposed conclusion. For instance, if I was going to cite figures for bicycle mode share between the year 2000 and today, I would probably want to note that the citywide bicycle mode share actually went down in 2003 before it started climbing incrementally, year-over-year, and I would especially want to note that until 2010 this all took place during the bike plan injunction, when the city was not providing any new accommodation to cyclists. I would also want to take into account that the current bicycle mode share changes dramatically throughout the city, reaching as high as 15% in some areas and much lower in others, and I would want to note that this data only takes into account commute trips to work for adults over 16, without figuring in younger cyclists, non-work trips, or multi-modal trips. These facts don't necessarily support lane conversions and increased spending on bike projects, but they do provide additional and important context.

Sound reasoning also means defining the problem and working backwards to determine how best to mitigate it, as opposed to identifying the solution first and crafting the issues to support it. My main concerns related to transportation are impacts on safety, loss of efficiency, and impacts on neighborhood quality of life, so I analyze any proposed solutions based on what effect they will have on these issues. So far most (not all) of the data and reports I have read show that increased bicycling and transit mode shares best address these issues in urban areas, and I have yet to hear any convincing arguments to the contrary.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@Prinzrob @rmajora 

Cyclists are a tiny minority, even here in Progressive Land. Why should that small minority be allowed to redesign our streets used by more than 90% of travelers who don't ride bikes? Muni is the real alternative to driving in SF; it has 700,000 boardings every workday. Why is delaying Muni lines a sensible policy in our supposedly "transit first" city?

An increase from 2.1% to 3.4% in 12 years is "a big deal"? Only a bike zealot can think so.

Prinzrob
Prinzrob

@rmajora Per your previous post, I actually think a 2.1% to 3.5% bicycle mode share increase is a pretty big deal (i.e. a 66% increase in the number of people biking), especially considering that this was accomplished using just 0.46% of the SFMTA's budget (the mode share percentages also only take into account bike commuters, and not cyclists making other trips, or multi-modal trips involving bikes). I don't understand how you wouldn't anticipate an even greater mode shift if the city matched their spending to the mode share and spent a "whopping" 3.5% of the budget on bike improvements.

You call it "making it more difficult to drive in SF" but I call it "making it more possible to move more PEOPLE on our streets by maximizing the use of street space". For this purpose each street user is considered equally whether those people are on bikes, in cars, or walking, but in practice we can fit many more cyclists and pedestrians into the space than cars so it only makes sense to encourage those modes unless the solution you are suggesting is tearing down buildings to widen the roadways and build more elevated freeways, because that's the only way we will be able to fit more cars into the picture.

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