Freakonomics Ponders the Freeloading Cyclist

294841_0dbb37e404.jpgWho’s next? Photo: wodaking/Flickr

The Times’ Freakonomics blog has picked up on proposed legislation from Wayne Krieger, an Oregon representative who wants every bike owner in the state aged 18 and older to pay a $54 registration fee every two years. "[B]ikes have used the roads in this state forever and have never
contributed a penny," says Krieger. "The only people that pay into the system are those
people who buy motor vehicle licenses and registration fees."

As one might suspect, asking Krieger to further explain the rationale for his bill, as Bike Portland did, reveals his motives to be rooted as much in suspicion of cyclists in general as in any desire for bike riders to pay their "fair share." Sample quote: "If a person is operating a bike and they are the one that causes an
accident, do they have insurance to cover your costs and medical
expenses? Not all of those people have any type of insurance at all."

The Freakonomics guys, in the link below, point to a study showing "the improved fitness the use of non-motorized transport provides," even as they ask:

Considering the enormous benefits
of investments in bicycle infrastructure, can even a tax-hating
bicyclist concede his point, at a registration cost of just over 7
cents a day?

So cycling should be taxed because it makes people healthier? Freakonomics, indeed.

  • Glenn

    As many commenters have noted on the freakonomics blog, many cyclists in many parts of the country also own cars and pay taxes that pay for road upkeep. And many of the non-driving folks are children. The Urban Cyclist who forsakes automobiles altogether is sadly an extreme minority.

    But the clear comparison for cyclists are pedestrians. Due to the extremely low impact of their activity on the condition of the road (or for pedestrians, sidewalks) the impact on a per person basis is next to nothing.

    If anyone is worried about accounting for the fair share costs of road maintainence should look at heavy trucks, which cause orders of magnitude higher impact on roads, not cyclists.

  • zz

    Of course, local streets are generally paid for by property taxes, which bicyclists pay like everybody else.

  • zz Thank you for pointing that out. There is this false belief out there that local roads are paid for with gas taxes. This is just not always or even usually the case. Property taxes and assessments pay in to local roads so the true freeloader is the person driving the car as they are subsidized.

  • anonymous

    What if a pedestrian causes a traffic accident? Do they have collision insurance for walking?

    What about people’s dogs?

    What about deer?

  • anonymous

    I’m sure cyclists would be fine with it if the fee went towards paying for bike transportation improvements–namely, safe bike lanes–and not simply repaving roads for automobiles to speed on. Why should bicyclists subsidize a road system that doesn’t cater to their needs?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Of course, local streets are generally paid for by property taxes, which bicyclists pay like everybody else.”

    This needs to be stated over and over again. Most gas taxes to go highways. Bicycles are not allowed on limited access highways.

    Everyone pays for streets. Motor vehicles occupy far more street space per person, and cause more wear and tear on them, than do bicycles.

    And, by the way, in NYC the city doesn’t even maintain the sidewalks. For pedestrians the expected institutional collapse — taxes with nothing in return — has already occured.

  • Shemp

    Regarding Freakonomics’ argument, the fitness cycling affords to its practitioners means they are generally less of a burden to society from a health care POV than the sedentary, so why create a disincentive?

  • I’ve been “car free” for all of seven days (since arriving in Brooklyn sans car last Saturday) and have an appointment to have my cruising/commuting bike fitted tomorrow at 2pm.

    I would have no problem paying an annual registration fee to license my bicycle and have it annually inspected for soundness at a set price, provided that the DOT was required to provide and maintain bike lanes on all roads and that Traffic Cops were required to police both drivers and cyclists for obstructing those lanes, causing accidents, and otherwise hampering the productive, safe flow of traffic. Sounds like the outline of a legitimate partnership.

  • “The only people that pay into the system are those people who buy motor vehicle licenses and registration fees.”

    Yeah, what an appallingly ignorant statement. It would be like claiming that only parents with children are paying for public schools. Those of us without children pay through the nose for it, just like those of us who don’t drive pay through the nose for the local road system. In both cases we derive some secondary benefits from the way the system is set up, but let’s not pretend we’re paying “nothing” when in fact we’re paying a great deal more than we’re getting back in return.

  • El Biciclero

    The problem that causes folks concern about cyclists paying their way is a failure of imagination. “Drivers” pay for all sorts of asphalt that they are not allowed to use: HOV lanes, passing lanes, breakdown lanes, sidewalks. None of the above types of pavement may be driven upon except under certain circumstances–circumstances in which most drivers can imagine finding themselves at some point.

    “Today I’m by myself, but tomorrow I might have a passenger, allowing me to use the HOV lane.”

    “Today I’m slow, so I can’t use the passing lane, but tomorrow I might be driving a faster car.”

    “I’m not having car trouble today, so I have to stay off the shoulder of the highway (even though I paid for it), but tomorrow I might have an emergency.”

    “I’m driving right now, so I have to stay off the sidewalk–but pretty soon I’m going to park, and then I’ll get to use that sidewalk I paid for.”

    The one scenario many drivers can never seem to imagine is this one:

    “Today I’m driving, but tomorrow I might decide to ride my bike.”

    People have no problem paying for parts of the road they might likely never use–or even be allowed to use–as long as somewhere in the dim recesses of their imagination they could see themselves in a situation that would allow them to use it “someday”.

    Also, folks who cite “freeloading” as a reason for these types of fees on cyclists seem to forget about the other, much larger group of “freeloaders” who get even more use out of the road than cyclists: passengers in motor vehicles. What’s the difference whether I decide to leave my car at home and take someone else’s car, vs. whether I decide to leave my car at home and take my bike? In either case, my car is off the road and I’m using a vehicle on which I paid no registration or licence fees…


  • rex

    Kreiger’s proposal was more about social control than any thought of justice. Kreiger being an ex-cop, he just can’t stand the thought of citizens zipping around on public right-of-ways without “papers”.

    The real disappointment is Freakonomics. The idea that the proposal was even reasonable to consider is very sad.

  • El Biciclero

    Oops, I meant, “‘license’ fees”.

  • “Not all of those people have any type of insurance at all.”

    …those people? Was he referring to poor people? So if they can’t afford insurance, then it’s a great idea to charge them for riding a bicycle?

    I will gladly register my bicycle when there are as many cyclists as motorists, and doubly so when bikes have caused as much damage as cars. Until then, it’s a terrible idea.

  • Krieger’s arguments are pretty specious.

    The $54 2 year registration fee he proposes is the same as the registration fee for cars. You might be able to make a case that bikers should pay their “fair share” of the cost of maintaining streets and highways, but it’s hard to argue that they should pay the same as cars.

    It’s also hard to argue that registration would help police catch bikers who violate traffic violations. When police see a bike commit a moving violation, they can stop the bike, ask for identification, and write a ticket — just as they do when motorists violate the law. This should actually be easier when a bike is involved, since a high-speed chase is unlikely.

  • Is it in fact proportional? In front of my building there are two sidewalks, two lanes of parked (stored) cars and an equal amount of driving space, no bike lane, no bike racks. Does $54 per car every 2 years pay the tax cost on this amount of space? Would $54 every two years give me protected bicycle lanes and bicycle racks?

    Not to mention freeways and expressways where bicycles and pedestrians are prohibited.

    I’m not against a fair tax but only if it provides equal usage.

  • After the massive auto bailouts and the stimulus billions for roads, is there still any doubt that the private-auto system is economically unsustainable and heavily subsidized? Where are the honest economists? Is there such a thing? If the bicycle were subsidized as the auto, there would be gold-plated bike racks on every corner.

  • As long as the bicycle commuter benefit is more than the tax… that way I can use one to pay the other. – Lee

  • carless in pdx

    Whats even more ridiculous about Krieger’s proposal is that state of Oregon motor vehicle lincenses only go towards the operating budget of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Its not like the bike fee would actually end up going towards building new bike lanes or anything.

  • carless in pdx – The proposed bike registration fee in Oregon is actually much higher than the registration fee for a motorcycle, and the bicycle fee is only for one year, while the lower motorcycle fee covers two years.


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