Bicycle Trust Fund

On the Minneapolis Community Indicators project, someone (undoubtedly not a bicyclist) suggested bicyclists should have to pay a fee or license to use bike lanes (an idea totally tangential to the idea of the Indicators project which is about measuring success).

According to jailed car salesman Denny Hecker, Nobody Walks.

According to jailed car salesman Denny Hecker, Nobody Walks.

This drew some snarky comments on the super-secret writers-only exclusive mailing list, and was ultimately silenced out of respect for the state of people’s inboxes.

I (not a hard core bicyclist either, but in a world with better facilities, perhaps) suggested that Bicycling would get more respect at the table, and more resources, if bicycle owners and/or users paid some amount of money to support bicycle infrastructure.

For instance, a $10/year fee for registering a bike would raise more than a million dollars a year in Minneapolis (I am estimating more than 100,000 bikes in the city, and given bike sales > car sales, this doesn’t seem too out of line), I don’t actually know how many there are, or how effective a registration program would be), which would go a long way toward bike infrastructure.

Bike advocates should reframe and embrace. The Bicycle Trust Fund could be very powerful.

Some suggest the funds for bicycle infrastructure should be provided by the public out of general revenue. My first thought is, how is that working for you so far? If you are happy with the level of bike infrastructure in America’s number one bike city, Minneapolis, carry on. If you think it should be better, you can rally and exhort, but you can also bring some money to the table.

In contrast to sidewalks, which are largely maintained (or not) by adjacent property owners, and paid for from special assessments, bike paths are treated more like roads. Also, keep in mind, everyone walks, not everyone bikes.

Certainly car owners don’t pay for 100% of the cost of road infrastructure (more like 50% of operating and capital costs, but depends how you count), but they pay more than non-car owners due to gas taxes and vehicle registration fees. For better or worse, this allows a lot of car-oriented infrastructure to get built.

Transit users don’t pay for 100% of the cost of riding transit (like 33% of operating costs and 0% of capital costs), but they pay more than non-transit users due to fares. This allows transit routes to be somewhat more widespread than otherwise.

There is a perception bike riders are free riders. Bike riders do not pay more for the available bike infrastructure than non-bike riders. Is this perception wrong? Step-up (or pedal-up) and claim some rights and funds in exchange for some responsibilities and “user fees.”

I realize the Minneapolis tax collection bureaucracy has high overhead, but there should be ways to do this and get a pot of money together. If you think a $10 annual fee is too administratively complex, make a $30 fee at the point of sale and/or at bike registration. Exclude bikes older than 3 years.

If you think the bike-tax cops will harass poor bicyclists, make it a secondary rather than primary offense, so you can’t get pulled over for it.

If you are worried about kids, set it up so parents pay for kids, or make it only for bikes > 20″ wheel or some such…there are a lot of strategies.

Think creatively.

31 thoughts on “Bicycle Trust Fund

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    My first question (and one I wish practicing traffic engineers would ask before designing bicycle infrastructure) is what are other countries with successful high modal shares of bicycling doing and how is it working for them?

    Drivers may only pay for 50% of the roads they use, but how much do they pay for the pollution they cause? Of course this might lead to some lawmakers realizing the humans cause pollution as well. Should we also not try to be more fair with the healthcare cost differential between driving and riding bicycles? Certainly between obesity and injuries and deaths from crashes caused by people driving cars theres something to look at.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Good question Walker. While I appreciate David’s sense of bureaucratic pragmatism, I fear the actual results of this kind of policy would be similar to the (well-documented) effect of helmet laws decreasing bicycling all around the world. I greatly fear the effect of any sort of enforcement of a program like this, given how police already view bicycling and bicyclists.

    Instead, perhaps if bicyclists all joined their local bicycle coalitions as dues-paying members, we could build powerful and effective lobbying and community engagement organizations that would balance the playing field, at least at the local level. You can see how effective groups like the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition have been, even without huge numbers of members. Imagine if every city had such a group?

    1. Anders Bloomquist

      Bill, I feel you hit the nail on the head. Creating an additional ‘hurdle for entry’ for biking only gives the average fence-sitter an excuse to pass on incorporating a bicycle into their transportation mix. Additionally, I also immediately pictured police officers pulling over bicyclists, asking to see their proof of registration, then writing a citation forcing the bicyclist to prove in court that they’re grandfathered in.

      Asking bicyclists to adopt a strategy where they ‘buy in’ to governmental representation reinforces the idea that anyone who doesn’t opt for car-primary lifestyle becomes a second class citizen as soon as the policy discussion switches to transportation.

      Just the other day on this very blog, Matthias Leyrer touched on the policy/electoral politics side of this (

      “And policy is the real problem. Because of this love affair (perceived or not) it’s a political gold mine to talk about better roads and bridges thus perpetuating the (again, perceived or not) love affair with the car, which leads to more auto-oriented development, which means more driving, which means more strain on infrastructure, which means it’s a political gold mine to talk about…see where I’m going?”

      There’s no political loss in making it easier to get around by car (whether it’s a real improvement or just perception). There is small political gain in making it easier to get around by bike/foot/bus. There is potential for great political loss by being perceived as ‘anti-improvement’ for car focused roads. There is small political loss in being perceived, or actually, anti-bike/foot/bus.

      A MN/Twin Cities politician getting elected on a pro-bike/ped/bus platform would be great. A MN/TC politician (especially an incumbent) getting clobbered in a primary due to not being sufficiently pro-bike/ped/bus…that would signal the start of real change in how plan transportation in this region.

  3. Monte Castleman

    I’m assuming collecting a fee on every bicycle for every year would collect several times the revenue of new bicycles every year for three years. I’m neutral on this idea in general, but am adamantly opposed to another “nuisance tax” that’s difficult to pay; I complied with registration for several years but it eventually got to be such a pain that I quit, Wisconsin has toll trails, so you have to find a place selling passes that’s open every time you want to use them. Some cities are getting rid of pet licenses because of the nuisance per revenue ration. Also of note, people like me who don’t live in Minneapolis but drive in to use the trails would get a “free ride”.

    What about a $10 fee added on to property tax bills that you can opt out of by signing a statement saying the household owns no bicycles?

    1. Joe

      That free ride is a good point. Often people say bikes are recreational, and they can be. Would recreational bike trails be payed for by parks department? What would constitute a recreational trail vs a commuter/street trail. Maybe this could help with bike lanes or cycletracks, but trails specifically are a community resource. Is the greenway good for recreation? I’d say so, Mississippi River Trails? Certainly! But these also are used for people going to and from the U of MN, Uptown and Downtown. When would this fee be used to improve bicycle infrastructure?

    2. Mike SonnMike Sonn

      “What about a $10 fee added on to property tax bills that you can opt out of by signing a statement saying the household owns no bicycles?”

      As an owner of a corner lot in St Paul, I already have my letter drafted saying I rarely drive therefor my (2x the average) ROW fee should be reduced accordingly. Thanks for the reminder, I’ll drop it in the mail tomorrow.

  4. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    My first inkling would be to go with a point-of-sale approach (and not just the city level but the COUNTY level). But that would get very political as it would most likely require legislative approval. That said, I do like the concept of a “wheelage tax” for bike/ped improvements.

  5. George

    While I’m opposed to this on principle (we should be taxing things we don’t want and subsidizing things we do want – as we all know, this is currently upside down with car vs bike/transit funding) and due to all the technicalities and implementation problems mentioned above and in the comments…

    What about some kind of *voluntary* fund? I’d gladly pay up to $50/month if I knew it were going directly towards building better bike infrastructure immediately, instead of sitting around and waiting 10 years for my tax dollars to paint a few sharrows. Good public infrastructure shouldn’t have to be funded this way, but I’d rather be pragmatic than naive. One of the biggest problems with city bike plans is that they’re drawn up for a demand that exists right now, then the funding, implementation, and construction process gets bogged down for years even though it’s really cheap to build compared to highways and bridges, so they’re permanently a decade behind.

    If, say, 10% of the 100,000 bicycles out there were “activist” bikes, and chose to pay $10/month (that’s one 4-pack of Surly!) to this voluntary fund, that’s $100k/month or $1.2m/year. which surpasses the yearly amount in this article and doesn’t have all the implementation and enforcement problems associated with requiring universal bike registration. Add to that people like me (I am by no means rich, not even close) and other ultra-activists who would gladly pay $50 or more per month, and you get a number even larger than that.

    One of the gambles with this voluntary fund is that it would need to move very fast and show immediate, tangible results in order for people to keep funding it. Based on the number of 2-lane streets I ride on daily that are as wide as rural 4-lane highways, and the number of people who would gladly volunteer a Saturday to go out with a bucket of white paint (yeah, I know it’s not quite that easy), I don’t think this is impossible.

    Minneapolis is going to quickly lose its #1 bike-friendly ranking (already dropped to #3 for 2014) if it gets complacent and doesn’t keep bulldozing forward with bike infrastructure. St. Paul has a bike plan in the works, but unless the entire thing gets built within 2-3 years (never going to happen) or StP gets annexed by Minneapolis, it will be stuck 30 years in the past, forever.

      1. George

        Haha, good point Scott, I should probably put my money where my mouth is. However, I live and work in St. Paul (right near the M/SP border, it can be frustrating) and I’m obviously both impatient and a little selfish. I guess my proposal would be for a city fund run by some kind of benevolent dictator rather than a second-hand coalition/lobbying group. Not to say that the MBC isn’t effective!

        Rest assured that if/when I move across the border, you guys will be getting my cash!

        1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer

          LOL, thought it was worth a shot.

          I’ve been in that position before, living just on the east side of the M/SP border. As a long-time volunteer for the MBC and a former St. Paulite, I do wish cross-river cooperation on bike planning were easier. It seems to be a problem of fragmented political jurisdictions. People should be working on a Minneapolis-St. Paul (proper) bike plan, and not just at the Met Council level.

        2. Dana DeMasterDanaD

          Make checks payable to:

          Women on Bikes
          C/O Smart Trips
          56 East 5th Street, Suite 202
          St. Paul, MN 55101

          * I know they moved to Raymond, but I can’t find the new address.

  6. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    You said it on the super-secret email list too, but I don’t think there’s any meaningful sense in which “everybody” walks. In fact, I think the vast majority of people walk on a public sidewalk relatively infrequently.

    Their suburb doesn’t have many. The sidewalk they use to enter the retail establishments they frequent is privately provided.

    When they venture into the city or visit a park they might use a public sidewalk, but how often do they that?

    Anyway, I think I’d take a step back and ask whether biking is something you want less of? Because taxing something is a good way to discourage it.

  7. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

    Marginal cost pricing (taxing per mile or per trip, e.g.) certainly reduces trip-making, but will taxing purchases a small amount significantly reduce bike ownership?

    In contrast, will investments increase bicycling. This is certainly the claim. If it is true, and the increase in ridership due to the increase in facilities outweighs the decrease due to a lump-sum annual or at-time-of purchase then this is a net good thing.

    1. Anders Bloomquist

      “…will taxing purchases a small amount significantly reduce bike ownership? ”

      I already pay taxes on my bike. I paid sales taxes when I bought my most recent bike a couple years ago and I paid sales taxes when I bought a new tire two weeks ago. Where did that money go? Why didn’t that go towards bike infrastructure?

      “If you are happy with the level of bike infrastructure in America’s number one bike city, Minneapolis, carry on. If you think it should be better, you can rally and exhort, but you can also bring some money to the table.”

      There’s already money on the table. My very quick googling says that this state had over $3 Billion on the table for 2013. That’s a lot of hypothetical bike lanes/bus stops/crosswalks. The question is why it gets allocated the way it does.

      Three Interconnected Reasons:
      1) Social/Political inertia. ‘Everyone’ drives, so we just gotta fund more roads for cars. See: for a better synopsis.

      2) There’s a lot of Money in the Car Biz. And cash buys you influence in politics. In 2012 our relatively pro-public transportation Veep kept joking that the President should use “Bin Laden is dead; GM is alive” to sum up their first four years. When a major bike manufacturer gets a government bailout and that bailout is a bragging point during the Presidential General Election, then I will concede that the bicycling industry has a remotely similar level of influence in government (fed or state) as the auto industry. All of this influence works to support Reason #1.

      3) All politicians have at least a little weather vane in them. I have no knowledge of any elected official in this part of the woods losing an election due to being insufficiently pro-bike/ped/bus. If just one municipal official or state rep were to decisively loose their primary bid due to a pro-bike/ped/bus group of voters shifting their votes en masse, you would suddenly see any other pol in a similar spot trying to appease that constituency group for fear of their own future. Politics may be awash in money, but the slim silver lining is that all of this money is being used to try and get 50% + 1 of the votes onto their side. But until that happens, most will stay with is what is safe; mouth platitudes about transportation choices, but put almost all the money towards car friendly roads.

      In the end, I think it’s time to question why we keep trying to get staunchly pro-car government officials (and their constituents) to love us. They don’t love us, and probably never will. Maybe instead they should fear their ability to stay secure in their elected/appointed jobs if they don’t carve out a few more bike lanes and couple more buses with extra bike racks.

  8. Thomas Mercier

    You’re probably looking too small when you speak of the trust fund only for being in Minneapolis. I’m sure it’s a result of what provoked the initial discussion but bicycle transportation (as any transportation) is more regional than that. From what I hear concepts have been mulled over by both governing agencies and the state legislature on a casual basis and that while nothing is probably going to pop up immediately, it has been identified that with the growth of cycling infrastructure there is a growing need to determine how to fund ongoing maintenance and life-cycle costs.

  9. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    As David pointed out, people who drive cars get considerable subsidies to pay for their (our) roads. What if just 10% of this was directed towards bicycle/disabled facilities?

    1. Thomas Mercier

      Rails to Trails just did a survey to determine political support for trail projects. They asked two questions about how funding should be allocated. The results seem to contradict themselves when asked in separate ways; Q 2 & 3 at
      If we can’t get people to agree with themselves regarding 1.5% I doubt the success of getting to 10% but I agree with you Walker that we should certainly move in that direction.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Great point. A couple of thoughts.

        Are the respondents mostly recreational or transportational bicycle riders? Though the resulting trails are used by many for transportation, this seems more recreational focused.

        In Q3 many people might be thinking that they’d rather see these things paid for with more local funds rather than with federal funds (on principle and because federal projects tend to come with a lot of extra costs and strings).

  10. Shawn Lavelle

    Hmm… I’ll be so thrilled after this passes that my theoretical family of four now owes $40-120 just to ride our bikes. Good regressive tax policy here!

    Things we maintain for public benefit:
    swimming pools
    splash pads
    picnic shelters
    basketball courts
    tennis courts
    professional baseball fields
    golf courses
    ice skating rinks
    boat docks
    cross-country ski loops
    etc etc etc

    Some of these are maintained primarily by tax dollars, some have user fees. Bike Lanes are already well-enough funded. The road is already there — What would the funds go to? Paint? I guess we could narrow the lanes 4-8 feet and add more sidewalk instead, the net affect to the car would be zero.

    The base argument is that “pitching in” might get more “respect” from “car-only” folk, but I don’t think it will work like this. The “car-only” folk aren’t upset by cyclist’s lack of “pitching in”, that’s a red herring. They’re still mad about having to wait 5 seconds to slip past a bike, and that’s never going to change via tax policy.

    1. Anders Bloomquist

      “The base argument is that “pitching in” might get more “respect” from “car-only” folk, but I don’t think it will work like this. The “car-only” folk aren’t upset by cyclist’s lack of “pitching in”, that’s a red herring. They’re still mad about having to wait 5 seconds to slip past a bike, and that’s never going to change via tax policy.”

      *slow clap*

      Exactly. There is a sizable portion of our neighbors who simply don’t understand why we won’t just set aside all this bike/ped/bus nonsense and drive a car like everyone else, and most will ALWAYS feel that way. If we wait for some critical mass of our region to finally ditch their cars and demand (in unison!) double bike lanes on every street and buses every 5 min on all routes, we will be having identical debates a decade from now.

      However, when we understand that a well organized minority can be very influential in American-style “first past the goal post” elections, then we will begin to see tangible results that may actually entice a few of our car-shackled family and friends.And that is how you build momentum.

  11. Students_TT

    I have always thought this was a good idea, having a licensing-bicycle-registry-whatever that goes directly to improving the Twin Cities biking infrastructure alone. But the rebuttal that always pops into my head is whether or not a $10 license would amount to anything after the license tab/plate/sticker, paying someone to handle the fees, and all the other administrative garbage that goes with it are deducted. Sure, you could increase the fee to get more out of it, but would it deter more people from doing it in the first place if it cost too much? Maybe the bike coalition is the way to go on this, something that’s never crossed my mind.

  12. Zack

    “I suggested that Bicycling would get more respect at the table, and more resources, if bicycle owners and/or users paid some amount of money to support bicycle infrastructure.”

    They/we do exactly that through general funds (which as you point out, pay roughly half of road costs), through car registration (since most cyclists also own cars and I pay the same whether I drive mine 5,000 or 50,000 miles/year), existing sales taxes on bike purchases, and gas taxes, which again, I/we pay as someone who bikes and drives (which is most of us). To me, this just sounds like yet another misguided claim that cyclists are freeloaders (even if you’re claiming this is others’ opinion and not your own) and I don’t think a registration fee is going to change that opinion, because the general public is out of touch with where funding for such improvements come from (tend to think roads are entirely paid for by user fees).

    The only one of the above that I pay less of while riding a bike is gas taxes, which when considering the relative low cost of bike infrastructure compared to roads (since most are simply added some paint or signs to existing infrastructure) and the negligible amount of damage done to roads by bikes, I think is still more than a fair trade-off (

    If I believed that paying a registration fee would magically fix the perception among *some* that cyclists are freeloading scofflaws, I would support it wholeheartedly, I just don’t think that’s the case and the realistic amount of money it would bring in would be small enough (as has been shown to be the case where cities have tried it: to render it meaningless as a policy.

  13. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    I’m interested in the formulation that: Bike Tax -> More Money to Bicycle Improvements

    Budgets are such fluid things that I’m far from convinced that were your Bicycle Trust Fund established, the money that currently exists for bicycle improvements would stay put. In other words, what guarantees that the BTF would supplement instead of replace existing funds?

    I think it’s more of an issue than just engineering language that would prevent that scenario. Politically, some might take the view that now that bicyclists are paying for themselves, that they shouldn’t get funds from elsewhere. And a precedent would be set that would force bicycle users to pay higher rates if more improvements are to be made. Very quickly, a $10 levy could be replaced by a $30 one in the name of fairness. But of course, the balance is tilted: since bike infrastructure lags well behind car infrastructure, the amount of improvement that needs to occur would be relatively more costly than what cars might demand.

    I find myself more and more suspicious of optional taxes like these that often end up discouraging the behaviors they aim to support, and cutting their ecosystems off from general sources of money.

  14. BB

    So why don’t we just take the bicycle taxes we already collect and put that in the bicycle trust fund?

    Sales tax is taken on each new bicycle.

  15. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

    @BB – that is the simplest solution, dedicate the “Bicycle Excise Tax”. Also probably want to ensure that the formula distributes this back to the jurisdiction of sale. I suspect it requires a constitutional amendment. At ~ 7% on a $300 bike that would be $21.

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