People Who Bike Are Subsidizing, Not Shirking, Street Costs

In a Minnpost Community Voices opinion piece last month focused mostly on tax increment financing in St. Paul, authors John Mannillo and David Schultz trotted out the tired old argument that people who bike are somehow shirking their responsibility when it comes to street costs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even the slightest bit of scrutiny finds this argument to have a foundation as weak as many St. Paul street beds, with even more (pot)holes than Shepard Road. 

Space for Cars Is Expensive, Both to Build and Maintain

Let’s look at the basic premise of the idea – that cyclists should bear the full cost of any bike infrastructure. Maybe that sounds fair at first glance. However, research shows it is actually drivers who don’t come close to paying for the cost of streets, and people who bike significantly subsidize those who drive, with drivers underpaying by several hundred dollars relative to people who bike. Why is this? While it might sound obvious, most damage to our streets is caused by heavy cars and trucks driving on them, not just winter freeze-thaw cycles. Cars are far bigger and heavier, so require not only more space and more robust (i.e. expensive) materials, but cause the vast majority of damage to our streets. Look at your nearest sidewalks for a useful comparison. Sidewalks are often decades or even a century old and not filled with potholes, because winter alone is slow to create potholes, and people walking aren’t damaging them. Similarly, a person biking causes virtually no damage to our streets, especially relative to the increasingly bloated size of SUVs and trucks being bought today.

One of the thousands of St. Paul potholes, none of which was caused by people on bikes (author photo).

User Fees Don’t Cover Street Costs

Again, heavy cars and trucks are the primary cause of street damage, so by driving more, more damage is done to the street. That’s why we pay gas taxes per gallon: because more driving causes more damage and need for maintenance. However, gas taxes alone do not come close to covering the cost of our streets and roads. Motor vehicle registration fees also cover some (a similar amount to state gas taxes in Minnesota), but here a person who owns a car but primarily rides a bike still has to pay the registration fee on their car. This registration costs the same no matter how much they drive, so by usually biking they’re paying proportionately more of those fees.

How else do people biking subsidize those driving? There are many examples, but let’s look at a few big ones. Perhaps the largest is that the majority of street/road spending in Minnesota, especially at the city level, comes from general fund money, such as property and income taxes which are paid by everyone, regardless of whether they drive or not. Even at the federal level, where a higher fraction typically comes from user fees, about a quarter (depending on the year) still comes from general funds. A person on a bike pays the same proportion of those, despite causing basically no physical and environmental damage, and often has limited or no access to many freeways, rural highways, or major arterials like Snelling. 

Additionally, someone who rides a bike to a business is usually subsidizing those who drive, because car parking is extremely expensive. Surface parking generally costs $5,000 to $10,000 per spot, with underground/structured parking costing five to 10 times more than that. By comparison, installing good bike parking costs about $100 per bike depending on the type of rack used (though unfortunately, terrible, useless bike racks are usually even cheaper) and takes up a tiny fraction of the space of car parking.

But a person biking pays the same price at the store, which incorporates the overall cost of the business, including those expensive parking lots. The huge amount of space required for all this car parking also creates vast tracts of low-value, low-tax-base land. Comparing two nearby, similarly sized lots — the former Seestedt Carpet building in St. Paul’s Lowertown to a surface parking lot across the street — the former brings in 10 times the amount of property taxes! More cars and driving means more pressure for such low-value land use to persist.

Street Costs Are More Than the Roadbed

Drivers in St. Paul also cause millions of dollars of street and property damage each year in addition to the street surface itself. As taxpayers, every time someone knocks over a street sign, fire hydrant, or street tree in a hit-and-run crash, all of our taxes pay to fix the damage, whether we walk, bike, bus or drive, despite the damage being caused exclusively by drivers. Even if covered by insurance, these types of crashes produce higher overall rates for everyone else, too.

Damage to our streets and other infrastructure is caused by car drivers, not people on bikes (author photos).

Of course, in addition to the more direct subsidies that people riding bikes provide, giving more people the freedom to choose to bike has numerous other benefits and lower externalized costs than driving. These include more active lifestyles that lead to healthier people and lower healthcare costs; bikes are non-polluting, so going to the store doesn’t involve aggravating (or causing) your neighbor’s asthma; quality bike infrastructure usually increases spending at nearby businesses; reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and the largest source of climate-disrupting emissions; and improved street safety for all users, reducing the number of people killed and injured on our roadways each year. 

Bike Infrastructure Is Cheap

What becomes clear is that infrastructure for cars, and the externalities from their over-use, is extremely expensive and drivers don’t pay the full cost. By comparison, infrastructure for people biking and walking costs a fraction of that for driving, because these forms of transportation are so much lighter and more space efficient.

Currently, the majority of St. Paul’s bike infrastructure consists of painted bike lanes, which are basically free to install. These are most often added during the mill and overlay street repair process, where the top layer of asphalt (which cars have degraded) is removed and repaved. This requires the repainting of traffic markings anyway, making the addition of these bike lanes a rounding error in the overall budget.

Saint Paul Grand Round, where separated lanes make both cycling and driving safer ( file photo).

Much of the remaining, more robust bike infrastructure, like recent separated lanes and bikeway additions to the Grand Round or the Capital City Bikeway, has been funded by grants obtained through sources like the federal government. These are often shared-use facilities as well, with all people strolling and rolling welcomed to the space. Such additions are also often done during necessary street reconstructions, minimizing their costs and often helping to obtain funding for the projects through multi-modal grants that wouldn’t otherwise be available to pay for the costs of these necessary reconstructions. 

Tax More or Spend Less?

Many things have contributed to the terrible state of our streets in St. Paul, but people riding bikes are not among them. The more people we can empower to choose cycling, the better our chances of actually making progress toward better streets. In the end, it boils down to fairly simple math: We need to take in more money or spend less. Since no one likes higher property taxes, the best way to achieve better streets is by freeing ourselves to spend less, which means giving people safe, accessible alternatives to the most expensive, damaging, dangerous and space-inefficient form of transportation (private cars), which also happens to be the one to which we’ve given almost exclusive priority over the past 80 years.

We all benefit from smart, effective leadership and planning that helps give more people the freedom to make the choices they’ve already shown they want to have. We all benefit from the expanded availability of safe, accessible bike facilities, whether or not we use them.