D. Dowd Muska


Time for the Bicycle Thieves to Go Legit

May 19, 2011

They’re back. God help us, they’re back.

The arrival of spring has brought with it the nation’s annual bicycle infestation. Clogging roads, flouting traffic laws, and preening over their tiny “carbon footprint,” cyclists are once again annoying -- and in many cases, endangering -- drivers and pedestrians.

There was a time when the bicycle movement could be ignored as a passing fad -- nothing more than aging, pudgy Boomers, hopped up on discredited fantasies about the impending incineration of the planet, fusing exercise with a fashionable eco-sacrament. Surely, something would come along to replace it. (Hopscotch? Hide and seek? Treehouses?) However irksome and obnoxious, cyclists, like mosquitoes or a cold sore, could be endured.

Bike-riding’s inherent impracticalities -- snow and rain, sweat, distance, cargo capacity -- ensure that it will never be a viable option for 99 percent of commutes, errand runs, or roadtrips. But while it’s not growing, neither is it vanishing.

And, oh, the trouble that 1 percent can make.

Combine climate-change cranks with urban hipsters, trust-fund babies, dopey college kids, and car-hating transportation planners. Mix in self-loathing SUV drivers. Sprinkle in cash from a $5.6 billion industry. It’s a potent political force, and vote-seeking pols take notice.

Research by the League of American Bicyclists shows that in 1988, the federal government spent less than $5 million on “bicycling and walking facilities.” By 2008, the commitment had metastasized to $541 million. A 2009 report by U.S. Sens. Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK) and John McCain (R-AZ) found that $5.2 billion flowed to “bike and pedestrian projects between FY1992-2008.” The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune documented that 70 percent of the members of the House of Representatives requested bicycle-related earmarks in the last reauthorization of the federal Highway Trust Fund.

Do cyclists pay for their goodies? No, that’s drivers’ job. The Highway Trust Fund was originally intended to build and maintain the interstate system. Times have changed. Bicycle pork, along with “mass transit” (i.e., government-run buses and trains), beautification schemes, museum subsidies, and wildlife-conservation grants now pillage the fund’s fuel-tax coffers.

From Capitol Hill to state legislatures to city halls, Big Bicycle increasingly gets its way. Federal largesse is supplemented with revenue extracted from taxpayers at lower levels of government. In moonbat-laden metropolitan regions -- Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia -- parking racks are proliferating. Bike-sharing programs (no, that’s not a joke) are on the way. Earlier this month, The Miami Herald reported, “The Royal Netherlands embassy in Washington has dispatched three of the famously bike-friendly country’s top experts on ‘cycling as transportation’ to Miami, where they will spend three days figuring out how to turn the city’s car-clogged downtown into a virtual Amsterdam of safe, connected bikeways.”

Sorry, Dutch boys. This is America. Bicycles will never dominate transportation.

But on the other hand, cycling’s cultists won’t go away. There’s only one thing left to do: Tax them.

Bike riders need to pay their own way. It is not a radical proposal. Quite the contrary -- it’s consistent with national policy. A year ago, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation himself announced a “sea change.” No longer, Ray LaHood decreed, would “motorized transportation” be favored “at the expense of non-motorized.” Walking and bicycling would henceforth be treated “as equals with other transportation modes.”

Okay, fair is fair. Drivers pay for their infrastructure. Why don’t cyclists?

At about 50¢ in local-state-federal taxes per gallon, and average annual consumption of around 500 gallons, drivers surrender approximately $250 to governments each year. (Much of that revenue, remember, is filched for non-road purposes.) So let’s start with an annual bicycle-registration fee set at the same amount. Bike manufacturers, citing research by the National Sporting Goods Association, claim that “38.1 million Americans age seven and older were estimated to have ridden a bicycle six times or more in 2009.” Assuming all those pedal-pumpers own and register a vehicle, the Bicycle Lane Trust Fund would raise over $9.5 billion a year. Even in the Era of Obama, that’s real money. Streets and sidewalks would be safer, and imagine how many jobs would be “created or saved”!

When NASA’s spacemen have swapped their Corvettes for bicycles, it’s clear that however small, the phenomenon is here to stay. The cyclists, it appears, we will always have with us.

It’s time for a truce. Drivers will recognize cyclists’ right to exist. Two-wheelers will fund their own lanes.

It’s a solution solidly moored in America’s noble tradition of political compromise.

Think cyclists will go for it? Me neither.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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