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Cars are the most socialist transportation

Published 9:09am Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Column: Pothole Prairie

One of the biggest arguments some car drivers make when they describe why they don’t like bikes, bike lanes or any non-automobile means of transportation is this: Cars and trucks buy fuel, which has a fuel tax that pays for the roads. Bike riders are freeloaders because they don’t pay the fuel taxes.

Driving my truck down Front Street last week.

The fact is, automobile drivers enjoy the most socialist aspect of America outside of life in the military. While it might seem rather expensive to drive an automobile, the true, much more expensive cost is offset by all sorts of subsidies in this country of ours.

Those gas taxes and vehicle registration fees indeed offset the cost of most of the highways. However, city streets, many local roads and many parking lots come from other tax sources, such as property taxes, income taxes and sales taxes. Everyone pays those regardless of whether they drive, bike or walk, yet the local streets and roads are where people generally walk and bike.

This means that the people who cause the least wear and tear on the streets and roads — bikers and walkers — are the ones getting the short end of the stick. Don’t believe me?

A study of the United States and Canada by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute backs me up. It says: “Since bicycling and walking impose lower roadway costs than motorized modes, people who rely primarily on nonmotorized modes tend to overpay their fair share of roadway costs and subsidize motorists.”

The study found that “in 2002, $27.9 billion were spent on U.S. local roads, of which only $3.1 billion was from user fees.”

That means the other $24.8 billion were paid through taxes that everyone pays — a true case of motorist socialism.

There’s more: Subsidies are given to oil companies. Automakers have received government bailouts. Government funds health care expenses related to pollution from exhaust. Cars themselves promote a sedentary lifestyle, which could be argued to be health care cost, too. Taxpayers pay the cost of hiring civil engineers at every level of government. Let’s not forget the government labor expense for law enforcement to enforce rules for motorized vehicles.

Imagine if suddenly only motorists had to pay for the real cost of their mode of transportation. They could finally claim to be the rugged individualist do-it-yourself Americans of their dreams.

I don’t know what that figure would be, but I am willing to bet that they would once again lobby the government for some socialist reforms when it comes to the highways and byways. And I am willing to bet they would start to appreciate the contributions to the pavement made by people who get around by fuel-free means.

Let’s not forget that cyclists and pedestrians hog up less space, reduce traffic congestion and don’t pollute the air we breathe.

Yes, I drive an automobile, too, usually a 2002 Ford Ranger I bought brand new in St. Paul not far from the assembly plant. And I have many miles in that truck. It’s just that I dislike it when motorists act like they own the road.

It’s good remember just how subsidized and socialist getting around in an automobile really is.

I would like to thank James D. Schwartz of the bike blog The Urban Country for inspiring this column.

In fact, he says this interesting point about public transportation: “To further illustrate this point, we can compare the cost of a liter of gasoline to that of a one-way ticket on public transit. In China a liter of gasoline ($0.946) is almost three times the cost of a one-way ticket on local public transport ($0.32). In the United States a one-way ticket on public transit ($1.94) is almost double the cost of a liter of gasoline ($1).”

In another blog post, Schwartz says something I have said for years — that roads weren’t built for cars. It’s that they have been altered to accommodate cars.

Moreover, driving a motor vehicle is a privilege that the government can revoke when necessary.

“Bicyclists on the other hand,” Schwartz writes, “have an inherent right to our streets. Citizens have a right to lifetime mobility — and short of cutting off our legs, this cannot be revoked for any reason.”

Motorists, let the bikes pass safely and tip your hats to the pedestrians.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column usually appears every other Tuesday.

  • john Forman

    The same people driving the cars are paying the property taxes to get roads to get there cars home.

  • john Forman

    I do agree that cyclists have just as much right to use the road as motorists and watch out for pedestrians, They have the right of way when in the crosswalk. Remember the old saying: It is better to give the right of way than to just take it.

  • pbroviak

    I would be interested in having a link to that study showing that user fees only pay $3B of the total road costs. I’m an engineer working for local government, and my husband is an engineer working for the state and to us those numbers don’t look right based on our experience. We did look up the reports from the US govt. showing revenues from user fees and found in 2006 the total revenue from user fees was almost $40B. And yesterday we were at a road conference where the FHWA Illinois division guy said user fees always paid all costs of federal routes up until just the last few years. And he suggested that need to tap into other funds was due to the inclusion of all these non-road/highway projects like trails, enhancement projects, etc.

    I’m not bringing this up because of being anti-bike/ped. We’re actually very pro bike/ped, and our community is very supportive of non-motorized facilities. This obviously helps make our region a great place to live and improves our quality of life significantly. It’s more that our experience in the field and the numbers don’t seem to support that bikes/peds are actually paying more to fund roads than the motoring public.

    And being in a high-growth area, I can also say that while the roads built before possibly the 1920s were not designed for cars – probably more likely for horses and wagons – roads built after that were definitely designed for motorized vehicles. We see that in our design manuals.

    In the end, I think the biggest challenge in promoting the use of bikes/peds is first of all dealing with the snow/ice/cold in certain climates. And as a mother of 6, I think the next biggest challenge is how does a parent get groceries and haul that many kids to daycare, etc. on a bike or walking?