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Bikes Vs. Cars: Who Pays Their Fair Share?

By September 25, 2010October 17th, 2021No Comments

The Vancouver Sun: Bikes vs. cars: Who pays their fair share?

Bike riders or car drivers? Who are the free riders who fail to pay their fair share of the cost of building and maintaining the city’s roadways?


Bike riders or car drivers? Who are the free riders who fail to pay their fair share of the cost of building and maintaining the city’s roadways?

In Vancouver’s raging bike-car debate, where most people stand tends to depend on where they sit — whether perched on a saddle or ensconced in a car.

But, while you can make a case that neither group pays its freight in a direct way, the facts are clear: People who don’t drive much — including most true bike zealots — significantly subsidize those who drive a lot. And in any kilometre-by-kilometre comparison of city residents who travel exclusively by one mode or the other, drivers tend to pay less than their real costs, while riders pay more.

Given how drivers are incessantly dinged for things like licences, parking and fuel tax — and how cyclists aren’t — you may wonder how can this be.

Well, the first point is that car-related government revenue in general doesn’t cover the costs car use imposes on the Canadian public. The second is that if you look at just municipal balance sheets — who is paying whose costs in Vancouver or other cities — the subsidy for cars is far, far higher than the Canada-wide average.

A fair analysis of car-related costs and revenues should not include general sales taxes. These apply to almost everything you spend money on, so there’s no reason for the revenue senior governments get when you buy a car to be treated differently than if you bought a boat, or granite counter tops, or a diamond tiara.

And a fair analysis of the municipal equation should exclude not only sales taxes like PST or GST, which city councils get no share of, but also licence fees and most of the fuel taxes.

What’s left for cities to fund their extensive road networks?

“The short answer is: They’re paid for by property taxes,” says Jerry Dobrovolny, Vancouver’s director of transportation.

A longer answer qualifies this slightly. TransLink’s 15-cent-a-litre gas tax goes to transit, not roads, although the regional transportation agency does contribute to a small portion of Vancouver’s road-building.

Also, the province or the feds kick in on a few specific city road projects. But provincial per-capita road expenditures in Greater Vancouver average only half of what’s spent elsewhere in B.C., so only a tiny percentage of its road-related tax revenue winds up being spent here. And federal grants are few and far between.

That leaves just the net revenue from on-street parking — what’s left over from permit fees and parking meter receipts after paying for things like line-painting, enforcement and even the meters themselves. (Note that I didn’t include the value of land occupied by on-street parkers. Yet it could presumably be used for other things — wider sidewalks, street cafes or even, dare I say it, bike lanes.)

The point is that most of the burden, as Dobrovolny says, falls to property taxpayers — whether they drive a lot, a little, or not at all.

Certainly, Vancouver has more drivers than riders — about 12 times more in the city’s central core. But drivers have 10 times more roadway — 4,000 lane kilometres versus 400 — designed for their needs and devoted largely to their use. In fact, 20 per cent of these 4,000 kilometres is for parking, and thus exclusively for cars, while only 0.5 per cent of the total is for bikes only.

Also, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Institute notes that car lanes in North America typically cost about five times more to build than bike lanes. When you put it all together and do the math, Litman reckons the city’s road network costs every taxpayer a few hundred dollars a year.

“So your archetypical cyclist who doesn’t own a car is paying a couple of hundred a year, but imposing far less cost on the local government. They’re cross-subsidizing motorists.”

And while it’s true that motorists, mainly through gas tax, do pay a higher percentage of the cost of provincial roads than of city streets, “Cyclists don’t ride much on provincial highways.”

Of course, even on city streets, both the resident motorist and the resident cyclist are subsidizing all the people — drivers or riders — who live on the other side of a municipal boundary. In theory, residents of other municipalities reciprocate when Vancouver residents visit their towns, but in reality residents of the suburbs are more inclined to travel into Vancouver than vice versa.

And, Dobrovolny notes wryly, because of the distances involved for commuters from the suburbs, visitors to Vancouver are more likely to arrive by car than by bike. “So the cyclist you see is more likely to be a taxpayer who’s paying for the roads than the driver behind him.”

Litman has looked at what would happen if property taxes were lowered by the amount it costs to pay for city roads and the costs were shifted directly to the people — drivers or riders — who use them. For one thing, the cost of delivering goods to retailers in the city — a benefit to all of us, regardless of how much we use the roads — would go up. But not that much, he says.

“Even if some local authority doubled or tripled the cost of trucks on the roads, it would have an almost insignificant impact on most goods. The cost of local transportation is a small part of such costs. And the biggest part of it is the labour of the driver and the capital cost of the truck, and this wouldn’t change.”

As for the rest of us, “If we were to be truly fair about roadway costs, bicyclists would wind up paying a lot less rather than a lot more.”

Plus, of course, frequent drivers — especially out-of-towners — would pay a lot more.

– – –


Are you, or is someone you know, comfortable riding a bike on city streets even if they have no designated bike lane?

If so, this is no surprise to Jerry Dobrovolny, Vancouver’s director of transportation.

“We know eight per cent of residents are comfortable riding in mixed traffic,” he said.

“We know 33 per cent will never ride a bike, no matter what. And that’s okay.

“But this leaves 60 per cent who would try it, but aren’t comfortable in mixed traffic.

“It’s this 60 per cent we want to reach” with the policy of dedicated bike lanes, he said.

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