Taking Bicycles Seriously

Bike lanes in Arlington County are not a parks & recreation sideshow — they create transportation options, reduce traffic congestion and promote healthy lifestyles.

by James A. Bacon

The Arlington County Board takes bicycling very seriously. Every month, one or more members attend a planning staff update on the county’s bicycle program. They dig into the details. How many bike-share stations has the county installed in the last month? How many bicycle lanes have been striped?

You don’t see that kind of high-level attention devoted to bicycle issues in many localities around the country. It helps that four of Arlington’s board members, including himself, are active cyclists, says Vice Chairman Walter Tejada. Board members also have a competitive streak. Arlington County received Virginia’s only “silver” ranking from the League of American Bicyclists’ 2012 listing of bicycle-friendly states and communities. But that wasn’t good enough. “We have a little chip on our shoulder,” says Tejada. “We want to be gold.”

Walter Tejada

The commitment to cycling runs deeper than winning kudos, however. It dovetails with the county’s Fit Arlington campaign to promote public health. And it is integral to the county’s plan to develop “complete streets” that accommodate pedestrians, bicycles and mass transit as well as cars. A top county priority is to reduce the number of cars on local roads, ameliorate congestion and improve livability. More bikes on the road means fewer cars.

Bicycling for every-day transportation, not just recreation, has great untapped potential in Arlington, says Dennis Leech, county director of transportation. Bicycles’ share of trips is relatively low, around one or two percent. “Over the past two or three years, there has been a real push to raise awareness, with the intent of getting that bicycle travel share up to five to ten percent.”

Across much of Virginia, bicycles are seen as transportation frivolity, simply not to be taken seriously. The federal government may require the state to spend money on bicycle trails but hardly anyone rides them, the thinking goes. Siphoning away money from roads to serve a tiny percentage of Sunday riders or spandex-clad racing nuts doesn’t make sense. The indifference of elected officials is reinforced by an outright hostility among some motorists who regard bike riders as pests taking up road space, clogging traffic and creating safety hazards.

But the bicycling movement is gaining momentum elsewhere in the Old Dominion, most notably Richmond, Roanoke and college towns like Charlottesville, Blacksburg and Harrisonburg. Cities and urbanized counties contemplating bike-friendly policies have a lot to learn from Arlington, which has ridden farther down the bicycle trail than other Virginia localities.

Some key lessons from the Arlington experience:

  • Build a network. If you want to create a bicycle-friendly community, you have to go “all in.” A biking path here and a bike lane there don’t add up to anything useful. Just as motorists need a network of roads to drive between home, work and shopping, cyclists require a network of lanes to reach a wide range of locations.
  • Support the biking culture. Cyclists need racks to park their bikes. They need lockers and showers to make themselves presentable for work. Communities need to educate citizens about bikes as a transportation option and promote safe cycling.
  • Understand the payback. While cyclists don’t pay user fees like gasoline taxes, they do create economic value. Localities that are rich in travel choices enjoy higher property values than those where travel is limited to automobiles. Higher property values translate into higher property tax revenues. Moreover, by taking cars off roads, bicycle-friendly policies can reduce or defer spending on auto-oriented infrastructure from roads to parking spaces.

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34 Responses to Taking Bicycles Seriously

  1. Bikers should be taxed. How much, right now, is not important but there needs to be a nexus between use of a facility – and the cost of the facility.

    I would argue further than by taxing bikes, you empower them to more strongly advocate for facilities.

  2. larryg
    They are taxed. Sales tax, property tax, vehicle tax and fuel tax (on the cars they almost all own), and when they ride on the road or on special facilities, they drastically reduce the wear and tear and congestion on our roads, creating, in effect, a subsidy of the motorized use of those same facilities. So if there should be a tax, it should be a negative tax (a credit or rebate) to encourage more cycling, because that saves money overall. And how much to you want to tax grade schoolers who could be riding their bikes to school instead of being bused or driven in underoccupied oversized SUVs? How about sneaker taxes for runners and walkers? I say before we start adding taxes to things we want to encourage, lets consider fully taxing the things that we want to discourage. How about higher gas taxes, or better yet, mileage taxes so cars and trucks actually pay for the infrastructure they require (and destroy). How about congestion taxes for cars? Access fees to bring a car into the city? And let’s abolish subsidized or free parking. Then tax the externalities of the automobile – 30K fatalities per year and hundreds of thousands of injuries not only to motorists but also bystanders, pedestrians and cyclists, air pollution leading to respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease from sitting in traffic, diabetes from the sedentary lifestyle and fast food culture spawned by the primacy of automobile needs in our transportation budget and policy. Then come to me and talk about cyclists paying their fair share. Sorry to drone on, but this “tax the bike” canard is thrown out again and again as if it had some merit, and it is tiresome to see it dredged up one more time. It makes about as much sense as taxing healthy eating.

  3. @Tom.. sorry. I did not say it lightly. I’ve been ruminating on it so it’s not a snap judgement.

    you could make the “sales” tax argument for cars also but they also pay a fuel tax and they pay for county decals AND they pay for property tax.

    there are taxes are farm equipment, on machinery and tools, on ammo, guns. there are fishing and hunting licenses…etc…

    so I do not think it is an unfair concept for just bikes.

    and I simply do believe that if bikes pay a separate “license” tax or “decal” or you pick the semantics that suit you better but it provides 2 important things:

    1. – it’s real money that bike advocates can point to

    2. – it shows that the bike community is willing to, if nothing else,
    acknowledge that bike facilities do cost money AND that the gas tax was never envisioned originally to pay for anything other than roads that cars used. It has a tight nexus.

    and for some context. I paddle canoes and I use boat ramps and although the paddling community has a similar position to the bike community about facilities – I do believe that canoes should be licensed (like other boaters) and pay into a fund to provide facilities like boat ramps.

    just my view.

  4. @Tom – I’m a pragmatist. I have strong internal values about what I think is right or wrong.. but I’m also a realist who believes that if we
    want to move forward – we have to do it.

    and what is happening with the bike community is that they’ve stuck on this license/funding issue and they refuse to budge on it – and the other side is just as obstinate and now committed to de-funding what little comes from the Fed gas tax right now.

    The “TE” funds barely survived the MAP-21 follow on to SAFTEAU.

    There were changes made and some kicking the can down the road but there are a significant number in Congress that want to totally de-fund TE (now called Alternative Transportation).

    My view is that we’re at a point where both sides are stalemated and the chances of more bike funding – other than in places like Arlington are are slipping away … so it’s time for the bike community to accept that reality – and work to achieve their goals through other innovation….

    I’d not give a pluck nickel for Fed trans funding of bikes in the future as they start cutting. Right now, the Federal Fuel taxes funds only about 1/2 of the transpo spending. Congress wants to get back to the original intent – which was that there would be no subsidies from the general fund – that the fuel tax was the sole funding for transportation.

    I just think the chances of future money for bike infrastructure is pretty bleak.

  5. larryg – Well at least you have explained yourself a little more. I still disagree, for several fundamental reasons. First, when you tax something, you generally get less of it ceteris paribus. We need more cycling (and I don’t mean racing), therefore, this is not the time to tax it. Second, roads were originally paved in the late 19th century at the instigation of cyclists (google Good Roads Movement), which had the unintended consequence of fueling (pardon the pun) the growth of the automobile. It was not until the Hoover administration that a federal gas tax was levied in recognition of both the revenue potential and the fact that automobiles were doing damage to our roads far out of proportion to other users. So cars still have an outstanding balance due for the first 40 years of tax free driving, from that perspective. Third, gas taxes do not begin to pay for the full cost of our roads, yet there is overwhelming resistance to any attempt to make them pay their way, as if the right to drive at 20 miles over the speed limit was enshrined in the Constitution. Any tax on cycling that would not discourage this hugely beneficial activity would be a mere drop in the bucket compared to our outlays on heavily subsidized motor vehicle infrastructure. In effect, a tax on cycling would just be an increase in the subsidization of motor vehicle use, which is already excessive. I would like to see fuel taxes increased so that automobiles cover the full cost of their use of the roads, and then some, to address the externalities. That said, I could consider a one time tax, levied at the point of sale, on new adult size bicycles, if and only if the proceeds were used exclusively on bicycle infrastructure and driver education, and on the additional condition that bikes would still have the right to ride on virtually any road other than interstate highways, because even with a tax, it will take decades to build a connected and dedicated bicycle transportation system, and in the meantime, bikes will have to share the roads with their greedy, dirty, inefficient and deadly offspring, .. automobiles.

  6. Tom – a quibble on taxing and “less”.. it does not compute with cars and houses, beer, fast food, and many other things… it’s a true canard.

    While I appreciate history, do you appreciate the current realities?

    re: gas taxes paying for roads. You are correct. almost as much money comes from sales taxes on new cars and the .5 general sales tax but you under appreciate that cars also pay license fees, county decals, personal property taxes.

    You may also consider that all these taxes on cars have a direct nexus to what they are spent on – for facilities for cars.

    In fact cars taxes subsidize other things at the local level because most localities receive substantial revenues from personal property taxes and decal fees and do not spend them on roads…

    all I am saying is that funds are tight and tighter and the sentiment is to trim what most consider non-road uses of these taxes on cars – to include transit as well as bikes.

    My view is that bikes are not only legitimate but vital and that we absolutely must look at them as transportation in addition to recreation but they will never be considered legitimate by enough people until they at least acknowledge the nexus between use and paying for use.

    My view is forward looking – I want to see the current impasses resolved and get enough people on board to go forward.

    I’ve thought about this a while and my conclusion is that it’s almost as if the die-hard bike folks don’t actually want a resolution… It’s almost like a rebellion of sorts.

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  8. LarryG:

    Better tax walking too. Sidewalks aren’t free. And joggers? They wear down sidewalks much faster than walkers. Plus, the joggers are just like the bikers with their, “We want more trails” mantra. I don’t want to hear any talk about exempting tricycles or Big Wheels either. I’ll give toddlers a tax break when I see them start to self-police their road destroying habit of “spinning out” that one big plastic wheel on the Big Wheel every time they hear the ice cream truck.

    If it moves, tax it!

  9. interesting DJ.. the pro-tax guy… who likes taxes for infrastructure….

    sidewalks are not free and they are a good example of the tension between use and paying for them.

    People who own motorized watercraft pay fees and those fees are used to provide facilities and enforcement and you do not hear them saying
    that taxes on cars and car fuel should pay.

    Ditto for airplanes and other forms of transportation – with the exception of transit and bikes.

    I’m actually OK with car/fuel taxes being used for sidewalks, transit and bikes – if we can agree to do it.

    but if we cannot agree on that path – then you need to find another path if you really want to go forward.

    that path could well be the locality who assesses property taxes – to say that one of the purposes of local taxes IS to provide bike infrastructure.

    And DJ we’re not talking about recreational biking… trikes, etc.. we’re talking about serious infrastructure for bikes to be used as alternative transportation – to/from work and other trips.

    that requires REAL infrastructure from Point A to Point B – as opposed to a loop recreational trail that essentially goes nowhere and is not a transportation facility.

    My view is that we need to be serious about this if we really think bike transportation is important – and I very much do.

    I’m just tired of the endless back and forth and little real progress although Arlington has demonstrated quite clearly that if the locality wants bike infrastructure – if the locality has that commitment, it will happen.

    that’s a better approach than whining about what VDOT won’t do IMHO.

    • I like bikes too, LarryG. However, you can’t tax what (essentially) doesn’t exist. It’s the old chicken and egg problem. There won’t be enough bikes on the road to generate much tax money because the bike infrastructure is lacking. However, you can’t build the bike infrastructure without being able to tax the bikes that aren’t there.

      If you asked people a question that assumed a tax increase for fuel and then asked if 5% of that increase should go to bike infrastructure, I think you’d get a “yes” in Northern Virginia. Even people who would never ride a bike get nervous when they have to share narrow roads with bicyclists. And, every driver understands that (generally) bikes replace cars and reduce congestion.

      The somewhat sad thing is that Fairfax County has an extensive trail system. The land is already publicly owned, rough hiking trails have already been cut. However, most of the trails aren’t paved and are too rough for all but the hardiest mountain bikers.

      Here is the Fairfax County web site:

      http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/cct/cctoverview.htm

      There are many more existing trails beyond these. I have hiked and jogged on many of these trails. However, other than the amazing W&OD Trail, many of the trails would be very hard to use with a standard bicycle.

      I don’t think it’s far fetched at all to imagine a plan where certain relatively wide roads had bike lanes added and there was a topology of using shared bike / car roads as the “surface streets” for bikes with the “no cars allowed” trail system as the highway system for bikes.

      The problem comes from the various factions at play. The horsey set doesn’t want paved trails. Many environmentalists don’t want even six feet of paved or blue dust trails through the woods either. The people who have property abutting the trails don’t want to see more people using the trails.

      As you note, I am in favor of paying taxes to build infrastructure and this is cheap infrastructure. Beyond that, it’s the kind of thing that attracts and retains the young people who are often the lifeblood of a regional economy.

      I just don’t think you can tax the bikes. At least, not until this is built out. You have to tax the cars and tell the motorists that 1) It’s cheap and 2) It takes cars off the road.

      I’ve been to Amsterdam a number of times. The “bike culture” is pretty amazing. The Dutch do have cooler summers than we do so biking during the summer is an easier proposition. However, they have plenty of bad weather and people are out on their bikes even when the weather is terrible. One obviously good idea – every train station has an immense set of bike racks.

      Wouldn’t it be nice to see the Rail To Dulles project(s) accompanied by an intelligent set of bike lanes on existing roads as well as paving of existing bike trails and ample bike rack space at the Metro stations?

      • Another key ingredient is the shower, locker and clothes change places in your office building. Bike lanes and trails need showers and change places at the destination points.

        What’s a good ride = flesh air, precious exercise, cheap transport, I-Pod education, fit rosy cheeked women. What could be finer?

  10. re: taxes – and funds

    ever hear of the ammo tax or a duck stamp?

    but here’s the more important point. Have you every heard anyone say that the tax on ammo should also be spent on ____ (fill in the blank).

    A dedicated fund gives you a place to start to accumulate revenues AND to compete for other sources and grants also.

    it then becomes a legitimate place to accumulate funds to go for a specific use – like the ammo tax or like taxes on watercraft or aircraft.

    the problem with the current approach for bike funding is that it is open-ended. There is no budget.. they just want “more”.

    they’re competing against other things that are programmed – known ahead of time and accommodated in the budget process.

    bikes.. are much more free-lance, ad-hoc;… with no budget focus that allows people to specifically support.

    we have a machinery and tools tax… right? we tax even small utility trailers…. right?

    I bought a utility trailer. I paid sales tax on it then I paid for a license and now every year I pay the county the specific tax on it.

    People pay fees for water and sewer. Developers pay proffers and other de-facto impact fees.

    Bob McDonnell actually proposed increasing VDOT’s share of the sales tax… graduated over several years to go from .5 to .75.

    When you have your own specific fund – you help get rid of the “beggar” image.

    • Larry, you appear to be solving for a problem that primarily exists in your head. If you think of cycling as full of beggars, well, fine with me.

      There already is a budget from which to draw funding for some cycling-specific infrastructure – it’s call the transportation budget. Most localities, every state, and the federal government has one. It’s intended to invest in infrastructure and other things that help meet the transportation needs of its citizens. See? All that tricky “bike tax” overhead and bureaucracy saved!

      • @MB – are you happy with the level of bike infrastructure that current exists?

        bonus question:

        there is no real budget for bike infrastructure – just whatever they can get and the funding from Federal is at big risk because Congress is subsidizing the transportation trust fund at twice it’s base revenues from gas taxes and cut are on the way.

        What I would suggest is for the GA to enable legislation for a locality to have some kind of a bike tax and the money can only be used for bike infrastructure – nothing else – and the enabling has to be approved by referendum.

        that’s will put the issue to the people in the locality where they can then decide – like Arlington – what level of bike infrastructure they want (or not) and how much to pay for it.

        I am for solutions here. I am in favor of going forward. I do not think what we are doing right now is “working” very well.

        it’s a problem. How do we solve it?

        I actually WANT to be able to ride my bike to the post office and into town, to catch a train, to go to a doctors appointment – even to pick up milk and bread but right now it’s a clear threat to my life and downright idiotic for me to attempt it though I see others doing it from time to time – usually out-of-town folks who read an article about “rural” roads in Spotsylvania.

        we need to confront this issue if we are serious about it. I’m tired of “activists” basically spinning their wheels while we are no closer to a real network of bike infrastructure.

        I’m not in favor of taking the heat off of VDOT. I think every single new road should have a substantial bike lane but new roads are getting like hens teeth in this fiscal environment.

        mark my words, bike money from the Feds is likely toast.

  11. re: ” rosy cheeked women. ” ????

    Reed… I think I know where you are coming from but the image
    conveyed is subject to interpretation, you know?

    :-)

  12. Rosy cheeks? I’m guessing that Reed was thinking of something like this.

    Reed, really. Shame on you. At your age?

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  14. Gawd O”mighty Bacon.. you naughty boy!

  15. This whole biking idea has real merit. Rosy cheeked women are one benefit. But there are more. Imaging how Richmond will look when the General Assembly is in session. http://bit.ly/RYLvcD

  16. Administration of that becomes onerous and costly, thereby reducing the financial benefits. Many localities have (or had) bike registration requirements. Administering and enforcing it has been a net loss. It has also been abused, resulting in bike confiscation.

    I pay a lot of property taxes and my jurisdiction (Henrico) budgets ZERO for bike and ped accommodations. They even refuse to install Share teh Road signs. And they have actively worked against the Capital Trail in Varina where they have no financial skin in the game. Meanwhile they will issue bonds or use general funds for huge “congestion relief” projects that simply induce more driving and reshuffle traffic. Their own projections demonstrate that. I don’t benefit from those projects but my taxes help pay for them. As a result the county has among the highest per-capita VMT in the state. Not a nickel more from me until they shift their paradigm.

  17. Maybe, it’s always good to have a few things left in life that we can enjoy without having to pay our government money for the pleasure of indulging in.

    Aren’t some things left that are God’s Gifts to us, rather than the Government’s largess and indulgence, after all – don’t you think?

  18. larryg – you refer to the ammo tax, some kind of tools tax I am not familiar with, and other examples. I don’t like where that is headed. Should there be a tax on every single activity or implement? General taxes support investment in public infrastructure, including roads – separate taxes on every different activity or mode amounts to government by user fee – if you want to go that way, let’s just privatize all the roads,national parks, fire departments and every other government function. The point is that if our transportation planners took proper account of the law, which gives cyclists the right to ride on most roads, they would design roads differently, to account for the different types of traffic, and you would not need “separate” infrastructure, it would be properly designed and integrated. Yes there might be some dedicated bikeways, but in comparison to the dedicated interstates (no bikes allowed) the cost of those minimal dedicated routes would be a rounding error in any rational transportation budget.My argument is simple. I pay all the taxes that drivers pay – and I am a driver sometimes. But I recognize that roads are not for cars, they are for transporting people. Bikes are a legal, safe, healthy and efficient means of transporting people, and so a reasonable share of the federal transportation budget and the budget of every state and locality, should be devoted to ensuring the safe use of roads by cyclists. Properly designed roads can accommodate both cars and bikes at little or no additional cost, providing great savings in wear and tear, real estate, healthcare expense, and a host of other factors.

  19. Tom – here’s your guide to taxes which includes machinery and tools.

    http://www.yesvirginia.org/pdf/guides/LocalTaxesGuide2010-2011.pdf

    I don’t pretend that every single thing sure have a dedicated tax or be strictly user fee but I do say if you have a designed fund and a dedicated tax – you don’t have to do near as much “begging”.

    Using your “I drive so I want my fuel taxes to go to bikes” – carry that out to people who want to fund transit…sidewalks… other stuff.

    I agree with your view of properly designed roads but what do we do with roads that are not new and just simply too dangerous to use without adding a bike lane?

    how do we fix that? What can I do realistically to get a bike lane from my house – 3miles to the post office?

    right now.. if I go in front of the BOS, I’m spitting into the wind.

    they LAUGH in your face…. “get out of here you wacko”!

    :-)

    I’m after the same things you are – we just don’t agree on how to get there.

    I’m apparently in more a hurry than you, eh?

  20. larryg – Not even the enlightened and progressive countries of the EU require bicycle licenses or taxes.

    http://www.copenhagenize.com/2010/03/folly-of-bicycle-licences.html

    As for your board of Supervisors, maybe you should run. At least you can support candidates that have a more bike friendly perspective. Read “Joyride” by Mia Birk. She and other advocates in Portland faced similar ridicule but overcame it to make Portland an excellent example of what can be done in the USA.

  21. Tom – we’re never going to get more or enough bicycle infrastructure on the path we are on now – IMHO.

    we’re turning the crank the same way and not getting any different results.

    My approach is to change something – to create a designated fund for which to go out and lobby things to “fill it”. A “license” is symbolically important because it says to others that you want real bicycle infrastructure AND you realize it takes money.

    there are probably other innovations. I’m in favor of finding answers to go forward.

    I’m not interested in continuing a pitched battle that is gridlocked.

    that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    I’m for moving ahead with whatever innovations can make it happen.

  22. I’m with Tom Bowden on this. We need to get far more serious about promoting and facilitating Bicycling as a more viable alternative auto travel, and find ways to make it work.

  23. When motorists are taxed enough to pay the full cost of engineering, planning, building, maintaining, and policing public roads, I might stop laughing every time someone says bike users should be taxed more in order to have a say in the discussion about the allocation of transportation funding. Motorists have been handed everything they could possibly desire out of the public treasury. The result isn’t happiness, it’s an attitude of entitlement. If you give a rat a cookie, he’s going to want a glass of milk.

  24. the only thing of the list presented that is not paid from fuel taxes is the police. But police respond to all geography not just roads.

    But the rest of the costs – planning, building, maintaining and operating are covered by the 17.5 fuel tax, taxes on new cars, and the .5% sales tax (which I acknowledge is a subsidy – AND subject to claims by transit and bikes).

    Now there may well be an argument about whether or not the fuel tax SHOULD be dedicated to only roads.. I know that concept is questioned by some but the idea that roads are subsidized from the general treasury -in Va (not the Fed program)… well I’d have to see some facts because everything I know says that – that’s not true. But I’m opened-minded about it and will surely admit that I do not know all aspects and still benefit from education of things I do not know.

    Having said that – my primary view is that the back and forth between bikers and funding from the fuel tax – is at loggerheads.

    If anything, the forces that want to cut off bike funding from fuel taxes seems to be gaining at the Federal Level where 1/2 the funding for transportation DOES come from general revenues AND their goal is to cut the budget by 1/2 and to limit transpo money to ONLY what the gas tax generates. It’s not guaranteed that they’ll succeed but the way things are right now – funding for things other than roads is increasingly coming under question.

    but most of this is neither here nor there in the bigger scheme of things because bikes already get almost nothing – token money – not near enough in any locality to provide anything close to a real transportation network for bikes.

    and it’s likely not going to change for the better ..and may get worse.

    I’m for finding a way to get more bike infrastructure. I’m open to all approaches.

    but I do not think the current approach is going to do much.

    if pro-bike folks are happy with the status quo and/or they think they ARE making progress and content to wait and see what develops downstream- I’m okay with that too -after all they are the activists and I am the blather-butt.

    I just don’t think in the current fiscal environment that things are going to improve with the status quo.

  25. It’s too dangerous to ride a bike on the road outside of a residential area.

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