Rep. Orcutt on Those Freeloading, Polluting Bicycles

Ed Orcutt is the ranking minority member on the Transportation Committee in the Washington House of Representatives.  In an email to a constituent, Orcutt riffed on the transportation tax bill introduced last week.  It started off easily enough:

“I am not a fan of much in the House Transportation tax proposal nor of many tax proposals . . .”

(of course not – Orcutt is an erstwhile Republican and fan of the Tea Party)

But just like the Tea Party can find a soft spot in its heart for government action when it comes to Social Security, Medicare or enforcing drug laws, Orcutt has found a tax that he actually likes:

“. . . but I have to admit I think there are valid reasons to tax bicycles.”

Really?  Like what?

Well, it may be the case that Orcutt is a closet economist, because he seems awfully concerned about externalities – you know, the costs that certain activities impose on the rest of society that aren’t paid by the person or industry creating the cost.  Orcutt, with professorial patience, continues:

“Think about this for a moment.  Currently motorists are paying to use their cars on the roads while they are actually driving their cars.  At the same time, they are paying for bike lanes because there is no gas tax – or any transportation tax – generated by the act of riding a bike on the roadways.”

That’s an admirable concern for the “free rider” problem right there. I assume Orcutt feels the same way about the firearms dealers and timber industry in his district paying the full freight for the costs they impose, although I’ve yet to see his incisive macroeconomic analysis on that topic.

But never mind that – on to the bikes!   Yes, it must be a dreadful thing, all us freeloading cyclists.  Orcutt is right, of course – we don’t pay a tax based on usage.  Compared to cars, we ARE freeriders, creating externalities that are paid for by society.  There’s no debate about that.  Although 96% of Seattle’s roadway budget comes from non-usage based funds (principally property, sales and B&O tax revenue), fully 4% comes from gas tax.  FOUR PERCENT!

The burden of which – and I can’t be plainer about this – is borne solely on the shoulders of drivers.

Rep. Ed Orcutt is obviously a principled economist, focused on the question of fairness.  I’m sure he would advocate that cyclists pay for roadway commensurate with usage and impact in relation to cars and trucks.

So let’s do some quick math.

  • In Seattle, gas tax revenues used for roads equals about $13.5 million annually.
  • Bikes are used for about 5% of commutes.  There’s obviously recreational riding as well, but let’s assume that’s washed out by non-commute driving.
  • 5% of $13.5 million is a little shy of $700,000.
  • But we haven’t accounted for commercial driving, which places a massively disproportionate burden on transportation infrastructure given the weight of the vehicles and the miles driven.  Let’s say that cuts the share attributable to bikes down to $350,000.
  • Oh, and we haven’t accounted for the difference in commute length.  The average one-way commute for drivers in Seattle is 14.1 miles; for cyclists it’s 6.1 miles. So that brings the “cycle share” down to about $150,000.
  • Then’s there’s vehicular weight and rolling resistance on pavement – the biggest driver of transportation infrastructure wear and tear.  Let’s say the average motor vehicle weighs 4000 pounds, and the average bike-and-rider 200.  That’s probably understated, since it doesn’t account for commercial vehicles or the differences in tire size, but let’s go with it because it makes for a nice, clean 5% ratio.  That brings the number down to $7,500.

So those of us commuting by bike in Seattle are free riding to the tune of, at most, $7,500 per year.  I’m guessing a more detailed analysis or factoring in the positive externalities of cycling would reduce that number further or even turn it negative.

As Orcutt is a devotee not only of fairness but also of small government, I’m certain he would not want to create or expand state bureaucracy to collect so piddling a tax, a tax whose meager revenues would be swamped by the cost of collection and enforcement.

But perhaps not.  Because Orcutt may have a bigger agenda.  You see, he is not only an economist, but also an environmentalist, concerned about the dire impact of bicycling on global warming.  He may like this tax because it uses the “pull” of state taxation to drive an end desirable to Orcutt – getting all of those spandex-clad polluters off their bikes and back behind the wheel where they won’t do so much damage to Mother Earth:

“But if I am not mistaken, a cyclist has an increased heart rate and respiration. That means that the act of riding a bike results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider.  Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride.”

Read the whole crazy here.

(h/t Seattle Bike Blog)



18 thoughts on “Rep. Orcutt on Those Freeloading, Polluting Bicycles”

    1. Indeed. Those positive externalities (and others, like reduced congestion, less idling, etc) would certainly wash out the $7500.

  1. Damage to the roadway is also a function of the square of the velocity of the vehicle, so it’s weight divided by contact patch area multiplied by the square of the velocity

  2. Yeah, those fat-asses in cars are in much better shape than “cyclists” on the road and “motorists” have much lower heart rates and blood pressure. I can’t wait to fart and belch when I bike and run to work! Where’s my “gas” monitor?? I should pay taxes on that!

    Buuuuuuuurrrrpppp! ;-)

  3. Should we also tax cars that get better fuel economy? As far as usage, will drivers be required to drive a minimum number of miles (burn a certain amount of gas) so as not to be considered “free loaders”? Will people who choose to walk also be taxed? Why not increase fees on larger heavier cars and trucks that have more of a damaging impact on our roads and environment? Bicycle hate/SUV love…a cause celebre for the far right

  4. No offense meant here but I have to wonder how much of a bike lane $7,500 would buy? While Representative Orcutt’s statement about bike pollution speaks volumes about his knowledge base I’m not sure we should lambast him over this. I am a full time bike commuter with an 18 mile round trip and I love the bike lanes. They are like hitting the freeway for bikes. I am also constantly amazed that the state would pay the millions of dollars these bike lanes must have cost and I am so very grateful that the state had the fore sight to build them. These bike lanes and other bicycle infrastructure are mitigated by other than actual cost per bike thankfully. I am not going to complain about the new bike tax because if we took the real cost of bicycle infrastructure and divided it among the number of bike commuters and users very few of us would be able to ride. Just saying…

    1. I wouldn’t complain about a bike tax but the people instituting them need to get their facts strait if they are going to calculate their numbers properly. If bikers are paying additional taxes then they should get additional services.

    2. If we had real bike lanes, this might be relevant. But we don’t.

      Bike lanes in this area are pretty much exclusively an after-thought. They add little if anything to the cost of constructing a road. Drivers drive in or obstruct the bike lane all the time. Law enforcement uses bike lanes for traffic stops. Bike lanes are poorly maintained. They aren’t swept clean, and indeed public works departments around the region commonly use the bike lane as a staging area for their clean up of the road and adjacent sidewalks.

      On top of all that, it’s a fallacy that gas tax is a major contributor to road maintenance. Even statewide, transportation budget is only about 25% covered by gas tax, while the remainder is funded by revenue sources we all pay, including cyclists. By that calculus, motor vehicle infrastructure should be funded only about 33% more than any other given kind of infrastructure. And yet, it accounts for a much bigger proportion (I don’t have the exact figure off the top of my head, but it’s in the neighborhood of 80-90%).

      Frankly, I’d be more than happy to see bike lanes on motor vehicles roads disappear completely. But only under the condition that bike infrastructure gets its fair share of funding, which would allow for an entirely separate and regionally-connected bike infrastructure, which in turn would make using a bicycle for transportation actually reasonable and accessible for the average person, instead of requiring that one be a die-hard cyclist with a death-wish, just waiting for that distracted, careless driver to wander into the bike lane and run them over.

      I’m all for keeping a balanced view, but frankly there are a lot of people out there all too willing to overlook the incredible _unbalanced_ state of affairs that exists now, in which the needs and wants of motorists are given the lion’s share of funding, at the expense of other types of transportation modes that _all_ are in practically every way better for people and the environment than private motor vehicles.

  5. Bike lanes are not a “free” benefit to cyclists, they are a traffic control device, intended to benefit all roadway users and increase safety. Basically, they are a containment device to keep bicycles off the car lanes. In Oregon, you can get a ticket for not staying in the bike lane if one is provided. Taxing cyclists for bike lanes makes as much sense as toll booths on left turn lanes for automobiles. Roads are infrastructure paid for by the overall economy. Gas taxes offset maintenance costs, based on impact. Bike lanes promote commuting, which reduces pollution, traffic congestion, and parking space requirements.

  6. Road damage is not linear to weight. Road damage is weight to the FIFTH power.

    So, let’s say 10,000 lb vs, 200 lb. The ratio is 1:50^5 or 1:300,000,000. That’s for every $300,000,000 damage caused by trucking, cyclists cause $1 in damage. In reality, that $1 is closer to $0. Even for regular small cars, for every $1m in damage by trucks, cars (2k lb) cause $300 in damage. Or $32,000 in damage if they are 5k lb cars.

    Basically, gas tax as indicator of road damage is a farce. Trucking gets a free pass.

    Yes, a road used by cyclist costs a lot in capital costs. But it costs next to nothing in maintenance.

  7. why is the initial number only 5% of total gas taxes collected? how is the amount driven to work correlated with the total amount a bike is ridden? rolling resistance and weight of vehicles are affected by start and stop due to vehicle weight transfer, if a cyclist causes a car to come to a sudden stop, why cant the cyclist be held accountable for the weight transfer which causes damage to the road. i know this might sound stupid but my point is, your math doesnt even come close to adding up from a neutral standpoint. if you can be fair in your assessment, you shouldnt just make stuff up. all you want to do is say “taxing bikes are stupid”. guess what, no one likes paying taxes, paying taxes is a civic duty at best.

    1. What have I made up? 5% is a generous assumption, statewide, for commutes by bike. And while my calculations are back-of-the-envelope and don’t take into account a lot of confounding variables (like the impact on traffic), they are certainly directionally correct (i.e., it should be obvious that cycle traffic accounts for no more than a tiny sliver of the capital and maintenance needs driven by vehicle traffic). But if we’re really concerned about users paying their “fair share,” the question should be why the usage-based component only contributes 4% of the transportation budget. By that measure, this cyclist is heavily subsidizing the free-riding drivers.

      And yes, taxing bikes is stupid.

      1. maybe you dont understand what i mean in reference to the 5%. i literally question where you get the number 5% from. you say youre being generous but you dont point to any statistic as to where you get the 5% from. i dont like assumptions because when you assume you make an ass out of u and me, and i for one do not like being an ass. this is about critical and analytical thinking. you might think that these are confounding variables but these are realistic things that bean counters actually have to figure out. if you assume a bike only affects another bike, then sure, you can use this time of “back-of-the-envelope” calculations but since other vehicles in the mix, you cant. “back-of-the-envelope” calculations might be best left on the back of the envelope rather than on a blog pretending to be informational with “fuzzy math” calculations. id also like to point out that the fee they want to impose is for the lifetime of the bike as well, its not a consumption tax so your annual gas tax revenue calculation makes no sense in relation to the tax they want to impose.

        1. You can’t honestly believe that there is any possibility, whatsoever, that materially more than 5% of commutes in WA are done by bike, can you?

          But in any event, I say it’s a “generous assumption” because I took 3-year-old data for downtown Seattle (a 4.3% mode share for cycling), rounded up and extrapolated it statewide. It’s in the same report that average commute length was taken from:

          And the way any tax is applied doesn’t matter; I’m reacting to the concept that cyclists are somehow not paying their “fair share” because we aren’t paying a separate cycling tax.

          1. Well, it’s nice to see the data you are using. The information is quite old so I can’t really judge it on its accuracies but I will just have to take their word for it. You are correct that 5% would be a generous assumption for commuting to work on bikes but your article includes recreational bike usage (supposedly). Your fantastic “back-of-the-envelope” calculations conveniently state that recreational bike usage is “washed out by non-commute driving” even though from my own personal experience, bike usage is primarily used for recreational purposes while cars are not (from a proportional standpoint). So your generous assumption isn’t very generous, it’s simply misleading like most of your article.

            Though I am very pleased to finally see an honest statement from you, that “the way any tax applied doesn’t matter” because you simply want everyone to pay their “fair share” as long as it isn’t you. Did you happen to participate in the Occupy Movement? It’s funny because that’s the feeling I get from reading opinions. Ironically, this tax makes you part of the 1%. In case you havent figured it out, its not actually a cyclist tax, its a luxury tax.

Leave a Reply