Funding for cycling infrastructure in Minneapolis is under fire. I don’t want to get into the politics, except maybe one note¹: if this position were called “traffic coordinator”, would this even be an issue? Ok, I’m done. So funding for traffic that happens to occur in the form of bicycles is under fire. How about we get creative?
It’s always bugged me that cyclists couldn’t really point to a specific source of funds for their projects. If you read Chapter 8 of the Minneapolis bike plan, you see sources for capital projects include a laundry list of federal money, one-time programs, and state sources, none of which are really specific to cycling. Where is the connection between local demand and funding levels, you might ask? Well, funding levels appear to be determined mostly by how good your community is at lobbying for state and federal dollars. Most cyclists pay income taxes, property taxes and gas taxes, so these revenues should supposedly go in some way towards bike projects, but the transportationists would say this isn’t an efficient way to allocate resources.
I’m a proponent of mileage fees for auto transportation, as most of the wonks and urbanists seem to be, so why not apply this concept to bikes?
My proposal is simple: cyclists who wish to participate download an app for their smartphone that tracks the miles they ride in a certain jurisdiction. At the end of the month or year, the app displays total mileage and a suggested contribution amount based on a per-mile rate. Users pay the amount they wish.
The app itself could work something like the fitness apps that are out there, like Map My Ride. Open the app, push start when you’re leaving and stop when you’re done. Total mileage is tracked. The app could be specialized to just track within a certain city or county, and maybe even determine the jurisdiction of the street/trail on which you rode.
The plan depends on voluntary participants, which is a challenge. The federal government has a website where you can donate money to pay down the debt, but it’s not wildly successful. However, my approach will allow people to connect directly with what their paying for (bike lanes or trails), and not imagine its going to some lazy bureaucrat’s pension fund.
How much money would this raise? There are roughly 8,000 Minneapolis residents riding their bike to work (which is close to a 4% mode share for workers over 16). Let’s assume their round-trip commute is 8 miles and there are 230 workdays per year. If you set the mileage rate at 10 cents, the bike fund gets $1,472,000 per year. Of course, that assumes full adoption (unlikely) and that all the miles ridden are in Minneapolis (also unlikely). What if 500 people track their mileage? That’s 6% of regular commuters. I’m not sure if that’s realistic, but that equals $92,000 per year in voluntary fees, more than enough for a bike coordinator. That 8-mile commute would cost each biker 80 cents per day. That’s cheaper than driving or taking the bus.
Another proposal from Straight Outta Suburbia that’s been making the blogosphere rounds lately is to tax sales of bicycles, accessories and repair to pay for infrastructure. While I think a voluntarily mileage tax would be more politically feasible and have fewer unintended consequences, I think both ideas deserve some consideration. Make sure to check out the comments section at Straight Outta Suburbia as it has some good discussion of the issue, including the excellent phrase “pigovian tax”.
What do you think about a mileage or accessory tax for bikes? Would you voluntarily pay it? Finally, do you know any smartphone app developers who want to help me build it for very low pay?
¹ Ok, maybe not just one. Did you know that there are many locations in Minneapolis that see thousands of bike trips per day? And that there are locations where one out of every eight travelers is on a bike? It’s true! Sounds like the kind of traffic that might need some coordination.