A mileage tax for bikes


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.

7 thoughts on “A mileage tax for bikes

  1. The problem I have with throwing taxes and fees at bicyclists at this particular point in time is that it would create disincentives for biking right when we should be doing all we can to encourage it. Perhaps if roads weren’t already being heavily subsidized I would be more interested in proposals to get bicyclists to pay their share. But property taxes already go to pay for local roads which are far more expensive to build and maintain than bicycle infrastructure. Obviously, bikers pay those taxes too.

    As a broader point, I think we need to stop looking at user fees as a way to pay for transportation infrastructure. User fees don’t actually pay for roads now, and they’ll pay for less in the future. Clinging to that model seems problematic. In the short to medium term a carbon tax is the way to go, then in long term, maybe taxes and fees on the sale and registration of vehicles.

    I just think right now is a bad time to start charging bicycle users very visible fees. Sounds like a good way to discourage casual cyclists.

  2. I would pay. Employers who provide a transit subsidy could also offer to just put those dollars toward the bike fund.

    Also – the actual position title is Transportation Planner. I wish they would just stick with that.

  3. I generally support some form of tax on bicycles to help pay for infrastructure/planning. I would certainly support a tax on wheels/tubes or on parts. However, I’m not sure it would generate sufficient revenue to actually fund infrastructure.

    My only concern is that instituting a bike-specific user fee might offer an excuse to limit bike projects to revenues from that one source rather than using prop. taxes and other transportation funds for bike infrastructure.

    I agree with Matt that a carbon tax would be a good option, but it feels like we’re a long way from that; whereas a modest bike tax could help keep the momentum going even with the high possibility of decreased Federal funds for transportation in the next few years.

  4. A mileage-based tax probably can’t work very well on bicycles. I think most places currently trying to do mileage taxes on cars are going overkill by requiring special devices to do GPS tracking. Odometers work just fine in most cases (the extra GPS tracking is mostly just useful for people who drive between different states frequently). However, most bikes don’t have odometers, or really any other significant accessories for that matter.

    Rather than really trying to create a new tax, I’d suggest simply reallocating the funds currently being gathered from sales tax on bikes and bike accessories. This would make bikes somewhat like cars, where the MVST is used instead of the standard sales tax (although MVST is partially dedicated to transit these days…).

    I see that the old statewide bicycle registration program has been mothballed since 2005, but I could see bringing that back as a way to get bike-specific revenue. Perhaps the registration system could include a way to make a donation, with a suggestion to give 1 cent per mile or something like that.

    Hmm. Now are we going to ask about a pedestrian tax on shoes?

    • I think registration and/or taxes on products could both be explored, but I fear that both these ideas lack political expediency, meaning they would be viewed as just another tax increase and therefore have little chance at the legislature or even at the local level. A voluntary user fee escapes this criticism.

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