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.

Beyond mobility – EPA delivers metrics for sustainable transportation

Since the EPA, DOT and HUD joined forces to create the Partnership for Sustainable Communities and laid out six livability principles, there has been a lot of discussion: How might federal funding guidelines change? How will we measure livability?  Does this mean we can only have one kind of lettuce?

It appears answers may be arriving.  EPA has released a Guide to Sustainable Transportation Performance Measures.  According to EPA,

Many transportation agencies are now being called upon by their stakeholders to plan, build, and operate transportation systems that – in addition to achieving the important goals of mobility and safety – support a variety of environmental, economic, and social objectives. These include protecting natural resources, improving public health, strengthening energy security, expanding the economy, and providing mobility to disadvantaged people.

This shift has been decades in the making and is driven by a variety of factors. One factor is the desire for a more integrated and holistic approach to transportation decision-making. Researchers have been shedding light on the complex interrelationships between our built and natural environments and drawing attention to the need to better consider the multifaceted implications of transportation system changes. At the same time, advanced computer tools are making it easier to quantify and visualize these relationships.

The guide contains 12 examples measures for incorporating sustainable community objectives into transportation decision-making.  The key here is that these measures are going beyond mobility – looking at other factors like carbon intensity and mixed land uses, which should be important inputs into our transportation planning processes, but have not been uniformly adopted.

If you look closely, you’ll also notice many of these measures match well with another tool that HUD, one of the Sustainable Communities partners, has said they will use to evaluate projects: LEED ND.  Transit accessibility, bike and pedestrian level of service, mixed land uses, land consumption and carbon intensity are all measures which play an important role in the rating system.

The document includes a description of the stage in a planning process in which each measure might be useful, the specific metrics one would use, guidance on calculations and data sources and examples of planning process where that measure has been used.

This document doesn’t say how or if funding guidelines will change.  This also isn’t a comprehensive guide on how to include sustainability or livability into a specific planning process (environmental review, for example).  However, this could be a useful tool for any city, county or other entity involved in transportation decision-making to build a better process.   It starts to place metrics around the aspirational language we’ve heard from politicians.

Train in the Woods

The Minneapolis Station Area Strategic Planning Document for the Southwest Transitway is a pretty good piece of analysis.  It lays out the existing conditions at each of the five station locations, including barriers to pedestrian access and other details of urban form important to transit-oriented development.  It provides what seem to be realistic recommendations for opening-day improvements, as well as hypothetical build-out scenarios for transit-oriented development around the stations.

While I disagree with some of the specific design elements (low-density, over-parked development at Royalston, bike trail intersecting with pedestrian realm at Van White), I realize those details are all likely far from finalized, and overall I think the document is a great jumping-off point to decide where public investment is needed, how regulation might need to change, and what questions still need answering.  It provides details where there used to be few, and that moves the line one step closer to successful implementation.

What the plan illustrates that frustrates me so much, is how inappropriate the routing decision for the Southwest LRT line through Minneapolis really is.

Continue reading

In Search Of Livability And Many Types of Lettuce

There has been quite a discussion going on recently about “Livability”, the term the US DOT is using to guide many of its initiatives and collaborations with other federal agencies.  I got into that discussion over at The Transportationist, in response to a post about an article by Alan Pisarski who roundly criticizes livability and basically deems it undemocratic and not sufficiently market-driven.  A little sample:

The problem here is a total disconnect between what people in a diverse democracy want, and what the central bureaucracy, and their academic allies, wish to impose. The livability agenda may be popular in the press and among pundits, but for most communities and people it’s neither popular nor remotely democratic.

While I don’t disagree with all his points, and I don’t disagree with Levinson’s point that livability needs to be better defined (with some quantitative performance measures, which I believe are in the works), I still think the article is full of holes.  I was all in a lather and ready to write a long rebuttal, but alas, I wasn’t quick enough.  Robert Steuteville has gone and made most of my points over at New Urban Network.

Steuteville’s says that Pisarski’s over-simplification of livability is ridiculous (is there any shortage of lettuce in compact communities?)  He also rightly points out that there is definitely a market for “livable” development (it may be the strongest real estate market right now) and highway-backers should be careful espousing anti-federal, anti-centralized planning mantras.

It’s ironic that Pisarski raises the specter of the 1950s in this piece. At the time, the federal government was imposing destruction on urban neighborhoods, often tearing them down wholesale. Big government was pouring billions into highways while neglecting or actively eliminating rail transit. (According to a report in the Free Congress Foundation, this lopsided subsidy had been going on for decades prior to the 1950s and amounted to billions annually.) Federal lending guidelines meant that financing went mostly to Leave-it-to-Beaver-type housing in the suburbs. Meanwhile, zoning and development codes and parking and street standards were adopted that made it illegal to build a downtown, a main street, or a walkable urban neighborhood virtually anywhere in America.

Go read both articles.  The livability discussion (and it’s definition) are important, and its clear that this administration intends to use these principles to shape transportation (and housing, and environmental) policy.

Could new FTA “livability” funding rules change Southwest LRT route?

The two alignment choices in Minneapolis

The big news this week is that the planned Central Corridor LRT line will get three new stations between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and the reason seems to be the new FTA rules which relax the sole focus on cost-effectiveness from travel time savings to include broader goals of “livability“.  With the three new stations, the project would not have met a “medium” rating for cost-effectiveness, and therefore would not likely not have been funded by the FTA under the old rules.

What implication might this have for the planned Southwest LRT line and its contested route?  It’s hard to say, but it certainly seems like the alternative routes should be re-assessed under the new formula before telling the feds that 3A is the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA).  More below the break.

Continue reading

Federally funding for transit projects now to consider “livability”, analysis no longer dominated by cost-effectiveness

The Transport Politic has the best summary of the changes to the FTA’s New Starts program funding.  In analyzing competing projects nationwide, the government:

…will eliminate a policy-making rule that gives projects’ “cost-effectiveness” primacy when choosing how to distribute transit funds. Once the shift has undergone an internal review and been submitted to public comment, the Department of Transportation will give equal weight to livability issues.

Freemark calls out Minneapolis and the Southwest Corridor alignment process as a perfect example of cost-effectiveness uber-alles mentality gone wrong.

Where the cost-effectiveness index goes really wrong is in medium-density cities hoping to cash in on transit as a tool for increasing density and developing a transit-friendly environment. As demonstrated by the Minneapolis example, the index basically forces transit authorities responsible for choosing routes to pick less useful corridors within the inner-city in order to speed commutes from the suburbs. It also requires agencies to reduce spending on lines in order to meet the arbitrary limit imposed by the index, no matter the willingness of local taxpayers to contribute a higher percentage of a project’s construction costs.

Whether the locals in Minneapolis are/were willing to spend more for 3C is, in my mind, an open question, but it does seem clear that a “less useful corridor” was chosen to meet cost-effectiveness guidelines.

What “livability” means is as yet undetermined and will be part of a rule-making process to come.  The FTA press release does state livability issues include “economic development opportunities and environmental benefits”.  I assume this will mean potential for the project to spur development and the environmental impact from reduced greenhouse gas emissions, among other things.

Freemark says this will be a good change, but won’t solve the real problem: a simple lack of funding for transit projects.  Even if a new methodology for ranking projects is devised, their is still a huge gap between deserving projects and federal funds. Streetsblog summarizes Oberstar’s answer: more funding in the next omnibus transportation bill.  There is also a good back and forth about whether these changes are good or bad at the National Journal.  Transit folks basically say “yahoo!” while skeptics seem to doubt that “livability” measures will be based on rigorous analysis.

It seems to early to judge whether this is a good or bad change without seeing the rules that will guide analysis around livability.  The traditional cost-effectiveness measure used a dollar figure.  However, this dollar figure was based on travel time savings, and included no external costs.  If external environmental impact of route choices and their alternatives can be put in dollar terms, wouldn’t that be a perfectly analytical measure for this new livability category?  Economic development potential seems more squishy, but this the same kind of analysis that road project planners have to do when they are considering what property to condemn.