Alderman Dowell wants a $25 bike registration fee. Why?

October 23, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Parents often teach their children how to ride a bike at a young age. My mother told me I first got on a bike at the age of 4. It’s a sort of childhood rite of passage: bikes are fun, fast (for a kid), and easy to learn. They’re a cheap and efficient way to get around, as nearly 20,000 bike commuters in Chicago have discovered.

So why does Chicago Alderman Pat Dowell, 3rd, want people on bikes to pay a fee to ride?

3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell. Image: Chicago Reader.

Alderman Dowell suggested adding a $25 bike registration fee as well as a 1-hour bike safety course as a way to raise some funds for cash-strapped Chicago. This would be an alternative to Mayor Emanuel’s proposed tax increase on cable TV service, according to Dowell:

I think that there are many people on fixed incomes who don’t spend their money on fancy restaurants and movie theaters, going out to see a play, who use cable as their form of entertainment. So I want to know the impact of that on their bills, and I don’t have the answer to that yet.

The mayor is proposing raising the cable tax from 4% to 6%. If you have Comcast (and I don’t, thank god), you might be paying in the neighborhood of $45 a month for a decent TV package (for the first 12 months at least), which means the tax would go from about $1.80 to $2.70 – over a year, $10.80 more in cable taxes. Dowell is advocating discouraging bike use for the sake of making it no more expensive to sit on your couch and watch TV.

I think there are too many people on fixed incomes who don’t spend their money on cars who use bikes and the CTA as their form of transportation. So I want to know the impact of a $25 registration fee on a potential method of transportation for them.

And I do have the answer to that – it would make it less viable to ride a bike.

As I started with, riding a bike is easy. Why make people take a course to learn how? Admittedly I see a few people riding the wrong way down a street, which is very dangerous, and makes me wonder if they adopt the “it’s safer if I can see them coming” mentality that I employed when I used to run for exercise. The police should stop those people and warn them, maybe issue a ticket for repeat offenses. Aside from that, most of us can ride a bike.

On top of that, why make people pay to ride something like a bike? The beauty of riding a bike is that it’s simple. It’s cheap. It’s spontaneous. If I want to go to the grocery store right now I can get on my bike and be there in 10 minutes. I don’t have to wait for a bus or train or worry if there will be parking there (and when I get back). If you don’t have a bike, now you can use Divvy to get there. But I’ve heard people say bikes need to “pay their way” to be on the road.

OK. How much?

A car registration sticker in Chicago is $135. It doesn’t matter how much you drive or where, it’s just $135 (for many cars). An average car is 4,000 pounds. That’s about $0.03 per pound – I’m employing weight as a unit since the weight of a vehicle plays a part in wearing the road down and how much space it takes up. If a bike is about 30 pounds, which is fairly normal, then similarly-priced bike registration would be $0.99.

Or we could go by the gas tax, which is more useful as a “use fee.” (although it really isn’t). Employ the following assumptions: a 4,000 lb car, getting 30 mpg, with 3,000 miles driven annually. That’s 100 gallons of gas per year. In Illinois, the “harmonized gas tax” would be $0.45/gallon. That comes out to $45 in gas tax contributions per year. The bike, again at 30 pounds, would be putting much less wear on the roads, whose maintenance the gas tax supposedly pays for (again, it doesn’t). What would the annual “gas tax” contribution for a bike traveling 3,000 miles be?

$0.34. For the year.

Amsterdam separated bike lane

I will gladly reach between my couch cushions to pay such an annual bike tax if it means we can have some great bike infrastructure, like this in Amsterdam.

My napkin analysis doesn’t even factor in that bikes don’t pollute or cause obesity, injury, and death to countless innocent people every day. Pollution from car exhaust alone kills upwards of 50,000 per yearPigouvian taxes are meant to account for the negative externalities of a behavior. That’s why cigarettes are taxed – they harm people other than the smoker, and the tax rights the wrong while also acting to distort the demand by raising the price. It’s also partly why cars are taxed – the pollution they create harms the environment and other humans. Riding a bike (and walking, or taking the train) is an efficient, pollution-free (or pollution-lite) way of getting around, and should not be subject to a sort of Pigouvian tax.

People-powered methods of getting around don’t impose any significant known negative externalities, and shouldn’t be subject to market distortion – if at all, distort the market so it tips favorably towards bikes. Offer tax credits for commuting by bike, build infrastructure that makes it easy and safe, et cetera.

The suggestion to register bikes is nonsensical. Without any estimate as to a bike registration fee’s potential revenue (and cost for administration), and no suggestion for enforcement, it’s a suggestion out of thin air. With 20,000 bike commuters, the least this would net is $500,000 – small change for a $340,000,000 deficit. The bike-friendly mayor is unlikely to support such a fee. The people should not support such a fee. If anything, this is a snapshot of the grim state of Chicago governing: think of something and tax it.