22 May 2008

Rewarding Cyclists - And Countering Bad Arguments

A reader wrote an email regarding a discussion he had on a forum about bike registration. The other chap argued that "if bikes want to use the roads then they should pay for it, just like cars have to." I was asked about bike registration in Europe and my reply became so lengthy that I figured I'd post it here.

Feel free to contribute with other points of view and stats in the Comments section.

This "bikes should pay" argument is not unknown to me but it is, in many ways, a rather weak argument.

Regarding bike registration in Europe, there are half a billion citizens in the European Union alone. 100 million of them ride a bicycle on a daily basis according to the European Cyclists' Federation. None of them are inconvenienced by bicycle registration, least of all the Netherlands or Denmark - the two countries with most bike usage.

Here's three good counter-arguments from my ragged little bag of opinions:

1. Road Usage and Wear and Tear
Firstly, imagine the logistical nightmare of registering tens of millions of bicycles. Firstly you need to pay to develop or adapt a computer system to register them and you need to hire people to run the system to issue registrations and pay for producing licences.

Consider the aforementioned impact on the roads. Your average car in 2005 weighed 1650 kg [3582 lbs]. [source]
My best guess as to the average weight of a bicycle is about 13 kg [30 lbs].

Based on those numbers, a bicycle weighs 0.8% of a car.

You don't need a degree in rocket science to see that the weight impact on the roads made by bicycles is marginal. Let's say a car registration costs $100, based on various factors including wear and tear on the roads. Based on that figure, a bike registration should then cost 80 cents.

Then you'll have to subtract from those 80 cents. In Denmark we have road taxes and environment taxes built into our car registration, not to mention weight taxes, depending on the car's size. A car's environmental impact is far greater, but a bicycle has none. Let's say a 50% reduction in the 80 cents fee for zero environmental impact, just to pick a number.

40 cents per bike. That 40 cents would be reduced to almost nothing after you subtract adminstration fees.

I'm not an economist, but I can already see that the project would not be very profitable. The enforcement issue is another ball of wax. I, for one, would prefer my police force to take care of business more important to society that checking cyclists for registration papers. In short, developing a registration system for bikes would be a monumental waste of taxpayers money and that is in nobody's interest.

Campaigns to increase awareness and safety would be more profitable in the long run.

It is also worthwhile to consider the very simple fact that more bikes with a marginal impact on the roads means less wear and tear. This reduces the necessity for time-consuming and expensive road works to fix the potholes, etc. It will be cheaper for motorists, not to mention much more convenient not having to suffer construction delays.

2. Health Impact
The cyclist, besides having a marginal impact on the roads, will also end up benefiting society on a whole by transporting him or herself by bike. The health benefits are many and they are well-documented. In direct relation to cars, it is interesting to point of some of the many studies regarding pollution.

The level of dangerous, polluting microparticles inside a car are much higher than outside - on a bike, for example. There are a couple of links to earlier posts below regarding this.

Cyclists Can Breathe Easy
Traffic Kills 10 Times More People Than Traffic Accidents

In addition to it being more dangerous to sit inside a car than outside one, consider this excerpt from the above link:

In Denmark almost 4000 people die each year from pollution from cars. That number is ten times higher than those who are killed IN the traffic. According to a recent study, breathing the pollution from the automotive traffic is more dangerous than merely being the traffic.

3400 people die each year from illnesses directly related to the particles released from the exhaust of cars. On top of that there are 200-500 people who die prematurely from heart disease and high blood pressure caused by the noise generated by traffic.
Yes... just the NOISE!

I can't even begin to imagine how these numbers will mulitply when applied to any North American city.

So... cyclists are actually reducing health care costs and, in effect, freeing up hospital beds for those who need them. They are also increasing their health levels - which will give them fewer sick days and a more effective working life, thereby contributing more positively to the economy.

There is a study about this in Denmark and here's an excerpt:

- Physically active people live ca. 5 years longer than the physically inactive.
- Physically inactive persons suffer on average for four more years from lengthy illnesses.
- Cycling has the same effect on health as other types of excercise. Four hours of cycling a week, or roughly 10 km a day is a fitting level - luckily for us, this is the average bike usage in Copenhagen - back and forth to work and running errands.

And this:

If Copenhageners rode 10% more kilometres each year:
- This would be an increase of 41 million extra cycling kilometres each year. [At the moment we ride 1.2 million km each day in Copenhagen.]
- The health system would save 59 million DKK per year.
- We would save 155 million DKK in lost production manhours (due to illness)
- There would be 57,000 fewer sick days in the workplace each year. That would be a reduction of 3.3%.
- 61,000 extra life years
- 46,000 fewer years with lengthy illnesses.

3. Get Paid To Ride
All of the common sense above should somehow lead to rewards for cyclists. A city council that builds segregated bike lanes, thereby encouraging citizens to ride, will be spending less on road works and public health.

In Copenhagen we've discovered that:
One extra kilometre of bike lanes on a road:
Building bike lanes on streets with an average of 2,500 bikes and 10,000 cars each day would bring 18-20% more bikes on the stretch of road.
Including a drop of 9-10% in the number of cars and 9-10% fewer accidents and injury.
- A saving of 246,000 DKK in the health sector.
- A saving of of 643,000 DKK in lost production.
- A collective fall in health, production and accident costs each year totalling 633,000 DKK.
- The extra kilometre would give 170,000 more cycle kilometres each year.
- For every 1 krone spent, society would save 5 kroner.

Now THAT is good economics.

In Norway, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration [Vegvesen] actually pays their employees to ride to work instead of driving. Much of the decision is based on the above facts and studies.

"By encouraging people to bike or walk to work we ensure that they get exercise and, at the same time, relieve the pressure on the traffic net"
, says District Chief Roar Gartner in Vestfold, Norway.

Summa summarum

If one encounters this odd argument that cyclists should be made to pay for a registration of their vehicle, I hope these offerings above provide a good point of departure for a counter-argument.

Instead of demanding that cyclists pay, motorists should be buying us beer and thanking us on behalf of themselves, their children [present or future], the nation and society in general.


Anonymous said...

Exactly, cycling creates good health and thus is likely to create longer life spans. In the USA, our government sponsored health and retirement obligations expand rapidly as more people live longer.

Therefore the DOTs around the country are doing everything possible to help Uncle Sam in keeping the growth in these obligations to a minimum. Creating larger highways without needed safety partitions, unenforced speed limits, and allowing horsepower to be actively marketed all help in weeding out future liabilities.

We all want to protect our families and the DOTs are doing their share to protect Uncle Sam from burdensome financial obligations. C'mon comrade, get in line to collect your share before it's too late.

mindcaster said...

very nice inrefutable rebuttal..which was to be expected on this blog :)

*Life is like riding a bicycle. You don't fall off unless you stop peddling.*

David said...

I live in Toronto where, I understand, municipal roads are paid for by property taxes. So the "cyclists should pay if they want to be heard" argument is moot, because we *do* pay! In fact, we pay for all the wear and tear the cars inflict on the roads. But I don't mind, things are changing here and the cars can't win forever.

jennifer said...

Hehe! I liked your last line. I'll take a vodka and cranberry, please!

That's ace that the Norwegian Public .... Association (forgot the name!) pays their employees to cycle! I'd love to see that enacted here. I think it's unlikely, though our (Chicago's) mayor is pretty bike-friendly and promotes cycling much more than a lot of American cities.

Still, there's a culture to change, too, and would something like this payment change this and bring people back to the city and out of their suburbs 20-50 miles from downtown (I live @ 4 miles from the city center)?

Nearly every day I get the incredulous question, "You cycle to work?!? Every day?!? Where do you put your work clothes!?! What about the winter?!?" Ho hum. :/

2whls3spds said...

I can't quote a source at the moment, but in my part of North America (North Carolina, USA) Road building is paid for on a local level by property taxes, bond issues (repaid by property taxes) and state funds collected via state income tax. Ongoing maintenance is a crap shoot as far as to where the funds come from, the bulk is collected via a tax on gasoline (and a pretty weak tax at that). It is also hidden in the cost of everything you purchase...

As you can see as a cyclist I do pay for road building, and on a per capita basis, much more than the average car owner. (I do own cars BTW just left them out of this particular equation) Owning, licensing and insuring a car in the US is ridiculously cheap compared to many other countries. In my area total cost of fees, insurance, taxes and such is under $1200 a year for the typical car. Gas tax on an average driver at 20mpg/15,000 miles a year is only $365 and that includes a 18.4 cent per gallon Federal Tax. Not enough IMHO..



WestfieldWanderers said...

"Cyclists don't pay for the road" is a very common claim from UK militant motorists. Total rubbish of course, especially after a nano-second or two's thought.

In the UK, probably 95% of the road network pre-existed the invention of the motor car. People rode bicycles on those roads long before the first car coughed into life. Even asphalt road surfaces pre-exist cars - to make cycling easier.

Highway maintenance is the responsibility of Local Authorities and has been by them and their predecessors since Tudor times. Local Authorities raise their funding through both local taxation (in UK, Council Tax) and grants from central government. So motoring taxes, in the UK, no more pay for the roads than the VAT on a chocolate bar.

What the militant motorists also forget is that pedestrians "don't pay for the roads" either. If one follows their logic we'd all have to hang a registration plate round our necks to prove we've paid our road tax before we'd be allowed to walk out of our front gates! Footways are part of the highway system, too. Following their logic further would mean that the National Health Service would be funded by the users - a tax on sick people.

The simple truth is that, like the Health Service, roads are needed and used by all of us. So we all pay.

Zakkaliciousness said...

What a great batch of comments. Informative and insightful - which is what i've come to expect from the lot of you! Thanks.

Here in Denmark the roads are maintained through my taxes, like everything else. I don't know which taxes, just my taxes.

Car owners pay steep road taxes, weight fees and environment taxes, which also contribute to maintenence.

Buying a car is expensive, but not prohibatively so. Nevertheless, the extra taxes on cars go to a good cause.

njh said...

Road damage is proportional to a small power (between 2 and 3 from memory) of the weight, not linearly. So if a bike weighs 0.8% of a car the road damage is between 0.0064% of the road damage and 0.0000512% of the road damage.

Nicole said...

Great post- taking money from cyclists would be ridiculous. I know the U.S. is WAY behind in bicycles but the US House of Representatives just passed this National Bike Bill a couple days ago which says in part:

(I) provide Federal tax or funding incentives to--

(i) States that adopt motor vehicle laws that protect the rights of bicyclists to share the road;

(ii) businesses that expand bicycle-friendly programs for their employees;

(iii) the health care industry to develop more member discount programs, that target increased physical activity such as bicycling and walking; and

(iv) provide bicycle commuters the transportation fringe benefits currently provided to people who commute by car or mass transit;

Doesn't mean much at this point but it's a step in the right direction for cyclists.

brent said...

In Australia we spend more (heaps more) on car related expenses (road building and maintainence, traffic enforcement, accident attendance, healthcare of road victims) than we make through car related income (registration, fines, and petrol taxes). Basically MOST of the money for the expenses comes not from driver's pockets, but from taxes.

That's fair, as long as all tax payers are drivers.

Now. Get this. Some of us prefer to NOT use a car, even though we use the road system.



I've always been a supporter of requiring registration of bicycle-commuting because, no matter how I work out the sums, I figure that I'm due for about a $100 REFUND for using my bike. Go for it, I say :-D

[Oh, and apparently they ignore even cars when they work out the life cycle of a road. They just count the trucks. A 20 tonne, 16 axle semi-trailer does heaps more damage than 20 2-axle 1.5 tonne cars do.]

brent said...

yeah, njh is right. road damage is to the cube of the weight. So they ignore cars. count the trucks. that's all there is to it. a road will split from grass growing up under it before it wears down from bike riding over the top of it.

Kevin Love said...

Here in Toronto, the Medical Officer of Health produced a report that states traffic caused polution kills 440 people every year and injures 1,700 to the point that they require hospitalization. Official source:


If a terrorist gang were killing 440 people a year there would be a strong government response to suppress them. I fail to see why there should be any less strong action taken against car drivers.

Note: The Medical Officer of Health is the government official responsible for public health measures.

Stéphane Brault said...

"david" and "kevin love", you are absolutelt right. In Quebec, we try to transfer all motorists taxes for investment in alternatives transport, but opposition is strong.

Keep pressure and continue biking!

Excuse my bad english


Anonymous said...

Road damage is proportional to the 4th power of the weight of the vehicle.

Based on your numbers of 1650Kg/car and 30kg/bike (plus 100kg/bicyclist), the car does about 26,000 times the damage to the road than the (portly) bicyclist does.

I agree, the "bikes should pay" argument is very weak.

digitalmouse said...

mindcaster said...
*Life is like riding a bicycle. You don't fall off unless you stop peddling.*

Not true at all if you ride a recumbent trike! :)

melancholic optimist said...

This is a bit of a hot issue in Portland, Oregon right now, as more people are starting to ride bikes due to the high fuel prices... and I think emotions are running high both on the pro-bike side and the anti-bike side. Anti-bike people are angry that people who primarily cycle don't pay fuel taxes and other things which go to pay for road repairs and such, and the pro-bike camp tends to retaliate with comments about motorists' weight problems or lack of concern for anything. For the most part, I don't think it's a very healthy argument going on here right now, and I hope that both sides of the argument tone things down a little so we can actually have more useful discussion and less name-calling.

This post makes a lot of good points that are good to think about in having this whole discussion. I hope we can really think through these issues and come to a good conclusion that at least the majority of the population in the city will be ok with.

brent said...

there are anti-bike people?!?

good lord

melancholic optimist said...

Yes, and one of the craziest arguments I've seen lately, is that the car is the primary symbol of American freedom, allowing us to go wherever we want, whenever we want, and that we must do whatever is necessary to preserve that - including doing away with alternative forms of transportation (that is, walking, bicycles, public transit), which are all for those crazy liberal socialists who want to undermine American freedom. I almost can't believe it when I hear these kinds of things. Sometimes certain Americans are a bit... well, you know.

Zakkaliciousness said...


Dee said...

We are lucky, in a way, in Queensland Australia, that we all contribute through tax to a fuel subsidy. That way, when the old rego for cyclists argument comes around, you can point out that your labour (and taxes) support cheaper petrol even though you use none yourself. It stops them cold every time.

Zakkaliciousness said...

that's great, dee. nothing like an argument ending statement that makes sense.

sameer said...

In many ways, you guys are all way fortunate. Here in Bangalore, we're just trying to get some sort of a debate even going. Cycles are not even part of any planning or discussion. The private vehicle rules, mostly.

But there are a few efforts afoot to get some sort of a critical mass going. Fingers crossed, legs firmly on pedals, I continue the ride :)

Don Meaker said...

I agree, there are significant logistical problems with a registration scheme. My solution is to use the same people and computer systems that currently register cars. Of course we could then stop registering cars, to make room for the extra capacity needed. Cars already pay for roads through gas taxes.

Makes as much sense as anything you have said.

Mikael said...

since writing this post i've spoken with several municipalities who have actually done the research into bicycle registration. none of them have found it cost-effective. all of them found it counter-productive.

encouraging citizens to ride bicycles doesn't mean getting rid of cars. they will often still have a car.

and cars do NOT pay for roads with gas taxes anywhere in the world. in some places they contribute to to roads with these taxes but most funding comes from property taxes.

so there goes those theories of yours.

In Copenhagen the city calculates that for every kilometre a citizen on a bicycle rides, society earns 1.22 kroner [25 US cents]. For every kilometre a citizen drives in a car, society pays out .69 kroner 89 [13 US cents]. A variety of factors are involved including wear and tear on the roads, the health benefits of cycling, etc.

So forcing citizens to pay to ride bicycles is bad business.

Johno said...

The weight argument doesn't seem to be so simple - a bike has two thin points of contact - say, 30cm2 total... but a car has four much larger, say 1800cm2. A truck even more.

Then say a typical biker and bike weighs 100kg - pressure on road = 100/30 = 3.3kg/cm2
and a car (say, 1000kg) = 0.5kg/cm2.

So a bike actually exerts more pressure.

I'm a keen cyclist btw, just not sure how scientific your argument is.

flavio said...

Johno, remember that things are moving, so your calculation of weight versus pressure/cm2 does lacks a lot of other inputs, such as braking force, acceleration force, turn force, speed, friction, etc. If you take that into account the overall weight and speed will play a big role.
So, your calculation would maybe make sense in a garage where the bicycle and car are static. But even there the bike is less damaging since the biker won’t be on ;-) that’s obvious.
Each car tire contact path in average is about 120cm2 and not 450cm2. Average weight of a passenger car is about 1500kg. An average bike weighs 13kg. An average person weighs 75kg.
Bike, (75+13)/30=2.9kg/cm2
Car, (75+1500)/480=3.3kg/cm2
But still, the idea that more contact area will make less pressure on the ground then consequently less damage to the road does not apply. Imagine then a battle tank, which is equipped with track links with lots of contact area to the ground, would be less damaging to the roads..? Military vehicles are not welcome for civilian use because of its heavy weight that spoils the roads and it can cause a great damage in a crash too.
You can also notice the damage to the asphalt on bus stops due to the heavy busses braking and accelerating..
So, the lighter the less damage to the roads, etc, and in terms of efficiency nothing can beat a bicycle.