cycling utah March 1999


Who Owns the Roads Anyway?

By Rob MacLeod

The start of a new season brings a new list of topics for the "Bicycle Advocate" column. I plan to spend a lot of time talking about bike safety this year. This comes in part because of my own adventures in "Effective Cycling", but in even greater part because riding is getting pretty tense out there on Utah roads. We've all experienced the added stress of more cars, widespread road construction and a new level of aggressiveness by many frustrated motorists.

The solution is not to hide in front of our VCRs watching Tour de France re-runs, dreaming of what it must be like to ride in a bike-friendly part of the world. It is also not to try and match aggressiveness with a two-ton piece of metal driven by an angry commuter who has spent too much time in Salt Lake gridlock.

The solution is more complicated than that and includes things like learning to ride safe and to ride cool. As the season goes on, I'll describe the methods that some of us from the Salt Lake City Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee (MBAC) have been learning as part of Effective Cycling, a bike course developed by the League of American Bicyclists based on John Foresters's book of the same name.

I also want to talk about the many news items and events that we as cyclists and bicycle advocates need to know about and to support. We can be our own worst enemies when we are apathetic and unwilling to participate in the rides, events, and gatherings that provide the chance to make our presence known. If government officials and agencies never hear from us as a group, we remain invisible, a risky situation for us as individuals and as a group.

Before we get into the nitty-gritties of bike safety though, there is a pernicious argument that needs to be debunked once and for all. I bet at some point in a ride, someone has yelled at you from a car or truck window to "Get off the road!" The really clever ones add "I pay taxes for it and you don't!"

Ever thought about this suggestion? That we, as cyclists, are getting a free ride because we don't pay gas taxes for the miles we do on two wheels under our own power? Well, forget this idea because it is as wrong as wearing your bike shorts backwards and about as helpful as a stick between the spokes.

There are two reasons why cyclists have every right to be on the road. The first comes from the the economic facts. As cyclists we don't pay less in taxes than a motorist to use the road, we pay more. The details are available in some reports from Todd Litman that are available via his web site ( But the summary goes something like this.

Most cycling happens on local roads (versus state and federal highways) and there were $31 billion dollars spent on local roads in the U.S. in 1994, only $10.4 of which came from motor vehicle user charges. The rest of local road funding comes from general funds and special assessments, taxes we pay whether we drive an automobile or ride a bicycle. But it gets better.

The cost of building and maintaining roads, on average, works out to just over 3 cents per mile driven for vehicles, but the cost of actually driving those miles in gas taxes and vehicles fees is, on average, only 2.3 cents per mile. In fact for the local roads, the cost to drivers is only 1 cent per mile. This means that drivers are actually subsidized by 1-2 cents per mile to use cars. But these are only the direct costs of road repair and maintenance.

If we add in the cost of law enforcement, emergency services, tax funded parking subsidies, and the cost of acquiring roadway land, we get a number more like 6.5 cents per mile in true costs of having roads, so the subsidy now climbs to 4-5 cents per mile. And things get really out of hand when we begin to include some of the more indirect impacts of driving, such as lost productivity due to time spent in traffic congestion, off-street parking facilities, uncompensated accident damages and environmental impacts. The estimates for this components add a further 10-40 cents per mile to the real cost of having our road system.

For the cyclist, who creates much less impact, typically rides many fewer miles, and yet still pays just as much in income, sales, property, etc. taxes as the typical driver, the deal is not nearly as good. One comparison in Litman's report shows how a typical bike commuter can actually end up paying $400 per year for the privilege while his neighbor the motorist enjoys a subsidy of $275 for the year.

So in reality, on average, it is the cyclist subsidizing the motorist instead of the reverse. But don't let this moral superiority go to your head and start yelling for drivers to get off the road, for there are better reasons for us all to share the road.

There is at least one good reason why the argument that motorists own the roads is ridiculous. I learned this one from Bob Bayn, a leading bike advocate and Effective Cycling instructor in Logan, Utah.

Bob points out that roads are a part of the public right-of-way. This means that roads are there for the public and the last time I checked, we belonged to the public, even when we ride our bikes, look geeky, and smell nice and "fresh" when we commute to work/school. Using the public right-of-way does not depend on what we pay--there are no toll booths on sidewalks.

If use of public facilities actually depended on how much each of us paid in taxes, then rich folks would have even more rights to the road than the rest of us, whether they drove, rode or walked down the middle of the street. All of us with lower salaries would have to move to the side and let the rich folks pass. I bet the drivers trying to evict us from the public right-of-way would be real happy to learn that someone else was yelling the same thing at some of them!

The laws of every state and municipality support our right, the right of everyone, to use public spaces, including the roads. The privilege of access depends on our willingness and ability to obey the rules of that public space, not on our income or how much we contribute to the national debt.

So now that we all know our rights and the reasons why cyclists do belong on the roads, how do we exert that right and not end up as a blob on some yahoo's tire? That is what Effective Cycling is all about, and that is what we will talk about starting next month. Stay tuned. And stay cool.

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