Bicyclists pay their way, oh yeah!

by Brent Hugh, Ph.D.

When the question of on-road bicycling comes up in Missouri, a common question that is asked is: “Why should we allow bicycles on the road at all?  Bicyclists don’t pay for the roads they are riding on, do they?”

There are a lot of answers to this question.  Even if bicyclists didn’t pay a nickel towards the roads, there are important economic, social, and legal reasons to allow bicyclists on the road. 

  1. Every U.S. state allows on-street bicycling. 
  2. Courts across the country, up to the U.S. Supreme Court, have considered fundamental the right to travel the public roadways on foot and bicycle. 
  3. Since 1991, projects receiving federal funding have required the consideration of the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists. 
  4. A US DOT policy statement calls the level of bicycle and pedestrian access an “important indicator species” for the health of the community and adds, “People want to live and work in places where they can safely and conveniently walk and/or bicycle.” 
  5. Pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities have higher property values.  Most states and communities are now encouraging alternate modes of transportation like bicycling, walking, and mass transit.
  6. Bicycling and walking decrease traffic congestion. 
  7. According to the 2000 Census, about 10% of Missouri households own no automobile, about 25% of Missourians have no driver’s license, and 60,000 adult Missourians walk or bike to work. 

But let us consider only one aspect: Do cyclists pay their way?


Pack of American dollars, isolated on white. Saving concept

Some argue that roads are paid for entirely by user fees such as gas taxes, automobile registration fees, and the like.  The argument goes that cyclists don’t pay these user fees and so they shouldn’t be allowed to use the roads.

Is this true? 

Consider the facts:

  1. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA), 92% of the funds for local roads–the ones most often used by cyclists–come from property, income, and sales taxes.  Bicyclists pay these taxes just like everyone else does.
  2. FWHA calculates that 92% of federal highway funds come from user fees.  But 8% come the general fund, so even a bicyclist who owns no car contributes to federal highway funds, too.
  3. It is often said that the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) is funded completely from road user fees.  As a sweeping generalization this is true, but in fact, 45% of MoDOT’s funding comes from the federal government.  A portion of this federal contribution comes from the general tax fund.  Because of this, 3.6% of MoDOT’s operating budget comes from general taxes.  Again, even the non-car owning bicyclist contributes to MoDOT’s operating budget.
  4. In the end, all roads must be considered as a complete, interconnected network.  Considering the road network as a whole, about 2/3 of the funding comes from user fees and 1/3 from general taxes. Again, our hypothetical non-automobile-owning cyclist makes a contribution.
  5. Many services associated with the roadways are paid out of general tax funds. Examples: police, fire and ambulance services, traffic court, subsidized parking.  A typical household pays a few hundred dollars per year towards such services.  Bicyclists pay for a share of these services just like everyone else does. 
  6. Design improvements needed to make roadways more bicycle-friendly are generally inexpensive.  Roads constructed to modern design standards are quite bicycle-friendly already–improvements like wider lanes and shoulders are included to improve safety for all road users and are not bicycle-specific.  The bicycle-specific expenses in good road design are few: bicycle-safe grates and traffic signals that detect bicycles (and motorcycles), for instance.  Such expenses may cost a few thousand dollars in projects with budgets of a few million.
  7. Bicycles have a very low impact on the roadway.  One study found that bicycles impose about 0.2 cents per mile in roadway costs. Bicyclist pays no user fees so the entire 0.2 cents/mile comes from the general tax fund.

What about motor vehicles?  They impose an average of 3.9 cents per mile in roadway costs while paying an average of 2.5 cents per mile in user charges such as fuel taxes and motor vehicle registration fees. 

The difference–1.4 cents per mile–comes from the general tax fund. So both bicycle and motor vehicle road use are subsidized from general tax revenue.  This is fair since both bicyclists and motorists pay into the general tax fund.

But bicycles have such a low impact on the road that their subsidy is actually quite low–the general tax revenue subsidy for a cyclist who rides 5000 miles per year is only about $10.

Now let’s do the math.  Figuring a quart of Gatorade and a Power Bar for every 20 miles, my calculator tells me that to cover that 5000 miles the cyclist is paying at least $500 in food and so (at a 5% tax rate) $25 in sales tax. That sales tax covers the $10 road impact cost with change to spare. Maybe bicyclists DO pay their way on Missouri roads . . .

SOURCES: Paragraph 2: US DOT Policy Statement, Point 1: FHWA, 1997 Federal Highway Cost Allocation Study, USDOT (, 1997. Point 2: FHWA, 1997 Federal Highway Cost Allocation Study, USDOT (, 1997. Point 3: Point 1: FHWA, 1997 Federal Highway Cost Allocation Study, USDOT (, 1997, combined with MoDOT’s annual financial report, found online at (specifically Point 4: “Whose Roads? Defining Bicyclists’ and Pedestrians’ Right to Use Public Roadways”, Todd Litman, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, p. 5-6, Point 5: Six studies of typical cost of traffic services, summarized on p. 6 of “Whose Roads?”, Point 7: “Whose Roads?”, p. 6 (vehicle cost and taxes) and p. 9 (bicycle per-mile cost)


This piece was originally published St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation. In light of some of recent bike taxation change discussions in Seattle, it seems worthy to republish this piece of not-so-distance history (Seattle has had a bike registration tax for over 40 years, now). We, cyclists, pay more than our share of taxes. While a bike-dedicated tax could speed the development of bike-only lanes, history has demonstrated that the politicians will, most likely, “borrow” those funds for highway development while runners occupy the few miles of trail we do manage to get.

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