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Friday, February 1, 2013

Taxing S.F. Cyclists Is a Dumb Idea

Posted By on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 7:30 AM


Maybe you've heard the rumors. Lane-splitting, stop-sign-flouting, tax-evading cyclists have seized control of City Hall.

It's true -- I read all about it on the Internet.

It all started earlier this week when the cycle-sympathizing quislings at the SFMTA put forth a new six-year plan to dramatically increase municipal spending on bike projects. Presented at an agency board meeting on Tuesday, the Draft Bicycle Strategy offered three distinct investment scenarios, ranging from the modest $60 million "Bicycle Plan Plus" to the over half-a-billion-dollar "System Build-out Scenario" -- the Cadillac of urban planning initiatives specifically designed to make it inconvenient to own a Cadillac.

Given the City's stated goal of boosting regular bike ridership, (20 percent of all trips by 2020 is still the plan) and given the fact that the SFMTA currently dedicates less than 1 percent of its annual budget to bike-program funding, a reasonable person might be forgiven for deeming the SFMTA's triple proposal worthy of consideration.

But according to many of the comments posted beneath this Examiner story written on the agency plan, such reasonable persons are nothing but "A BUNCH OF BIKE NAZI LOSERS." (capped emphasis and flecks of spittle taken from the original quote).

Indeed, a common refrain from those registering their opposition to the free-spending ways of the SFMTA (so obviously in the pocket of Big Bicycle) is that cyclists have no right to demand better infrastructure when they pay so little for it. Combining that old-time anti-bike vitriol with righteous Tea Partying indignation, commenter after commenter declared themselves to be mad as hell: "It's time to make the bikers pay," they say.

Via the Examiner:

"Bicyclists complain that they should have the same rights as cars yet as been noted here they pay no registraiton fees, no license fees," complains one commenter.

"Put license plates on bikes, charge a nominal fee, and *they* can pay for their lanes!" echoes another.

To my great surprise, the above comments are not the arguments of a strawman, but a surprisingly popular line of thinking -- and not just on the Internet!

Just the other day I got into the very same debate with a family member of mine. Since cyclists demand their own special infrastructure, he argued, surely it's only fair that they cover at least some that expense. After all, he said, cyclists are always clambering to be treated as equal members of the vehicular community. And what confers legitimacy like a license and registration?

I'll admit that when presented to me in this way, I did pause to think it over. And here's what I concluded: Mandatory registration and taxation of bicyclists is a really dumb idea.

There is the impracticality of it all to consider. Even with record levels of commuters biking to work each day, unless the plan is to charge a fee that makes up a significant fraction of the value of the average bicycle, revenue would be pretty meager. And that is assuming that most cyclists would comply with the law, which, given the number of bikes out there and the policing required to ensure that each one is properly registered, should not be assumed.

Some believe that forcing bicyclists to display an ID number would somehow keep them on the straight-and-narrow. Ah, we already see the frustrated and ineffectual fist-waving at law-breaking bicyclists. "That stop-sign-running fucker won't get away with it now that I've got his license number. Because now I'm going to report him." And just imagine how doggedly the police will pursue that lead.

But, efficacy of the law aside, I think those on the other side of this argument are either forgetting or purposefully overlooking one obvious point: We want people to bike.

Unless you are the guy from the aforementioned comment thread trying to make the argument that bikes are somehow worse for the environment than cars, I think most would agree that as the city continues to grow (and grow more congested), that it would be nice if more people opted for the more energy- and space-efficient mode of transportation. And to the extent that we can encourage people to make that choice -- by making the city a safer, easier, and more fun place to get around on a bike -- we should. And that is worth paying for together.

Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.

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