Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

05 June 2017

A Tax On Bicycles?

Oregon state legislators are debating the idea of levying a tax on new bicycle purchases.  

Now, my younger self--the teenage Ayn Rand acolyte--would have winced at the idea.  But my older, more radical self--what I am today--can see the need for civil rights legislation and--egad!--even the need for a single-payer healthcare system.  Still, I'm not sure how I feel about a tax on bicycle sales.

According to lawmakers, the money raised would be used to pay for improvements to the state's bicycle infrastructure, commonly regarded as among the best in the USA.  That, on its face, sounds both good and fair.  Or does it?

State Senator Lee Beyer (D) is one of the authors of the proposal.  He says he helped to create it in response to a common refrain among his colleagues:  that bicycle owners "ought to contribute to the system."  Sen. Beyer thinks that's a good idea, except for one thing.  He says that this idea ignores this fact about cyclists in The Beaver State:  "most of them also own a car".  That means, of course, that they are already paying taxes and registration fees which, ostensibly, help to improve and maintain the state's transportation system--of which the "bicycle infrastructure" is a part.  At least, that would be, in effect, its status if such a proposal becomes law.

That leads me to a question:  What, exactly, do they mean by "bicycle infrastructure"?  Are they talking about bike lanes and paths? If so, will engineers and planners who are actually cyclists be recruited to conceive and build them?  Or, is the legislature thinking about bicycle education classes?  For whom--cyclists? drivers?  kids?

Pardon my cynicism, but I have seen too many poorly-conceived, -built and -maintained bike lanes, and have encountered too much ignorance about laws and policies--let alone the actual experience of cycling--among law makers, law enforcement officials, planners and members of the media to have much faith in any government's intention or ability (at least the way things are currently done) to make their jurisdictions more "bicycle friendly".

Also--again, please pardon my cynicism--I don't believe (until I see otherwise) that the tax money will actually go to "improving or maintaining bicycle infrastructure" or making a place more "bicycle friendly", whatever those things mean.  I have seen too many instances in which money that a government takes from its people for some purpose doesn't go to that purpose.  One of the best examples are state lottery systems, which were supposed to supplement budgets for education and other purposes.  Instead, money raised from state-sponsored gambling has been used in lieu of money that had been raised through other taxes and budgeted.

Then, of course, there is the matter of how this will affect bike shop owners.  At one point in my life, I had the opportunity to open a bike shop:  A couple of people would have provided the money.  Working in a couple of bike shops convinced me not to do it:  My would-be investors, who made money in other industries, were astounded that profit margins were as small as they were--and that the profits were even smaller on high-end bikes than on cheaper bikes.

(There's an old joke that goes something like this:  Go into the bike business, and you can end up with a small fortune.  How?  Start with a big one.)

The tax proposed in Oregon would be levied on bikes costing $500 or more. These days, that amount of money hardly buys what most of us would consider a "high performance" or "high end", let alone "luxury", machine.  If you are going to commute every day and want something reliable--let alone something you might enjoy riding on your day off--you need to spend at least that much, at  least if you are buying a new bike.  

But even if that tax is paid by cyclists lower on the cost and income scale than lawmakers intended, it will still affect a fairly small number of bicycles.  One of the factors that keeps automobile sales as high as they are is that many drivers replace their cars every few years, whether or not they need to.  While there are cyclists who want to have whatever they saw in the latest edition of a bicycle lifestyle cycling magazine, most cyclists tend to stick with a bike that serves them well for a long time.  We replace a tire here, a chain there, maybe a more major component after a few years (or more), but a bike that isn't crashed can be ridden for decades with relatively little care.

So, in brief, you have to wonder just how much money a tax on new bicycles costing $500 or more would actually raise.  And you should be very, very skeptical about what is done with that money--especially when terms like "bicycle friendly" and "bicycle infrastructure" are tossed around.


  1. Cynicism? Overtly optimistic I think!

    Research has shown that every mile of cycle route saves the economy a Million and in tourist ares creates extra wealth and that is with badly built ill conceived cycle routes which we have already paid for from taxes...

    We have seen a few in power who understand bicycles but that small minority never use their power and knowledge for the greater good, their halfwitted colleagues have a desperate urge to stand and shout.

  2. Politicians are good at putting sums of money in different "pots". So now they're telling us they're going put some in a pot labeled "bicycle infrastructure". Trouble is they love to move the money around between the pots or sometimes just take the money for some other purpose. How long would money for bicycle infrastructure last in a room full of cycle apathetic politicians? About as long as a jar of peanuts in the monkey cage at Brookfield Zoo.

  3. The special taxes car drivers pay account for about a quarter or less of street and highway maintenance. The rest is taken out of the state's general funds, property and income taxes. If you have a house or an income, you help subsidise car drivers. And if you remember that cycling infrastructure costs only a few percents of what car infrastructure costs, cyclists have already paid more than enough for what little they get (in the US).

    BTW, The Evergreen State is Washington. Oregon is the Beaver State. Jokes about this fact are thick in the air in some circles.


  4. Leo--I've made the correction. And thank you for explaining more about taxation than I know!

    Phillip--"As long as a jar of peanuts in the monkey cage at Brookfield Zoo". I love it!

    Coline--I'm an optimist? Hmm...