Myth Buster: Cyclists don’t pay for roads

In his Off the Couch blog, Tom Held has been tactfully reporting about the crash that killed Jeff Littmann, his funeral, and the investigation into the crash.  As tactful as Tom has been, some of the comment trolls have managed to take disrespect and untruths to new levels.  Here is a comment that appeared tTuesday:

Maybe the cyclists should pay to use the roads like motor vehicles do. Or maybe they could learn to read and follow the rules of the road. Or are they exempt because they are “special?”


I will skip right over the implication that it is OK to kill people riding bicycles because they did not pay for the road, and I have already debunked the myth that people riding bikes do not follow the rules of the road in this previous fact-filled post.  But I have not yet addressed the second common misconception among the non-cycling public, that only people who buy gasoline and register motor vehicles pay for roads.

So what are the facts about transportation funding?

First, virtually everyone who rides a bicycle also drives a car and pays gas taxes, vehicle registration fees and wheel taxes.  So we are already kicking in to that pot of money.

Second, while gas taxes and vehicle registrations certainly fund a lot of Interstate Highway and State Connecting Highway projects, those funds don’t provide much money to the local roads, which makes up most of the total roadway network and the vast majority of the roads on which people ride bicycles. Jeff Littmann was hit on Waukesha County Road R, or Wisconsin Avenue.  That county road is only eligible for a small percentage of funds from gas taxes or vehicle registration fees.  Most of the money to build and maintain that road, like most local roads, comes from local taxes, which everyone pays whether they drive a car or not.

Municipalities like Waukesha County do get some money from WisDOT’s General Transportation Aid program for their local roads. That program currently returns to local governments roughly 21.8 % of all state-collected transportation revenues (fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees) – helping offset the cost of county and municipal road construction, maintenance, traffic and other transportation-related costs.  The amount varies by municipality according to different formulas.

The share-of-cost percentage changes every year, and the general trend has been down. Here is a table as far back as I have readily available:

  Year Counties Municipalities Aid Increase
  CY 1996 27.0% 21.4% 3.0%
  CY 1997 26.6% 20.8% 3.0%
  CY 1998 28.2% 22.5% 11.5%
  CY 1999 27.0% 21.3% 0.0%
  CY 2000 27.8% 22.0% 6.75%
  CY 2001 25.9% 20.8% 0.0%
  CY 2002 25.8% 20.6% 3.0%
  CY 2003 25.9% 20.5% 4.0%
  CY 2004 24.6% 19.5% 0.0%
  CY 2005 23.2% 18.7% 0.0%
  CY 2006 22.9% 18.6% 2.0%
  CY 2007 22.5% 18.3% 2.0%
  CY 2008 22.5% 18.4% 3.0%
  CY 2009 22.5% 18.5% 3.0%
  CY 2010 22.2% 18.0% 2.0%
  CY 2011 22.2% 18.0% 3.0%
Source: Transportation Aids System  
Updated October 2011      


That means that as long as you are a tax payer you are paying for the roads and should have a say in how your money is spent.  If you want paved shoulders or painted bike lanes on your roads, you have a right to ask for them because you paid as much as the next person whether you own a car or not.

There are many more indirect and direct ways people pay for the cost of roads beyond local taxes, (snow and ice removal fine fees, police fees, etc.) but through local taxes alone, people who ride bikes have contributed a majority share.  In future posts, I will delve a little further into the funding questions. Not only do people who only walk and ride bikes pay for the roads, but they may actually pay more and get less in return than people who only drive cars.

So don’t ever let anyone tell you Jeff Littmann (or any other person riding a bike or walking) did not pay for the road he was riding on. He did, and that is an indisputable fact. What’s more, he had a right to expect he would be safe riding on the road he helped pay for.


About daveschlabowske

Cyclechic advocate from Milwaukee
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14 Responses to Myth Buster: Cyclists don’t pay for roads

  1. Russell says:

    Thanks for the info Dave – I don’t know how many times lately I’ve heard a similar claim being made by the ignorant.

    ps – Is there a sillier term then “Tax Payer”? Aren’t we all “Tax Payers”? I mean if there was a way not to be one, I’m sure we all would get in line.

  2. Bill Sell says:

    Another cost, well hidden. Trucks carry notably higher registration fees. As we depend (too much) on trucks to deliver the goods, we pay for roads through just about everything we purchase because of trucks’ poor mpg and higher registration fees.

    As our society stumbles its way back to using trains (accelerated with higher gasoline prices), drivers will eventually experience a benefit they did not anticipate. Wear and tear on the roads without trucks will result in lower maintenance costs for highways. (which is what we bicyclists have always offered) *snark*

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Trucks cause 80% of the damage to roads, and even though they pay higher registration fees, we still subsidize that form of transportation.

  3. Mike D. says:

    If they would simply add the cost of two wars in the Middle East and protection of the Straits of Hormuz to the pump tax on each gallon of gas, gas would be over $10.00 a gallon.

  4. michael hopp says:

    Great post Dave.

  5. Another way we pay for roads and their maintenance is through our water bills in Milwaukee. A snow and ice removal fee is added to the last bill of the year, irregardless of the type of vehicle you may operate.


    Thanks Dave, As someone who drove over 30,000 motor vehicle miles a year before semi-retiring to Waukesha County biking bliss, I’ve often had a hard time with the argument that I’m haven’t paid for the roads. The myth, which you explode, has empowered drivers to think they are not only judge and jury as far as who has a right to the roads, but also executioner. Got an idea for a laser detector that will tell when I’m given less than the 3-foot (minimum) legal pass by a motor vehicle connected to an extremely loud horn. Any enthusiasts for this project? Obviously I’m venting here, The vast majority of motorists are respectful. Those who are not, however, are certainly lethal.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Hi Phil,

      There are a number of other external costs to driving that are paid for by society in general, but I wanted to highlight the hard figures that are beyond dispute. Even if we only look at those numbers, it seems cyclists are overcharged and underserved.

      As to your laser idea, I have a similar product idea, a three-foot rule bicycle car feeler. It is sort of like the old curb feelers for cars, except this one would go on the left side of your bicycle, extend two feet, eleven inches and have a scraper on the end. Cars who invade your personal space would go away with a permanent reminder to share the road. Could this be too passive agressive?

  7. Dave – This is one of the best explanations I’ve seen of the topic. Would love to work with you to adapt it for our print newsletter (winter edition coming out in November) or for our website.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Sure, that would be fine. Feel free to use it and just credit the source. If you want to run it past someone at WisDOT for accuracy, that would be fine with me too, but most of my information came from WisDOT.

  8. Pingback: Cyclists paying our way, Walker style | Over the Bars in Milwaukee

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