Angry at Hipster Cyclists, Chicago Journalists Plea for Layers of Bureaucracy

Should cyclists pay for bike lanes and other infrastructure through stickers and licenses, like drivers do? It’s been tried, and it doesn’t work very well—but there are intriguing alternatives that could generate modest revenue and give them important, if symbolic, skin in the game.

Chicago bike lane


I’m mostly immune to the snide tone writers like Mark Konkol take towards people who commute by bike (“bicycling crazies,” “rabid cyclists,” “militant bicycle people,” “faithful bike-riding followers,” “hipsters on Huffys,” just in one short piece!), but I still don’t like bad ideas: “if cyclists need their own lanes, they should pay for it — maybe by requiring a bicycle sticker tax for commuters.”

Konkol isn’t the only local journalist floating this idea; in a less smug piece, John Kass calls out free-riding bicyclists:

Listening, Rahmfather? How can anyone argue that the city should spend cash to create bike lanes for pedaling One Percenters while not having the cash to hire enough cops to protect neighborhood folks dying in gang wars?

The Rahmfather isn’t the mayor of Portlandia. He’s the mayor of Chicago. But his sucking up to bicyclists seems less about serving Chicago and more about appealing to hipsters on the East and West coasts as he stokes his national political ambitions.

In principle I don’t actually have a problem with a “bicycle sticker tax.” I don’t think all cyclists do, though many are skeptical for other reasons. In a smart comment in response to Kass, one of my cyclist friends noted the issue: “Before you know whether to tax cyclists, you really need to know what they cost you (or save you)…. What’s being proposed *is* in fact a money grab, because the costs proposed aren’t commensurate with the cost of the activity, and it’s not an activity you want to disincentivize.”

The problems with it are in the real world, though there are similar yet far superior alternatives, if you’re actually interested in funding bike infrastructure and not just hipster-baiting.

Minneapolis has a more active bike-commuter culture than Chicago, and the state tried something like this, but abandoned it for obvious reasons: ‘The administrative costs were more than the revenue generated,’ according to that state’s Department of Transportation.

Los Angeles tried it recently, too, at least until police chief William Bratton—of zero-tolerance broken-windows fame—said it was a bad idea (PDF):

In short, our research determined that our Department-wide bicycle licensing efforts were all but defunct. Given our continued efforts to deploy all available sworn personnel to field operations in direct support of our crime fighting and community policing efforts, reviving the bicycle licensing program at this time is not prudent.

The State of Washington floated the idea and killed it for similar reasons:

After talking with other states, the department believes the programs raise little money – if any – beyond what they cost to run, Reeves said. “We wouldn’t see a big opportunity to improve facilities with that kind of a program,” she said. “We also have some survey results that are fairly recent that show that most cyclists also own a car or multiple cars, so they’re paying license fees and gas taxes.”

Property taxes cover much of the costs of smaller roads and transportation facilities, added Marty McOmber, a spokesman for Nickels.

“That is something that is spread equitably around the city, and it’s the funding mechanism that we have to live with in this state,” he said. Mandatory bike registration is “not something that we would be inclined to pursue,” McOmber said. “It’s not really clear what benefit it would have and it’s fraught with a lot of complications.”

A bicycle tax would give cyclists some skin in the game. (Well, besides the fact that vehicular infrastructure doesn’t pay for itself through fees and taxes. People who bike, even if they don’t own cars, are also paying for roads by dint of existing.) There may be some value to a tax for symbolism’s sake, and for additional if very modest revenues, but it would obviously work better as an excise tax on bikes or equipment than creating a new bureaucratic arm. Colorado Springs has had some success over the years with a $4 tax on new bicycles. It wouldn’t fully fund bicycle infrastructure, but similar taxes and fees on cars and gas don’t fully fund their infrastructure, either. Update: At Chicagoist, Chuck Sudo notes where the bike-lane funding comes from.

I’m more offended by the idea that bicyclists are “hipsters” or “one percenters,” smug rich liberals pretending that they’re saving the planet, or other cheap targets, mostly because it’s not true (PDF, via Eric de Place):

In 2001 there was almost no difference in bike mode shares among the four income quartiles. By comparison, the 2009 NHTS indicades a somewhat higher bike mode share in the lowest income quartile (1.3 percent) than in the top two income quartiles (1.1 percent). Although cycling rates do not vary much by income, it seems likely that low-income persons cycle mainly for work trips and other utilitarian purposes, while high-income persons may cycle more for recreation and exercise.

There are legitimate discussions to be had about whether separate bike lanes actually make for more and safer cycling. There’s an even better one to be had about cyclist education and enforcement—in an excellent post, Brent Cohrs discusses a point I’ve made before, that driver education in America essentially ignores cycling to the detriment of cyclists and drivers. Compare that to the Netherlands, where bicycle road tests are mandatory.

That doesn’t seem to have cut down on cycling there, as education makes people more confident, and if my experience is any guide, Americans are less likely to bike because of fear and inexperience. Marginalizing the entire form of transportation does little more than scare newbies off the streets, leaving them to the minority of aggro bikers.


Photograph: Chicago Bicycle Program (CC by 2.0)


2 years ago
Posted by aaron d

Regarding determining the true cost or benefit of bicycling, I saw a full page advert taken out by a car company - I clipped it but now have lost - that showed how many more millions of dollars go into the local economy when people use alternative transportation rather than spending the money on gasoline.

A more extreme point I might make is that not even the true costs of driving an automobile are yet being properly accounted for as extreme heat, i.e. global warming, i.e. mass misuse of fossil fuels, are crumbling our existing infrastructures - buckling roads etc;

2 years ago
Posted by OQJ, Sr.

It is my opinion that attitudes to bicycles as a form of transportation will not change until my generation dies off. Bicycles are still regarded as children's toys by too many in this country to allow moving forward with Class I bike boulevards developed on a wide scale. As a member of the Traffic and Safety Commission in my city I have seen the foot dragging by residents that impedes the development of bikeways. This attitude must be overcome before progress can be made.

2 years ago
Posted by itakethetrain

FYI: Diverse group of organizations sent a letter to the Tribune debunking the "hipster" myth:,0,2184649.story

2 years ago
Posted by bardalena

Will there also be a pedestrian tax for the sheer fact that they also use the streets? I would suggest a bicycle registration tax. Not only will that create revenue to offset the costly protected bike paths, but it will also provide bicyclists with a better means of reporting their bikes stolen.

Here's another take on what to do with these pesky but needed bike lanes. Bike crashes went up 38% over the past decade in Chicago alone.

7 months ago

I am wondering if any biking organizations take into account the number of bicyclists who completely disregard the law every single day. They don't stop at stop signs, they don't stop at red lights, they don't care about pedestrians. Here's the story of my morning today:

I left my place on foot and walked to a stop sign/crosswalk at the corner of my block. A man on a bike went sailing through the intersection without so much as a tap of the brakes, nearly hitting me. I said to him, "YOU HAVE A STOP SIGN." Know what the response was? "Yeah, great, thanks." Very sarcastic. I yelled after him, "Thanks for breaking the law!" This was no spandexed messenger. It was an average guy, on an average bike. WTF??? Really? What is with the attitude? This happens ALL THE TIME where I live, in the South Loop of Chicago. Then, I got up to another corner and a woman on a bike came flying down the SIDEWALK, very nearly hitting me. Seriously. I didn't say anything because by that point I was breathless with fury and shock. I plan to find every biker's group on Facebook and write about this. I also plan to Tweet about it. I'm f-ing sick of this and I want someone to answer for it. I know how to safely ride a bike but I don't anymore because of riders like this. Yes, some drivers are completely irresponsible but in my experience, the attitude, the recklessness and the sense of entitlement of bicyclists in this city and everywhere is unreal. I just can't feel sorry for a group of people who aren't licensed, don't have to register their vehicles, aren't required to answer for breaking the law, and then get hurt riding on roads that were never meant for them and on which they do not obey the posted laws for car drivers. It's dangerous for all of us out there but if bicyclists would actually share some of the responsibility then maybe they wouldn't get hurt so often.

6 months ago
Posted by Druw34

I'm not surprised how these people would agree to something so stupid! This mayor will come up with anything to take away the money we barely get by with. How about increasing wages and make cost of living equal with your insane money making skims. Now this! What's next a toll from street to street that you have to pay before you cross. It's people like you that bring this country to a depression. It's only a matter on time before we find out about some money laundering or some dishonest event your into! Find ways to help out your community without using their savings to do it.Our community's are running out of money because of people like you! You have no heart! Do us a favor and increase out wages or stop with these folish ways that you come up with. It's only
Making you look hideous!

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