Saturday, April 4, 2009

Changing "default assumptions" about cycling: The case for the need to do so

Two recent news stories, one from Oregon and one from yesterday's Eagle, are worth addressing, especially as, to my mind, they serve as a fairly accessible entrance into something more existential I've been giving some thought to of late regarding my sense of the status of cycling culture in Kansas--or, at least, in Wichita.

The Oregon story comes by way of U.S. News and World Report and is rather provocatively titled, "Do Bicyclists Deserve to be Taxed?" It concerns a proposal before the Oregon state legislature to require cyclists "to pay $54 every two years for a bike registration - the same price as a car's registration." The argument in favor of the proposal is pretty straightforward: cyclists use the roads, just like motorists; therefore, they should contribute monies toward their upkeep. The arguments in opposition are varied but equally straightforward: a bike's wear and tear on the roads is minuscule in comparison to that of a car; many cyclists own cars as well and so would be asked to in effect pay double into the system; would cyclists be assessed this same fee per bike?; etc. As you might imagine, in bike-friendly Oregon this proposal is getting a fair amount of discussion. As you'll see in the article, some make an argument that I find a bit surprising: that cycling contributes so positively to the welfare of both cyclists and those who choose to drive--and therefore should be encouraged--that they fear the tax could persuade some to stop commuting via bike and discourage others from taking it up. Others, though, counter that the tax will go toward the maintaining of cycling infrastructure (in Oregon, that's not a small investment, either) which, it stands to reason, cyclists should be willing to fund.

I'd just push that last statement a little harder: while one can quibble with proposed amount for the tax (it strikes me as a bit high, especially if it's the same amount at which a car is taxed) or method of assessment (maybe there could be small surcharges for bike purchases and on certain ordinary but necessary maintenance-related items, such as tires, tools, etc.), the state should feel no reluctance to ask cyclists to be asked to help maintain the infrastructure which makes their cycling safer. Though bike infrastructure is relatively cheap, it's not free; having it is a privilege and not a right. Speaking for myself, this blog's implicit assumption is not to presume that the city and other governments owe cyclists anything in the way of infrastructure. Sure: I keep harping on wanting to see one or two genuine, right-through-the-middle-of Wichita, east-to-west bike paths or dedicated bike-lanes, that request isn't exactly on the Founding Fathers' list of self-evident truths. Or, at least it's not on the Kansas version of that list.

That brings me to the Eagle article, "Bob Aldrich says Janet Miller's mailer could mislead voters." The chief issue in the piece is whether Aldrich, in not permitting public comment at a meeting of a planning commission subcommittee, was in violation of citizens' right to petition if not in violation of committee rules. However, the commenter forwarded me the link because in the piece Aldrich addresses Miller's mailer's noting of Aldrich's not approving a proposal to link the northern terminus of the K-96 Bike Path with the north end of the I-135 Canal Path. Aldrich "opposed the bike paths because he felt the money would be better spent on the city's crumbling roads." The commenter also speculates that because of that oppostion, Aldrich hadn't responded to the e-mail I sent him and Miller, in which I asked them to state their thinking on cycling's place in Wichita's transportation scheme.

Perhaps the commenter is right that Aldrich is reluctant to state such views here, but I would be disappointed if that were the case. It's obvious that this blog favors more and improved cycling infrastructure for the city, but neither cyclists nor motorists would argue with Aldrich's position that the city's streets are in a bad way and urgently need attention. His argument is not only perfectly legitimate, it's also pretty compelling--especially during a time when revenue for infrastructure will be reduced for some time to come. If by any chance you or someone on your campaign committee is reading this, Mr. Aldrich, I sincerely ask that you consider speaking to this issue via this forum. I promise that the full and unedited text of your response will appear on this page. I'm not at all hostile to reasoned, reasonable discourse and debate--the John Brown picture notwithstanding.

And here's the crux of the matter for cyclists in Wichita: if the right to free-to-cyclists bike infrastructure isn't a self-evident one in Oregon, of all places, it's considerably less self-evident here. This seems borne out by, if nothing else, the fact that, of the 6 people running for city council in next Tuesday's election, I have received responses from two of them. I hasten to add that I don't resent their not having responded--they have campaigns to run, after all; it's not as though I'm a potential donor or someone who commands a great deal of political clout (the Underserved Cyclist demographic is still pretty small in this town, you've got to admit). It does seem to suggest, though, that when candidates speak of their vision for the city, bicycle infrastructure is on the periphery, as it were. This means that our task here is a rather different one--and, frankly, a more a priori one--and thus a very difficult one: to begin to shift the default setting for thinking about cycling from where it presently sits in the minds of many policy-makers and politicians (not to mention many citizens--cyclists as well as motorists). Here's how I put the matter the other day in an e-mail to Randy of Kansas Cyclist:
If the default setting for assumptions about cycling in this state--or in Wichita, for that matter [. . . ]--remains "middle-class white people tooling around on Saturdays by the river" and "Spandex-wearing racers in the Flint Hills," we're not going to see much money for even something as simple as sharrows, much less true bike-lanes or "complete-streets" projects.
So: projects may get proposed but don't get funding because, well, the powers that be don't see any evident need for them--"Look at all those bike paths not getting used during the week!" (That's because many of the paths don't actually go where many people work.) In the meantime, people who'd like to bike-commute stay off the streets, and then when the issue of bike lanes gets raised again, there's still no apparent need for them because there's (still) no one cycling on the streets. In the collective mind's eye, cyclists remain recreationists first, almost to the exclusion of any other conception. It all becomes a vicious circle/self-fulfilling prophecy (take your pick).

I'm interested in exploring some ideas on how to begin breaking out of that cycle that incorporate both national trends and things I and others have observed here in Wichita. As I have said many times before here, it's difficult to imagine a city better suited to a thoughtfully-planned on-street cycling infrastructure, in terms of topography and present size, than Wichita is. (The wind is another matter entirely, of course, but . . . oh, well.) The problem is that the right people (and the right number of people) aren't seeing this potential, in large measure for the reasons I mentioned above. This is something I'll be returning to as my schedule permits, both here and at the KTOC Bike and Pedestrian forum (which you should also join); in the meantime, though, I encourage you to give this thought as well and post your responses at your own places--and be sure to leave links here in comments or e-mail them to me


Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts, you might consider that bicycle infrastructure and auto infrastructure is not mutually exclusive. Good roads, if designed correctly - can also include good bicycle facilities.

In fact, having good roadways with bicycle lanes may be the best way encourage people to commute by bicycle. The small study below would seem to support this.

Additionally, many communities develop bicycle infrastructure using Federal funding (Transportation Enhancement).

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by, Anon.

You said, "[Y]ou might consider that bicycle infrastructure and auto infrastructure is not mutually exclusive. Good roads, if designed correctly - can also include good bicycle facilities."

Absolutely--that's one place I'll be headed in a future post. What I'm interested in getting at right now, though, is why in Wichita up till now, bicycle infrastructure decisions have been treated as though it and auto infrastructure are mutually exclusive--my argument is that the reason has to do with basic, unspoken demographic assumptions people conjure up, here at least, when they think of cycling. My goal is to argue for broadening out those demographics in the mind's eye and thus argue that cycling includes far more than recreation and so city streets should reflect that.

Thanks again for coming by--and for the links, too.

lehommeaulevelo said...

I dont agree with that at all Taxing Cyclists. It does not Work,turns People off Cycling.

In View of the Health Giving Properties of Cycling it should not be Taxed in any Way. Helps to keep down Obesity and also Improves your Health in so many ways.Less People getting Type 2 Diadetes,Heart Attacks and Strokes ,Thrombosis. So Cylists cause less Strain on the Health Service Plus also The Carbon Footprint of the US goes down as a Result. If more People used Bikes there would be less Congestion on the Roads so less Traffic Jams.
I think those People who Proposed this Tax are Mean Spirited and Anti Cyclist and should not be Voted for in Elections.You are Entitled to a Safe Cycling Infrastructure on the Roads,Remember Bicycles where around before Cars.

standi said...

Great post and good way to spur the conversation.

Another option to the bike registration fee could be that state govt raises the automobile tax by $1 to cover everyone's bike (or non-automobile) registration instead of penalizing the bikers, it tells everyone else, "hey, you've already paid for you bike registration tax, so get on one and enjoy!" Different approach, but same principle we did at WSU for parking fees.

With your post about Bike to Work next month (full disclosure-I'm on that committee and linked Neal to you), maybe this will be a great rally opportunity to call drivers'/civic leaders' attentions how many of us there are in ict. And you get a free (Chipotle) lunch that day.

John B. said...

Thanks for commenting, Homme and Standi.

Homme, to follow the logic of your last statement, bikes may have been here before cars, but we have paved roads because of cars and not because of bicycles. But the larger issue is still that, never mind how infrastructure is funded: at least in Oregon there's a fairly viable cycling infrastructure already in place whose future funding and upkeep is what they're debating. Here in Wichita, the task is making a compelling case that we could use--and the city as a whole would benefit from having--on-street cycling infrastructure. In a way, the problem is less how to fund such things than it is changing the perception that cyclists even need such things. That's why I've begun this discussion as I have: funding will be easier to obtain when people see cycling as legitimate transportation also, not just as recreation.

Standi, thanks for introducing yourself. I like the idea of the small additional fee added to car registration--making it as invisible (and thus as painless) as possible seems like a good strategy to me.

And thanks for letting me know about the meal at Chipotle.

Bob said...

What we need is education of both cyclists and motorists, so that cyclists and possible cyclists will feel more comfortable riding on the street. Cyclists need smooth streets, just as motorists do--and they need respect. They need to be treated a legitimate users of the road. They need to know how to ride safely--obeying the law, controlling the lane when it's too narrow to share, signalling turns. Once we have that, you'll see more cyclists riding. You'll see cycling considered as transportation, not recreation.