Through taxes on food and supplements, bicyclists and pedestrians pay about as much per mile traveled as motorists do
by Steven Goodridge
“Bicyclists don’t pay fuel tax” is a claim commonly used by detractors to disparage bicyclists as “freeloaders” who are presumably less virtuous than motorists, and thus less deserving of respect or protection of their travel rights on public roads. Bicyclist advocates usually respond to this attack with an explanation of why bicycle travel has much lower public costs than motoring in terms of roadway wear, space, pollution, and/or danger to the public, and that given the public health benefits of bicycling, they deserve to avoid paying fuel taxes. The only trouble with this argument is that bicyclists do pay fuel tax, and at a per-mile rate comparable to motorists.
While visiting a local bike shop this week I purchased a 12-pack box of PowerBars, which I use to refuel on long bike rides (long distance bicyclists must pay close attention to their increased energy needs or unpleasant things will happen). There on the receipt appeared the combined state and local tax rate of 6.75% resulting in a tax of 88 cents, or 7.3 cents per bar. Each bar contains 240 calories. When bicycling I usually burn about 50 calories per mile (faster cyclists burn more, casual cyclists burn less), so one bar will fuel me for 4.8 miles. Dividing 7.3 cents of tax per PowerBar by 4.8 miles gives a bicycle fuel tax rate of 1.5 cents per mile. By comparison, dividing the combined state and federal gas tax rate of 54 cents per gallon by 30 miles per gallon (common for many new cars) yields a tax rate of 1.8 cents per mile for motoring.
The amount of tax we pay per calorie varies widely depending on what we eat and where we buy it. The specialized products that many cyclists use to maintain their energy and hydration levels on long rides can be expensive, and are usually taxed at the retail sales rate for dietary supplements and soft drinks. Restaurant meals, which are a common component of social rides, are also expensive and taxed at a high rate. Frugal grocery shopping for home-cooked meals is by far the most economical and is taxed at the lowest rate. High income and single people tend to pay the most for their calories (e.g. by eating out more often) while lower income adults and families with children tend to pay the least. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average person (across the entire population) spends about $301 per month on food, or $10 per day. Other studies estimate that about half of Americans’ food expenditures happen at restaurants, although they eat out an average of five times per week. If we assume a 50/50 split between restaurants and grocery spending, we can average the restaurant and grocery tax rates to estimate the average food tax rate here in Wake County, NC to be about 4.88%.
Here are a few examples of tax rates per mile depending on fuel source:
|Gasoline||$2.00/gallon||6.7 ¢||54 ¢/gallon||1.8 ¢|
|GU energy gel||$1.12/100 calories||56 ¢||6.75%||3.8 ¢|
|Skratch sports drink mix||$1.00/80 calories||62 ¢||6.75%||4.2 ¢|
|PowerBar peanut butter flavor energy bar||$1.08/240 calories||22.5 ¢||6.75%||1.5 ¢|
|Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza||$4.79/599 calories||40.0 ¢||7.75%||3.1 ¢|
|Fat Tire Amber Ale||$1.80/155 calories||58.1 ¢||6.75%||3.9 ¢|
|Average adult diet||$10.00/2300 calories||21.7 ¢||4.88%||1.1 ¢|
These numbers show that bicyclists not only pay similar tax rates per mile as motorists, but they pay a lot more for fuel, which goes mostly into the local economy. (So much for saving fuel money by leaving the car at home!) Walkers and runners burn about twice as many calories per mile as bicyclists, and so these prices and tax rates per mile are approximately doubled for pedestrians.
We know what skeptics will say about this analysis: Those taxes don’t go toward North Carolina’s roads; they go to the state and local general funds. North Carolina’s state highway system is highly dependent on gas taxes for construction and maintenance, more so than the rest of the country, where half of road funding comes out of the states’ general funds. As a result of this scarcity of funding, North Carolina’s spending on state road maintenance and construction per lane-mile is near the lowest in the nation. As cars continue to become more fuel efficient or run on alternative energy sources such as electricity, North Carolina will inevitably be forced to find alternative sources, including general funds, to pay for state roads. Meanwhile, maintenance and improvement of local streets is paid by municipalities’ general funds, not by gas taxes. The other public costs of road travel such as law enforcement and emergency services also come out of state and local general funds, not from gas taxes.
Our system for raising revenue for transportation has never been a perfect linkage between user fees and costs, and probably never will be. That’s not the fault of bicyclists and pedestrians. Nor can bicyclists and pedestrians be faulted for not paying their fair share in fuel taxes – because, as shown here, they do.
[This article originally posted in October 2015]