Why all bicycles should be “Licensed”

In a previous post, I talked about the game changing $15 tax on new bicycles (over $500) that was just passed in Oregon. I argue that the persuasion factor of paying an excise tax drastically empowers the cycling lobby.

Normally, excise or ‘sin’ taxes are levied on items such as cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling. These are often considered superfluous or unnecessary goods and services. However, this is not always the case; Pittman-Robertson is a great example where an ad valorem excise taxes increased use and opportunity. While excise taxes do increase the cost of an item – we have to also look to see if the increased cost is high enough to reduce consumption; as well as its effect on the purchaser’s justification to continued use. I’d argue that, if someone is paying for something (even if it is not the full cost of use) they have a hugely persuasive argument to unlimited use of that thing (whatever it is).

I’ll use the vehicle license & registration excise tax (most DMV’s call it a ‘fee’) as an example.  Most of us own or have owned a car so we know that; here in AZ for example, we pay a vehicle license tax (VLT) of around 3%. This means that, for under $500 a year, you can drive your $30,000 car everywhere. And, by everywhere, I mean literally everywhere, every highway, paved road, lot or dirt path is open to you. Nobody blinks an eye because you paid for a nifty piece of “magic metal” on your bumper. The State of AZ has set up entire organizations designed to provide access and protect you. DOT’s, State and Local Law Enforcement, City Transportation Departments all work overtime to make sure you can get anywhere using your car. ALL BECAUSE YOU PAY A FEE!

pictured: car on tree in Lubczyna. Fed up neighbours put the brakes on a boy racer after months of being driven barking by his antics - by hoisting his car to the top of a tree. Road hog Zbigniew Filo, 24 - who doesn't even have a licence - woke to find his souped up white Ford Escort dangling from a huge willow tree in Lubczyna, Poland. Locals have refused to say who carried out the prank, but have revealed that one villager's mobile crane was borrowed for the night. Police spokesman Marta Pierko confirmed: "We received a call from a man saying his car was stuck in a tree, and that his neighbours had put it there." "After inspecting the site we instructed him to remove it from the tree," she added. One local explained: "Whoever, or whatever it was, it’s probably a good thing as he was a dangerous driver and could have killed someone. "Perhaps he’ll think twice about his hair-raising driving and about getting a licence or who knows where his next car might end up?" Now shamefaced Filo has promised to change his driving style. "I get the message, but I think it was a bit harsh," he said..Its ok – because “license”

GET IT? Your “license” is literally a persuasion tactic to legitimize use. You paid for it, your taxes go to supporting it and the government condones and encourages continued use. It even looks the other way for most everything besides the most egregious offenses.

Because of this I have to ask: Today, in your community, (outside of Portland proper) do you pay a special fee on your bicycle?


But, but..but… we already pay! You argue. I’ll argue back and tell you the drivers don’t care and, in case you need reminding, there are more of ‘them’ than ‘us’. They pay, they know they pay and they have magic metal on their bumper and a nifty plastic rune in their pocket. These are all issued by the state giving them full justification to put the “pedal to the metal”. Private corporations provide extensive services, including great insurance coverage…. Every business expects them to drive… There are thousands of design options and configurations…. There is an auto repair shop or parts store within a mile of your home right now….


Now – it looks like Portland (or maybe just the folks at Bike Portland) may be coming around, or maybe they are just at the bargaining stage. But the bike excise sales tax is and should only be the beginning.  I’d argue that, like motor vehicles, every bicycle should be licensed in some way.

>Insert outrage.jpg:

Courtesy: https://ihatebicyclists.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/angry-cyclist.jpg

WAIT! PAUSE! Before you get your HR into Zone 5, hear me out.

Cars hate you, well at least the drivers, and, even then, they probably don’t hate you, they just feel like their license fees paid for the road… and here we cyclists come asking for 5’ of space and BTW please don’t kill/ maim us.

I mean, it’s not like cyclists don’t help pay for the roads. We know they (we) do. We just can’t explain in 15 words or less how we do it. Our most common argument is ‘I pay taxes too’. This is really a terrible argument because, really, who doesn’t pay taxes… and if everyone is paying, the mob rules. Their mob is bigger. A straight voter fight won’t cut it, and arguing over scraps of funding when your local schools are behind in repairs is, frankly, a poor strategy and morally questionable. But, the logic of “muh taxes” sounds great so that’s what the League of American Bicyclists, NBDA and transportation experts argue. The problem is that we cannot argue ‘logically’ with others who are driven by persuasion because ‘science’.

Drivers believe their taxes pay for their spaces. Everyone knows that vehicle fees don’t cover the total costs of driving but we all go along with the ruse. Cyclists need to counter this ploy with similarly designed schemes. A trivial $15 dollar tax and $15 dollar permanent registration fee becomes extremely powerful once the numbers are added up; In 2015 about 17 million bicycles were sold across the US. My fellow cyclists, if we simply had a $30 dollar per bike (Tax and License) we would generate $510 million dollars to be used for bicycle infrastructure….each year.

That $510 M also buys about 30 Trillion CRAP-tonnes of persuasion, and before you get up in arms about taxes, if my cycling Pittman-Robertson-esqe (C-PR) idea is implemented, this ad valorem money would directly benefit cyclists and only cyclists. Bicyclists need to stop looking exactly like economic free-riders to the “other guys”. C-PR fixes this for pennies on the dollar & kills the free-rider issue. What is ‘free-riding”? (Items following “*” are my comments):

  • Occurs when people can enjoy a good service without paying anything (or making a small or unknown contribution less than their benefit.)

*Cyclists cannot point to a specific dollar contribution or amount because we are not charged $ like drivers

  • If enough people can enjoy a good without paying for the cost then there is a danger that, in a free market, the good will be under-provided or not provided at all.

*Does any cyclist feel like we have enough infrastructure?

  • Another way to explain the free-rider problem is a slogan like “Let George do it” – where George stands for the other person.

*Cyclists: “Everyone else (the Georges) needs to give us space, money for lanes, etc.”

(Bullet points are courtesy of: http://www.economicshelp.org/blog/1626/economics/free-rider-problem/)

Persuasion-wise, a $30 excise tax on new bicycles (~6% on a $500 bike) is unbeatable because it eliminates every argument lobbied against us. Watch Portland closely, in less than 6 months, the bike industry there will have more power because they can now point to specific contributions. This is the fight for $15 they should have been supporting.

Locally, imagine how much more power TBAG and bicycle retailers would have been able to bring to the argument if we had a similar excise tax. The controversy over #BikeMcClintock may never have happened…


Up next time, I’ll tell you why I believe all bicyclists should be licensed …

NB – While the author is the President of TBAG, these comments are his own and not of TBAG supporters or the TBAG Board of Directors.


Tempean, Bike Rider, Advocate for accessibility in transportation, President at T.B.A.G