Cyclists subsidize Motorists

Detroit 1905: A Mural at the Detroit Public Library

Detroit in 1905, a mural at the Detroit Public Library. This is 21 years before Michigan's first gas tax.

Most cyclists have heard or read it before: bicyclists shouldn’t have equal access to the roads because they don’t pay for them.

Those making that claim assume that fuel tax and vehicle registrations pay for all their road costs.

They’re wrong.

Perhaps the definitive report comparing the total costs of using the roads is Whose Roads? Defining Bicyclists’ and Pedestrians’ Right to Use Public Roadways by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (2004).

Although motorist user fees (fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees) fund most highway expenses, funding for local roads (the roads pedestrians and cyclists use most) originates mainly from general taxes. Since bicycling and walking impose lower roadway costs than motorized modes, people who rely primarily on nonmotorized modes tend to overpay their fair share of roadway costs and subsidize motorists.

The automotive industry sponsored reports in the past have claimed motorists overpay their fair share.  According to Litman, these reports conveniently ignore some substantial road costs.  He concludes:

Virtually all studies that use appropriate analysis procedures conclude that motorists significantly underpay the costs they impose on society (FHWA, 1997; Delucchi, 1998; Litman, 2004a).

Some of those ignored costs are external.  One example is all the free vehicle parking.  All taxpayers and consumers pay for that through higher taxes and higher product costs. ran an interesting article that describes this external cost in greater detail.

To Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, parking requirements are a bane of the country. “Parking requirements create great harm: they subsidize cars, distort transportation choices, warp urban form, increase housing costs, burden low income households, debase urban design, damage the economy, and degrade the environment,” he writes in his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

Americans don’t object, because they aren’t aware of the myriad costs of parking, which remain hidden. In large part, it’s business owners, including commercial and residential landlords, who pay to provide parking places. They then pass on those costs to us in slightly higher prices for rent and every hamburger sold.

There’s also another great summary of this very same topic on the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation web site.

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10 Responses to “Cyclists subsidize Motorists”

  1. Ashok Sreenivas Says:


    We did a similar case study for Pune, a city in India. Our results were published as a paper in the Economic and Political Weekly in Aug 08. A copy of the paper can be found at (click on the paper title to download).

  2. Todd Scott Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed reading your report and will pass it along to our public transit group in Detroit —

  3. Streetsblog » Who’s Really Footing the Bill for Roads? Says:

    […] Network, ("Promoting safe and convenient bicycling in Metro Detroit") takes a moment to set the record straight on who’s really paying for road maintenance in this […]

  4. Aaron Says:

    Mark Delucchi also recently did a good study on this issue:

    And if anyone says that mass transit is over-subsidised, show them this chart:

  5. Todd Scott Says:

    Thanks Aaron. “Do Motor Vehicle Users in the US Pay Their Way?” is another great document and justification for raising fuel taxes.

  6. Aaron Antrim Says:

    At Green Wheels, we summarized the “High Cost of Free Parking” here.

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