Tax Cyclists for Road Upgrades?

Bike registration fees could be used for transportation infrastructure.

By - Mar 19th, 2017 10:24 pm
Green pavement markings in bike lanes can be used to highlight conflict points in mixing zones where motor vehicle and bicycle traffic cross.

Green pavement markings in bike lanes can be used to highlight conflict points in mixing zones where motor vehicle and bicycle traffic cross.

I talk to a lot of state legislators. At least among majority Republicans, a question I often get is something along the lines of, “why don’t cyclists want to pay for their own bike lanes?”

In fact, a couple of years ago one very powerful legislator, Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee, went so far as to float a budget amendment that would have imposed a $25 “registration fee” on every new adult-sized bike purchase in the state. It wasn’t really a registration fee but a special sales tax at point of purchase. We fought that and won, but Nygren is still there and so is the notion that we don’t want to pay our way.

My standard response is to argue that most cyclists are also drivers, so we do pay gas taxes and vehicle registration fees that go to fund roads, including bike lanes, paved shoulders and the like. When we ride state trails – and some local ones – we pay for trail passes. And then there’s the savings in wear and tear on the roads, the lessened need for expensive car parking, the reduction in pollutants and green house gas emissions and the personal health benefits that end up saving everybody money in the long run.

But halfway through that litany I see eyes glaze over. “Yes, but how come you guys don’t want to pay your own way?” It’s intellectual Teflon we’re fighting here, people.

So, I’ve been searching for a way to break through all this with the idea that if we can just get beyond the notion that cyclists aren’t willing to pony up for their own infrastructure we might be able to advance a broader pro-biking agenda.

One idea was voluntary state bike registration. Mirroring an existing Wisconsin program that allows owners of canoes and kayaks to voluntarily register their boats, the thought was that cyclists would want to register their bikes because it would put them in a statewide database. The benefit would be that when a stolen bike was recovered anywhere in the state it would be easily returned to its rightful owner. And, better yet, the revenues beyond the small amount needed to maintain the database could go right back into local bike lanes and other cycling safety projects.

If the participation rate was similar to that of the voluntary canoe and kayak program it might net well over a million dollars a year that could get plowed back into local bike programs.

I liked the idea as did the Bike Fed’s Public Policy Committee. But the bike industry would have opposed it and without their support it would have no chance of passage. Idea dropped.

But, folks, there’s more where that came from. So, here’s another bright idea: expanded use of current local registration fee revenues.

Current law allows local governments to charge a bike registration fee. Many municipalities do exactly that, but state law is hazy at best about what those fees can be used for. The language of the law and court rulings suggest that use of the fee revenues has to be closely tied to the registration program itself.

So, what if we just made it clear that bike registration fees could go for any cycling safety program, including infrastructure?

These are fees that some of us are already paying. It’s not granting any new authority to require registration. But it might have the effect of getting more cyclists to register their bikes because they know that the revenues are going into projects they directly benefit from. And current bike registration rates are pathetic. For example, only about 3,500 bikes are registered each year in Madison in a city of 230,000 people.

We are considering putting this proposal on our Lobby Day agenda, which is scheduled for April 13th. Before we do that we want to hear from you.

What do you think?

Dave Cieslewicz is the executive director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed and former mayor of the city of Madison.

Categories: Biking, Politics

40 thoughts on “Biking: Tax Cyclists for Road Upgrades?”

  1. EarlyWIsettlers_neverREPUBagain says:

    I think that trying to charge cyclists NOW, when commuting by bicycle is likely to kill you, is bound to fail. If you want people to pay, then the services that they are paying for have to exist already. WI cannot even keep the existing roads decent enough for vehicles. Why would anyone believe that the existing leadership is capable of creating and/or maintaining safe bicycle lanes? The one pictured above with March 3rd, 2017 as the date is a great example of an inadequate plan. We have drivers out there who target cyclists on purpose. There must be motorized vehicle-free roads and/or lanes with solid barriers so that a person can ride a bike without being killed. It isn’t that difficult to do: we have one-way streets, and we can have pedestrian and cyclist-only streets. WI is a high-tax state, while the benefits that paying taxes are supposed to bring have evaporated. Any assumptions that people are still living here voluntarily and would pay even more to do so are foolish. I, for one, would never believe that if my bicycle were stolen and recovered, that an officer would take 30 seconds to run a registration tag. No way- it would just be sold off in an auction with no notification that it had been found. We can hide GPS markers in our bike frames now. We don’t need a tax that provides nothing.

  2. Tom D says:

    There’s been talk of Wisconsin putting automobile sales tax revenue into the stateTransportation Fund (allowing its use only for transportation—meaning “highways”). Here is a recent article suggesting this:

    If that is done, bicycle sales tax revenue should likewise be restricted for bicycle projects only.

  3. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    There is not any money in the budget for cycling, either federal or state, or local. Good Luck.
    I ride every day but cannot expect peoel that pay into the hi way fund for bikes.

  4. sharon pendleton says:

    Is there no end to the idea that TAXING is the answer to everything. How about more careful use of the revenues already paid?

  5. Alice says:

    Why is the bike industry opposed to statewide registration?

  6. Rich says:

    It’s just another red herring which gives people an “out” against considering the real problem and meaningful solutions that benefit all of us. By separating the cyclists into some other group and pretending that the green paint on the road is something that only they should pay for only pits us against ourselves and sets up the wrong problem statement. In fact, nearly every cyclist is also the owner of an automobile because not everyone’s situation allows existence with only a bicycle (kudos to those who do though!).

    We need to fund transportation systems, not individual modes. Does that green paint technically add cost to the road project that didn’t have it before? Sure, but it also produces a better result for a greater section of the populace.

  7. SteveM says:

    Interesting that this comes up when there’s a serious problem for road and repair funding. Those who damage the roads should have to pay versus getting a tax break. Even though I like the creative approaches you’re proposing, I suspect that bicycists’ use of the roads actually saves on wear on tear. AND, their increased use, like public transportation, frees up more space for other drivers. So why not offer your services as a means of increasing bicycle ridership in order to extend the life of the roadways?

  8. Ryan N says:

    I could see this being supported if it could only be used for creating protected bike lanes. However the people like WCD and his ilk “I ride everyday” LOL! would make all that go to highway expansion faster than you can blink.

  9. WashCoRepub says:

    Mandatory yearly state registration for bicycles is the way to go. $25-ish per bike. Designate those funds for needed improvements in lanes, trails, etc.

  10. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    We have been trying to convince the Biking group to help us rent the State Fair Milwaukee mile several times per week for people to work out, practice racing, have families out there in safe atmosphere, etc..
    We did that in the 80’s of a nominal amount and we had hundreds of people out there.
    It would be great for cycling, safety, PR for the unused track for Wisconsinites, and not cost anyone a dime.
    we need an organization wit insurance, they could collect a fee and be heroes to lots of peoel.
    To do that we need to contact our State Reps of both parties to ask this. I have made some contact and if i knew that someone would pick it up, like Mr. Schlabowske we would follow up. We were successful in the 80’s, paying around $100 per night and $150 for a race day. they were very helpful.

  11. SteveM says:

    Wow! WCR supports a tax increase!

  12. Bill says:

    EarlyWIsettlers_neverREPUBagain I’m sorry but you are way off on a couple things. I have recovered three bikes in my life due to its bike registration sticker by police officers. I also, and many of my friends have not died with over a decade of bicycle commuting under our belts.

  13. Tom T. says:

    This isn’t about money…. its about us vs. them. Talk to people out in Washington County or Lake Country and they roll their eyes at people that ride bikes to get around town or to commute. Maybe we should tax tennis shoes for people that walk? This is a philosophical battle that the right wages on people that don’t think like them. Divide and conquer. Hopefully they’re a dying breed so we can get on with evolution.

  14. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    You can whine and cry and can all you like but there is not any money for bike lanes in the next decade either state or federal.
    so if you want to get something done you need to find out how to pay for it.

    We are working to find a way to get the Milwaukee Mile cheaply for people to ride, as they used to do it in the 80’s.

  15. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Ryan, my belief is that bike lanes on busy roads are insane.
    I have lost 4 friends that got killed and many injuries.
    Learn to ride the areas off the busy roads.
    You can designate bike lanes all you want, and if you get hit it is always the same: “never saw them, same with motorcycle”s. No one gets prosecuted unless alcohol is involved.

    No such thing as “protected bike lanes”.

  16. Rich says:

    WCD: No one here is talking about going to Milwaukee Mile for a fun ride on the weekend. We are talking about using the public right of way for transportation between end points.

  17. Needsmoregears says:

    WCD, your idea of renting the Milwaukee Mile is an interesting one. I might even try it, once, just to say I’d ridden it. I’d also like to ride Laguna Seca on a bike once, just for grins. But the idea is off base for this discussion. Your appear to be starting from the idea that bicycles have no use as transportation, so let’s find an off-street place to ride for fun or exercise. I think the rest of us are coming from a different place.

    I wonder if a registration fee would generate enough money to cover bike lane projects. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have extra money for repaving, repainting etc., even if it’s not enough to do entire projects. Wauwatosa made an admirable effort to make bicycling safer on North Avenue a few years ago. One of the objections came from the City Engineer, who pointed out that the lane markings, bike “boxes” at intersections, etc. required an expensive type of paint, and they would need to be repainted after several summers in the sun and several winters of snowplowing and salt – an ongoing hit to the road maintenance budget. Being able to bring funds to cover that sort of cost might make projects more palatable.

    Local registration fees with funds staying local have the advantage that the money builds where the riders are, which presumably is where the infrastructure is needed. Unfortunate for areas with fewer riders, but perhaps the areas generating funds will show by example what can be done with a critical mass of riders. That doesn’t deal with the issue of careless and/or aggressive drivers. For that you need a vulnerable users bill (there’s your talking point, Dave: why don’t cyclists want to pay their own way? Why don’t YOU want to make it safer for cyclists by putting some real teeth into the laws against hitting and killing them?) and documentation. of events Notice how many more action cams are on bicycles these days? Motorcycles too. The cams have become cheaper over time; the documentation is definitely doable..

    As for the question of why it always has to be a tax or user fee, why can’t existing money be used more effectively… I’ve lived in Wisconsin since 1981. Have you seen a trend toward more effective use of highway funding? Cycling is a fringe element for most legislators wrestling with how to pay for Wisconsin roads that are unquestionably deteriorating. Maybe it is time to throw some of our own money at the problems we face as cyclists.

  18. Rich says:

    So, I’ve been searching for a way to break through all this with the idea that if we can just get beyond the notion that cyclists aren’t willing to pony up for their own infrastructure we might be able to advance a broader pro-biking agenda.

    Don’t give in to this divisive idea, Dave. You know they (Repugs, ALEC, etc) worked long and hard in the back room to come up with that to avoid solving the real problem, and by accepting it, you’re letting them define the argument (e.g. win).

    We all pay for it and we all use it in different ways. It’s a public right of way, the whole space between the adjoining private lot lines. We don’t try to charge pedestrians separately for their use of the sidewalk do we? So why are bikes any different?

  19. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Rich, WRONG!!
    I am talking about it, as a way to have an outlet for cyclists to ride, train, practice race, take there families and have a social meeting of cyclists. if you do not like it ,do not read it..
    Cyclists have as much right to the roads as anyone, but it can be quite dangerous, weather is bad in Wis.
    there is not any money for bike paths or right away on roads as we ar way echidna and over budgeted.
    Live with it, unless you can raise money. if you want part of the action you have to ante up. Bikers do.

  20. Jason says:

    I am more interested in this being a County issue. Bike lanes are everywhere, the county costs to upgrading buses for bike transportation is in the hundreds of thousands per government bus, and let us be honest here. Abele and County board Teddy Lipscom have no money to pay for million dollar pension bonuses for 50 year old government employees. I am all for bikers paying their fare share for service upgrades.

  21. Bill Sell says:

    A funding program needs a target and an estimate. $25 is not high and probably fair for most of us, but why 25? What kind of fund do we need to cover what costs of what we want? Make a goal, say, Milwaukee would like $100,000 each year; there are, let’s say, 4000 number of bicyclists who would be called upon to pay up (or donate). 4000 bicyclists (or did we say bikes?)

    Do your own math so we can discuss the goal beyond our notable good will, i.e., collect from the reluctant, and …

    And then there are the (mostly) men and young men who use old bikes (on sidewalks, no lights) apparently to get to work (they ride in the same commuter stream), and home at night. I am going to hazard a guess $25 will make them scofflaws, totally an unneeded outcome.

  22. John says:

    I love the fact that the GOP wants to register bikes but not guns. What if a gun was stolen? By their logic the state should want those registered so they could return it to the owner. Geeez! Is logic even part of the GOP?

  23. Tom D says:

    Jason, the cost of bike racks isn’t “in the hundreds of thousands per government bus”—in Milwaukee, it was just over $1,000 per bus: $490,000 total for 470 buses.

  24. SnowBeer says:

    The cost to add bike Lanes is likely minimal compared to the costs to improve the roads for automobiles and large trucks. Damage is done by large trucks on roads, who are likely not residents and not paying taxes for the roads.

    Every time a someone uses a bike instead of a car to get from A to B, they are saving everyone money by reducing damage to the roads, congestion on the roads, and lowering health insurance costs for the others in their pool.

    Sounds like the bike tax should be negative to me.

  25. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Bike lanes on busy roads are nuts, too dangerous.
    While there might be right to ride ,there is also right to walk and few people are nutty enough to walk alongside the busy highways in any bike lane area.
    WE find ways to get around town away from busy roads, it is quite easy. Those that demand these lanes on busy roads, as some kind of right are infantile nuts.

  26. Anonymous Cyclist says:

    I am a cyclist but I also own a car, so I already pay for the roads. I’m not willing to pay twice. If these politicians don’t want to build bicycle infrastructure, fine. I will continue to use the lane as I do now. As a taxpayer, I do expect the laws to be enforced and motorists who harass and intimidate me to be charged per existing law. As they say, fair is fair.

  27. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Undet the present conditions, of finance, there will not be any bike lanes in the next 10-20 years, on busy roads.
    I have talked to many legislators on this.
    There is not any money for half the projects for roads that we have now, do let us start looking for other areas, ideas, on cycling.
    We are working on getting State Fair park Mile, to cycle. it is great place to trim, race, take families, and a social time to meet other cyclists.

  28. Eric S says:

    A significant portion of local street funding comes from general (not transportation-specific) taxes. People who ride bikes pay these taxes just the same as people who drive cars, ride transit, walk, etc. So, yes, cyclists are already paying for bike-related infrastructure.

  29. Robert Prinz says:

    Here in Oakland, California, we recently removed the city’s bike registration program and requirement from the municipal code, and are instead promoting free, online bike registrations via services like Bike Index and Project 529 which are shown to be much more effective at getting stolen bikes back to their owners.

    More and more cities around here are opting to end their bike registration programs, not start new ones, because they add no value either financially or via theft prevention. The Oakland program cost around $17k per year to operate but took in less than $1k in registration fees, so the city actually saved money by ending it. To raise enough money to even cover the program cost means that the price will be prohibitively high, which means fewer people will use it. There’s just no way to make money with bike registrations.

    More on this issue online at

  30. Alex W says:

    I think if a bike tax were to be successful it would need to be very narrow in regards to what it could be used for. I would say that bike taxes should only be used in the adaptation of existing roadways to bicycle use (striping and the like). Bike safety improvements should still be funded through a general fund that cyclists and car owners pay to because traffic accidents are a public health concern. Road improvements done while in the process of upgrading to include bike facilities should also be paid through car tabs and gas taxes because bikes don’t degrade roadways, heavy vehicles do. Cyclists should only have to have their fees go towards actions that benefit them which would be the expansion of a bike network.

  31. Eric S says:

    I should also add that although it maybe somewhat expensive to reconstruct streets specifically to add high quality bike infrastructure, it is not expensive to do so when a street is already scheduled to be rebuilt. That just requires more of a commitment to build a complete street, rather than simply a traffic sewer designed only to permit (and encourage) high speed motor vehicle travel.

  32. JL says:

    Does nobody in the “deadbeat cyclists need to pay up crowd” see bicycle / pedestrian friendly infrastructure as an amenity that promotes community, healthier living, and attracts people to live and visit the area? Sounds like it benefits everyone for very little money compared to the costs associated with vehicular traffic.
    Most cyclist’s have cars or pay other taxes as Eric stated above, except for the poor and students who most likely can’t / won’t bother paying for a bike tax.

    Transportation budgets have been misguided and mismanaged since the onslaught of highway madness. A serious paradigm shift in thinking needs to take place for a sustainable future of ALL transportation modes. But I doubt renting a racetrack to ride or collecting a bike tax is solving anything.

  33. Vincent Hanna says:

    That is really well-said JL. I feel the same way but you articulate it much better than I could have. I don’t understand the hostility toward biking and bike-friendly amenities. Some people have such a violent and irrational opposition to anything that isn’t all about automobiles, as if that’s the only viable way to travel. And of course many of them live in places like Washington County, far removed from urban areas.

  34. I like a local bike registry that is voluntary. As Bill Sell says there are people who ride bikes who a do not need to be made outlaws, get tickets, and go down that negative path… As I support the $60 wheel tax for reasons of funding mass transit and pressuring the car drivers to use transit for travel, I support ways to fund alternatives to the Auto Convenience Syndrome/ Addiction.

  35. Why don’t you just pass a helmet law and kill cycling entirely?

    Seriously, user fees don’t pay completely for roads, especially the roads that cyclists ride on. Want to kill walking? License pedestrians. Want to discourage minority use of any mode of transportation? Create new laws that can be cause for a stop-and-frisk. There is no need to capitulate to the “why don’t they pay?” crowd when WE ALREADY DO. Even a cyclist who doesn’t own a car pays for roads through property and income taxes.

  36. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    People can debate here forever,r but the fact is that the transportation dept is way over drawn and will not catch up for decade, both Feds and State.
    You want something, look to yourselves to pay for it. These is not any Santa Claus.
    Does no good to whine.

  37. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    People can debate here forever,r but the fact is that the transportation dept is way over drawn and will not catch up for decade, both Feds and State.
    You want something, look to yourselves to pay for it. These is not any Santa Claus.
    Does no good to whine.

    Renting the race track gives people a safe place to ride, train, socialize, families and kids. it was very popular when we did in in the 80’s.
    Don’t like it do not come.

  38. AG says:

    JL, I essentially agree with your entire post. The only part of transportation funding for bike projects that I take issue with are rules that state all HWY projects have to spend X% on biking infrastructure. This wastes precious money that could be used on quality projects and wastes them on some that just don’t make sense. For example, the bike lanes on Mayfair road make absolutely no sense what so ever. They’re dangerous and barely used.

    If instead we had used the extra money for more projects such as North Ave in East Tosa, we’d see a far better return on our money to get the benefits you list above.

  39. SnowBeer says:

    If users need to pay, then we will need to seriously raise the gas tax along with bike fees. It’s odd that the state GOP is against one but not the other. You’ll probably find the cost to find the bike lane stripes and damage from bikes is within the rounding error of the cost for the roads for cars.

  40. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    They have killed the % of roads of biking, which is good. it is nuts to see people go down these busy streets just as much as it would be if people were walking in the bike lanes. They are sucide. We need to put bikes in safe areas which is easy to do.
    I ride almost every day, year round, can get around Milwaukee county all he time safely. Four of my friends have been killed in the busy streets and many more hit, opening car doors etc. use you brain cyclists, not some nutty there that trucks, cars and bikes can share road like HWY 100, North ave. Watertown Plank Greenfield Ave. North ave. that is insane/

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