Caving to Resentment Politics, Oregon Enacts a Bike Tax

The preposterous bike tax accomplishes no discernible transportation goal except dampening demand for new bicycles.

If you buy a bike for more than $200 in Oregon now, you'll pay a $15 tax. Photo:  Tedder via Wikimedia Commons
If you buy a bike for more than $200 in Oregon now, you'll pay a $15 tax. Photo: Tedder via Wikimedia Commons

A straw man erected by bike infrastructure opponents has morphed into official policy in what’s supposedly one of the most bike-friendly corners of the United States.

The accusation that people who ride bikes don’t pay for roads is familiar to anyone who’s tried to argue for bike infrastructure in a public setting. Never mind that biking puts almost zero strain on the road network compared to driving, that people who bike also pay a variety of taxes that do fund roads, and that drivers don’t cover the full cost of car infrastructure by a longshot. It’s all about resentment.

Nevertheless, that idea has managed to shape the law in Oregon (yes, Oregon), which now has a tax on bicycles. Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland explains how it works:

The tax was opposed by small business owners, advocacy groups, and by many voters; but the political winds were simply too much to overcome. I have some thoughts about how we got to this point that I’ll share in a future post. For now, here are the final details of the bike tax:

  • It’s a $15 flat tax instead of the 4-5% tax initially proposed.
  • Applies to new bicycles with a wheel diameter of 26-inches or larger and a retail price of $200 or more.
  • Expected to raise $1.2 million per year and cost $100,000 per year to administer.
  • Funds will go into the Connect Oregon program and be set aside specifically, “for the purposes of grants for bicycle and pedestrian transportation projects… that expand and improve commuter routes for nonmotorized vehicles and pedestrians, including bicycle trails, footpaths and multiuse trails.”
  • Tax will be collected by bicycle retailers and they’ll be required to file quarterly returns with the Department of Revenue.
  • Bicycle retailers are required to keep receipts and records pertaining the collection of the tax for a minimum of five years.
  • The tax will go into effect 91 days after the legislative session ends (that’d be October 8th if it ends on July 10th as scheduled).

So there you have it. We are taxing the healthiest, most inexpensive, most environmentally friendly, most efficient, and most economically sustainable form of transportation ever devised by the human species.

Congrats to Oregon on its preposterous bike tax that accomplishes no discernible transportation goal except dampening demand for new bikes. Will this finally put to rest the politics of bicycle resentment (spoiler: no), or will it just embolden the usual cast of bike lane haters to ratchet up their noise?

More recommended reading today: KXAN reports that some Houston residents are complaining “speed cushions” will slow emergency fire evacuations — but in practice what’s really endangering residents trying to flee wildfires is sprawling neighborhood design. And Human Transit says that while uncrowded transit vehicles may have plenty of room to stretch your legs, that’s not what cities should be striving for.

  • Baloo Uriza

    Oregon is nowhere near as progressive as people give it credit for.

  • David Nelson

    Original comment is still too general. Without a more specific context, it suffers from two problems: low utility and being an easy target for criticism. Yes. consuming less is better for the environment and may improve household economics, but we also look to circulate money in a larger economy for stimulus effect. So, how do we balance those objectives?

  • RedMercury

    Considering that a 2,000lb car does several thousand times more damage than a 200lb cyclist […]

    Well, under that theory, bicycle paths should never have to be repaired. Because, y’know, bicycles do considerably less damage.

    Of course, we know that’s not the case.

    Yes, cars do more damage to the road the cyclists. But the reality is that Mother Nature does considerably more damage than all the cars. And unfortunately, she doesn’t pay any taxes.

  • And enforced as lazily as automobile license plate and registration is.

  • Jay

    I want to clarify that the article from KXAN is about Austin and not Houston.

  • 8FH

    Actually, it was cyclist’s unions such as the League of American Wheelmen who lobbied to improve roads with smooth surfaces. There were later pushes for upgrades in the 50s – 70s, but the improvements at the turn of the 20th century were largely at the behest of cyclists.

  • Adam Hogan

    So cyclist don’t benefit all at from transportation of goods, trimet, or anything else that travels on the road?

  • Sterling Archer

    Way to go Oregon. This really hurts people who are new to cycling. I’d imagine you could avoid the tax by just buying a frame and building your own bike up from there but that is only going to apply to experienced cyclists.

  • CeeTee55

    Cyclists… the ultimate “free riders”!

  • DoTheTwerk

    You people need to figure out if you love taxes or hate taxes. Or do you only love taxes on the things that you don’t want/have? I’m confused.

  • Evan D

    It would be utterly immoral for me, a middle-class person, to expect others to subsidize the goods that I buy. The costs of transporting goods should be borne by the purchaser, and no one else.

    Public transport’s use of the roads should be considered in the context of all public transport users. There’s no point in looking only at the subsidy to cyclists for using public transport. In any case, public transport wouldn’t need as much subsidy if competing modes of transport weren’t subsidized. And a large part of public transport’s subsidy is because it partly functions as a safety net for the young, old, disabled, and poor, not because people like me enjoy getting others to pay for our transport. If the subsidy to private drivers was reduced, I would be fine with paying more for the bus.

  • Evan D

    No, under that theory bike paths should cost less than a thousandth per vehicle mile traveled compared to an automotive road. It’s a comparatively small expense, but I never claimed it was zero. And this isn’t Minnesota: our weather isn’t all that hard on our pavement. Tree roots are a much bigger problem.

    I’m fine with paying a fair share of the infrastructure I use. The problem is that we are currently paying much more than that.

  • Joe R.

    Well, the Romans seemed to figure out how to build roads which last for thousands of years under the weight of things much heavier than bikes, like horses or horse carriages. Amazing we don’t just emulate them. Yes, that means it costs a lot more the first time you build the road, but the first time ends up being the last time, at least for anyone who will be born in the next 1000 or 2000 years.

  • Adam Hogan

    The point I was going for was that everyone benefits to some degree with the infrastructure whether they personally drive or not. Public services like police, fire, ambulance, ect all need them. If you just get a ride from a friend you are benefitting from them too.

    This is a heavy tax state and county and they are grabbing money at any place possible. With this $15 bike tax they also hiked the gas tax up 4 cents/ gallon, added $16 to registration fees, and implemented a .5% new car sales tax. While a lot of cyclist also drive, drivers are still bearing the larger share of the cost. Especially when you consider that 10x the amount of people drive regularly to work versus bike.

  • Evan D

    The point I was going for was that everyone benefits to some degree with the infrastructure whether they personally drive or not.

    To me, that sounds a bit like if we go out to eat, I get fish and chips, you get steak and lobster, and then you suggest we split the bill evenly at the end. That everyone had something doesn’t imply that the costs are comparable.

    If one group is imposing costs several orders of magnitude greater than other groups, then that group should pay the difference. If all we needed roads for was emergency services and utilities, we could get by with one lane everywhere. Multiple lanes, traffic lights, complex stormwater drainage, even crosswalks and bike lanes wouldn’t be necessary without all the private driving we do (the last two exist solely to mitigate the hazard from, and inconvenience to, cars). The people who make all that extra infrastructure necessary should be exposed to its cost, not expect others to foot the bill.

    None of that is to say that non-drivers shouldn’t pay anything. It’s just to say that non-drivers should pay for the portion of costs that they actually impose, not just some arbitrary share of the whole thing.

    And of course more people drive to work than bike. It’s the same reason more food uses high-fructose corn syrup than real sugar: our policies have picked out a favorite, and people are responding to those incentives.

  • Bike Fridays are local Oregon bikes with small wheels, and very high quality.

  • Your argument falls to pieces at “scot free,” as that ignores the fact that bicyclists already pay our own way and also already contribute disproportionately to the staggeringly-high subsidy of motoring.

  • Streetcar suburbs are most decidedly not sprawl.

  • For someone with such a username, you’re really bad at road geeking. Generally speaking, a geek is in command of some facts in her/his domain of geekery.

  • I think it’s a horrible bargaining chip in that it serves to confirm widespread ignorance about what things cost and how much bicyclists already subsidize motoring. Plenty of that ignorance on display in this very comments section.

  • We already pay far out of proportion to our costs, and subsidize the damage done by motorists.

  • Sean

    Alright let’s play it like you want to:
    I never attended a public school. I’m fine with bicyclists getting to opt out if I can get my tens of thousands of dollars in tax money back that went to schools.

  • I mean, now we don’t think that they are, but at the time, they definitely were.

  • A tax based on the fourth power of the weight per axle, which is the AAHSTO standard estimate for damage inflicted. (Spoiler Alert: By this measure, bicyclists already cover the amount of damage we inflict, and subsidize a portion of the damage inflicted by cars.)

  • That is a non sequitur. In terms of paying for transportation infrastructure, which is the thing we’re talking about here, “scot free” is a completely wrong characterization.

  • @RedMercury – One of the second-order effects of a transportation infrastructure based on cars is that roads are not expected to last. Why build a durable surface if it’s going to be ruined in less than a decade, when you can make a more economical strip of asphalt that can be patched along the way?

    And if you’re going to mix a composite to pave miles and miles and miles of car infrastructure, you’re generally not going to mix a separate durable composite at higher expense for the measly few miles of bikes-only infrastructure you’ve begrudgingly ceded. You’re just going to slap your cheapo asphalt down and call yourself green.

    It’s true that this kind of composite won’t stand up to Mother Nature, but even so it will last much longer than anything with cars on it. I’ve biked on centuries-old roads built by the Roman Empire; the secret is not to put cars on them.

  • @Jacob Wilson – Motoring is propped up by a vast array of hidden subsidy, designed to keep an unsustainable system rolling. It’s no surprise that so many motorists don’t have the slightest idea of the magnitude of damage they inflict.

  • skelter weeks

    Since the bike tax will be used to pay for “bicycle trails, footpaths and multiuse trails”, anyone who isn’t a wuss and rides in the road should be exempt.

  • ChrisPercival

    Why not a shoe tax for pedestrians? They’re always in the way. And if cyclists are taxed, how come its multi-use. Geez what a dumb idea.

  • Adam Herstein

    Portland is not as bike friendly as you may think. Officials here talk a big game but that’s it. It takes years to implement even the simplest of projects and most of our groundbreaking plans remain unfunded. Portland has very few miles of separated infrastructure compared to other cities and mostly relies on cheaper bike boulevards that are susceptible to cut-through auto traffic because of our unwillingness to add enough diversion.

    Portland maintains a huge marketing machine to keep our national reputation intact, but when it comes to actually getting projects on the ground, we’re all fluff.

  • ceefer

    Stop whining! Bike lanes aren’t free.

    And to the persistent – and tiresome – car-haters, this isn’t about whether “drivers pay for the cost of roads”. This is about everyone sharing the cost of infrastructure.

    Neither is it about whether “cyclists pay other taxes that pay for roads” that they never tire of telling us they have the the right to use. This is about cyclists, who continue to demand separate infrastructure for their exclusive use, pay something towards the cost of construction and maintenance for that infrastructure.

    It’s quite ironic that the bike lobby and its apologists want to “share the road” but complain about sharing the costs. Just like how they’re quick to assert their “right to the road” and lobby for laws that benefit cyclists to the detriment of other roads users, but whine whenever the subject of responsibilities such as sharing infrastructure cost, registering bikes, financial responsibility, obeying traffic laws, etc. comes up.

    And they wonder why there’s “resentment”. Really?

  • Baloo Uriza

    Yup, and that’s why Tulsa’s about to overtake Portland in total lane miles of bicycle facilities. The way Portlanders drive and treat each other is also a big factor in why I say Portland isn’t bike friendly.

  • roadgeek80

    Facts you have none off, just some corny offshoot of my username. Real clever.

  • roadgeek80

    Another whiney cyclist. Drivers pay plenty for the use of the roads. That, I cant say for cyclists. They rely on handouts from drivers and the goodwill of cities hoping to attract college students and hipsters. Truly the only group of freeloaders on the road.

  • roadgeek80

    Cyclists do pay into the general fund, but no where near what drivers pay into the general fund. So if you think that somehow your paying your way as a cyclist, you might need to get the banana seat out of your cooch.

  • roadgeek80

    Cylists have to spend money at local shops. They cant go very far. That is the whole idea, cities are hoping to restrict mobility by building bike lanes and restricting car use. That is the only way bikes can be competitive with cars. Bikes are for recreation and working out. But for the elitist type they are for transportation 6 months out of the year. They are used by these folks when the weather is clear and maybe a few times a week. The other times they have to catch a cab or take public trans. A real hassle, but for elitists they love tell how they have a 0 carbon footprint. Transportation is not what it is about to them it is about being a douche and telling people how great they are.

  • roadgeek80

    Paid for on the backs of drivers, homeowners and the greater population that prefers that money be spent on roads, not on hipsters.

  • roadgeek80

    That is a gross assumption. City drivers which account for 60% of Chicago patronize local shops. But that is inherent to cycling you cant go very far on a bike, so duh of course you will use local shops. When I lived in the city I shopped in the city. I agree we should measure the amount of subsidy and taxes that drivers pay versus the lack thereoff that cyclists pay to use road infrastructure. Also I would like to see how many trips that subsidy supports. I guarantee a car will beat a bike hands down there too.

  • Vooch

    exactly it’s a sinister scheme to ruin our way of life. Here is a series of videos which exposes the goals of the anti-car zealots with real life examples

  • Jacob Wilson

    Everything you said is just factually incorrect.

  • Evan D

    Earlier, you were saying “Cyclists contribute nothing unless they drive.” Now you admit that we do pay taxes, but you think that we don’t pay as much in general taxes (property, sales, income, etc) as motorists. How do you figure?

  • Sgt Castle

    Hilariously, these idiots left a huge hole when crafting this. The law ONLY applies to new bike’s with 26-inches or larger wheels and a retail price of $200 or more.

    Simply sell the bike WITHOUT wheels. Hell, call it a goddamn “frame with accessories”. You could also have someone ride it around the block and call it “used”.

  • Baloo Uriza

    Portland’s about as crunchy as New York’s Madison Avenue.

  • SpaceNeedle

    So if I show a car registration, does that mean I am already paying and contributing? Because I buy a bike, I have to pay again?

  • SpaceNeedle

    What if I’m both a driver and a cyclist? Haven’t I already paid for the existing infrastructure?


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