Earth Day cycling thoughts

by Jay Stevens

As you can imagine, this Earth Day weekend is one of Missoula’s highlights of the year, with a bejillion things going on, all of it fun. On Saturday there was the Clark Fork River cleanup, a bicycle festival at Bonner park, and a screening of the global warming documentary, “Five Planets: Montanans at the Crossroads of Global Warming.” (Awesome flick, by the way, and deserving of wider viewership. Montana PBS? You listening?) On Sunday was the Earth Day celebration at Caras park, with live music, food, booze, and sustainable living demonstrations and information. And there was the weekend-long powow at the Adams center.

In short, Earth Day is an important weekend in Missoula. That’s fitting, of course. Many in Missoula are dedicated to sustainable living concepts, trying to reduce pollution and carbon emissions, and searching for a way to have a small impact on the environment. I suspect as global warming worsens, Missoula will be a place to look to for answers on how to live.

One of Missoula’s strengths in this regard is its citizens’ use of bicycles. There’s a decent trail system (which needs more work) and a load of bike lanes (more are desperately needed), a surprising number of Missoulians (including yrs truly) bike year-round.

And then you hear something like this:

The driver of the car, one witness said, seemed to intentionally veer out of his way in order to ram into the bicyclist riding on Toole Avenue, launching her 15 feet into the air, before speeding off down the street.

According to witnesses the driver, Anthony Dailey, purposefully veered into Stacie Ann Dewolf. He was drunk at the time and faces vehicular homicide charges, which has a sentencing of up to 30 years. (And this blogger is urging Missoula authorities to ask for the maximum.)

Anyone who bikes regularly knows how dangerous the streets are. I’ve had a few accidents myself, one of which you may remember. Drivers, ensconced behind glass in a climate-controlled environment, coffee in hand, music on, are psychologically and emotionally removed from the street. They don’t pay as much attention as you wish they would. And worse still, many of them, so far removed from the reality of the street, don’t reason well. Some of them cut bikers off or push them off the road because bikers sometimes delay them a few seconds. That is, they endanger the lives of bikers over a few seconds.

I’m not saying that’s why Dailey struck Dewolf. He may not know. Maybe it was an impulse. Or a moment of rage. The point is, is that Dewolf didn’t have a chance against Dailey’s car. None of us do against any car. And that’s a bit of a bummer when considering if you want to commute by bicycle. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would like to bike more often, but are terrified – and rightfully so – of the streets.

I don’t know the solution other than to expand the bike trail system and keep motorists apart from cyclists as much as possible and especially in high-density traffic areas. Still, every cyclist eventually uses a street.

The point here, is that a lot of folks – especially the climate change haters – say that true climate change reform will mean lifestyle changes. And that’s absolutely true. One of the institutions that will have to change is our car-dependency. Right now cars have the advantage. Our streets and cities are designed around the car, especially the sprawl on our cities’ edges. We need sidewalks and city blocks and bike lanes and trails and living density. We need to change our perception of how we see our streets and roads.

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  1. Kevin

    In order to redesign our cities around bicycles, what sort of taxes do you think we should levy on cyclists?

    I am thinking we should begin with a personal property tax on bicycles, similar to the tax on automobiles. The tax could be based on the original purchase price of the bicycle, say, 10 percent, and then would diminish over time as the value of the bicycle decreased.

    I would also require bicycles to pay a yearly registration fee (tax) and have a small “license plate” to prove the taxes were paid, similar to automobiles.

    As for cyclists’ use of the roads and special paths and trails, that is somewhat problematical. With automobiles, state and federal fuel taxes cover the construction and maintenance costs of roads, so the more a driver uses the roads, the more fuel he uses, and the more he contributes to paying for the roads. How that would be accomplished with cyclists, who do not buy fuel, is hard to imagine. Probably some kind of per-use fee or toll system would work.

    What are your ideas?

  2. wharf rat

    Hi Folks….

    I have to agree with Kevin. I moved to Missoula in 1968 to attend UM bringing with me my commuter bike, a three speed Raleigh. Over a couple of years I moved up to a Schwinn Paramount before they got outsourced to China and the brand took a dive. I still ride the latter even though it’s an antique. Over the years I’ve watched cyclists as a class grow increasingly arrogant in their approach to traffic rules and safety. I believe that cyclists ought to be tested. licensed and insured and bicycles registered, and the same fee and traffic fine structure applied to cycling.

    Regards

  3. In every U.S. state and Canadian province — including Montana — road construction and maintenance is funded by local property taxes. The federal gas tax partially funds highways with Federal designations — the Interstates and U.S. highways.

    Cars and trucks give us an economic benefits, and most people in Montana probably require a truck for their livelihoods, but the levies imposed on cars and trucks are very reasonable in comparison to the infrastructure that’s required for their operation.

    Automobiles require acres of infrastructure just to store the thing. Look at your nearest Wal-Mart — the parking lot is larger than the store.

    There’s an entire delivery infrastructure stretching literally to the other side of the world that’s required to fuel the automobile. Access to fuel was a major factor in both World Wars and in several smaller wars. Petroleum is the major factor that drives U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy.

    Montana drivers kill nearly 300 people every year and has a vehicle fatality rate worse than some third world nations. Motor vehicle crashes cost Montana taxpayers over $600 million per year (according to the NHTSA).

  4. [M]ost people in Montana probably require a truck for their livelihoods…

    Heh. Yeah, right.

    As for the rest of it — cars and trucks have damn significant wear and tear on roads that bicycles don’t. And until we’re talkin’ Beijing of 25 years ago style cycle traffic, we’re talking much smaller paths to accomodate bikers.

    Still, I think y’all got a point. We should also set up tollbooths for those damn pedestrians that are walking all over those sidewalks that drivers end up “footing” the bill for.

  5. wharf rat: I agree that a number of cyclists do stupid things, run red lights and stop signs, bike the wrong way down a one-way street, etc & co. But (a) it seems like just a handful of bikers are doing the stupid things, and (b) that’s hardly justification for running over cyclists when they’re in the way.

    I’m with Fitz on the tax thing. Turns out I’m subsidizing Kevin’s lifestyle choices with my property taxes. I hate these income redistribution schemes!

  6. Kevin

    “In every U.S. state and Canadian province — including Montana — road construction and maintenance is funded by local property taxes.”

    Sorry, Fritz, but that is flat-out wrong. City and county road construction and maintenance in Montana is funded by state taxes on fuel. See Montana Dept. of Transportation fuel tax Q&A at:

    http://www.mdt.mt.gov/business/docs/fuelqa.pdf

    As for the federal tax on fuel, all of it goes into the Highway Trust Fund and then is divided between the Transit Account (public, mass transportation) and the Highway Account (US highways and the Interstate System). Refer to “History of the Gasoline Tax” at:

    http://www.artba.org/economics_research/reports/gas_tax_history.htm

    In either case, property taxes have nothing to do with road construction and maintenance.

    Your concern about the size of Wal-Mart’s parking lots–“acres of infrastructure”—is not a public concern, since private parking lots are not public infrastructure.

  7. Kevin

    “I’m with Fitz on the tax thing. Turns out I’m subsidizing Kevin’s lifestyle choices with my property taxes. I hate these income redistribution schemes!”

    Touchstone– Well, if you are with Fritz on the “tax thing,” then you are wrong, just like Fritz. You are not subsidizing my “lifestyle choices” with your property taxes at all. If I had ten kids all attending public school, and I lived in government housing, THEN you might be subsidizing my “lifestyle choices” with your property taxes.

    In fact, it sounds like you, Fritz, and Matt Singer want me to subsidize YOUR “lifestyle choices”; viz, you want to ME to pay for redesigning streets and roads, or building bike paths and trails, so that you can ride your bicycle wherever you please at no cost to you.

    Now, who is working the “income redistribution” scam?

  8. Kevin, of Missoula’s County’s $4 million budget for roads, $2.6 million comes from property taxes. Less than 10% — $340,000 — comes from the fuel tax allocation. The rest comes from building licensing fees and what not. I haven’t looked at the data for the city of Missoula but I suspect the percentages are similar.

    If the gas tax is a “use” tax, though, let’s ban farm tractors and Amish buggies from the roads while we’re at it. In reality, U.S. roads are public roads, available for the public to use. Access is not dependent on the ability to pay taxes or fees.

    Because Wal-Mart is a private enterprise, if I never shop at Wal-Mart can I remove myself from the obligation of paying for that road to Wal-Mart or paying for snow removal? The answer is of course not — we all share in the cost of building and maintaining all of the roads, just as we share in the benefit of using those roads.

    Personally I’m not in favor of another network of paths and trails because they cost money and land area. The existing network of streets get me where I need to go.

  9. Kevin

    If Missoula County is spending money on roads in excess of its share of state fuel tax revenues, then I suspect that was a choice made by Missoula County voters. I cannot say who is making up the difference without actually seeing the sources of revenue, but I would venture a guess that cyclists, as cyclists, are not picking up the bill.

    The use of the public roadways by those who pay no fuel taxes is simply wrong, because fuel taxes are the primary source of the funding to construct and maintain public roads. Your pointing out that others are freeloading by paying no fuel taxes and using the public roads does not justify allowing more freeloaders, such as cyclists.

    Here is how I see it: If riding your bicycle around town makes you feel virtuous and morally superior to your fellow humans whom you believe are polluting the planet by driving automobiles, then by all means ride your bicycle. But you cannot expect others to pay for the warmth and comfort you derive from feeling virtuous and morally superior. You should pay for that yourself.

  10. Missoula County is not unusual in how it funds it roads.

    I can’t address your belief that public use of roads by the public is wrong, other than to note our American value of the Rule of Law based on Constitutional protections and Common Law protections of the right to travel and petition our lawmakers.

  11. Celeres

    Q. When is a road considered “open to public travel”?

    A. For the purpose of this statue, a road is considered open to public travel when that section of the road is available for public use (except during periods of extreme weather or emergency conditions, passable by a two-wheel-drive passenger car, and open to the general public for use without restrictive gates, prohibitive signs, or regulations other than restrictions based on the size and weight of the vehicle.

    Quoted from Montana Dept. of Transportation fuel tax Q&A at:

    http://www.mdt.mt.gov/business/docs/fuelqa.pdf

    as provided by Kevin.

    Since this doesn’t seem to indicate the mode of travel, just the conditions to be considered “open to public travel” I think it is safe to say all cyclists and pedestrians would be allowed to travel on the roads of missoula.

    As a side note, does anyone know what it costs to build and maintain a city road vs. build and maintain a city sidewalk or bike trail? I haven’t tried using the bike trail system in the winter, are they maintained? If so by whom and at what cost.

    I agree with kevin in some part. It would make sense for cyclists to have to go through a training, receive a cycling license, and be required to have a license plate, with a small fee that pays for bike trail maintenace and construction.

    Last timed I looked, when a cyclist is on a road in missoula, they are subject to all of the laws that motor vehicles are subject too – they are just another vehicle. The fact that they are not as enforced is a problem with law enforcement and nothing else.

  12. Kevin

    Fritz– Nobody said the public cannot use the public roads. You may have a Constitutional “right to travel,” but you have no right to travel on the public roads in any manner you please. Public safety laws set restrictions on the public’s use of the roads. It is not an issue of WHO can use the roads, but WHAT can use the roads.

    Try suing the federal government under your “right to travel” theory for not having any sidewalks on the Interstate Highway System. Or see what happens to you if you try to drive a D-9 Cat on the payment. Tell the ticketing officer you have a “right to travel.” That should make his day.

    In any event, your are trying to skirt the question: Who should pay to redesign our cities for bicycle traffic?

  13. The public pays for the roads, and nobody is arguing about the Rules of the Road. As far as I’m concerned, the cities are already designed for bicycle traffic alongside motorized vehicles, though widening some roads will provide greater convenience for the motoring public. Last year I paid almost $3000 in local property taxes and an estimated $1200 in state and federal gasoline taxes. I paid around $25,000 in federal income taxes for 2006.

    Since my income is in the top 6% in the United States and I pay more than my fair share in taxes, should I have more right to the public roads, libraries, police and fire protection and other government provided services than the hoi polloi?

  14. Regarding “skirting the issue” — the issue is that the public pays for the roads, and roads are available for public use. This includes legal use by bicyclists.

    You initially told me I was “flat out wrong” on this — you wrote that use fees pays for the roads. You were erroneous on this and you still are: In my example (Missoula County, MT), the fuel tax only funds 10% of road construction and maintenance; this figure is typical for almost the entire state of Montana.

    To think that $16 million for the entire state can even begin to fund road construction is naive. A rule of thumb figure for city street construction is a million dollars a mile. Chip sealed 2 lane roads out in the county are substantially cheaper, running about $20,000 / mile, but even with that figure the gas tax provides enough funding for only 800 miles of road which isn’t much more than the distance to North Dakota from Missoula.

    I served on a rural county road commission, where much of the damage comes from farm implements dragging through and destroying the pavement. I’m sure not going to deny American farmers’ right to use public roads, though, and farmers certainly pay enough in property taxes to maintain these roads, even though they often traveled these roads with fuel with no federal taxes.

  15. mallfellow

    Kevin – by your logic, folks who drive cars with high fuel efficiency (or hybrids or electric cars) have less of a right to the road than those who drive gas guzzlers, right? I mean, those driving the gas guzzlers are paying more fuel tax and, therefore, funding more of the cost of the roads. Maybe we should start a petition for an additional tax on fuel efficient cars so that they can pick up their fair share…

  16. Ron Georg

    Howdy, all–

    Roads predate cars. Just because they’ve been co-opted by automobiles doesn’t change their original purpose–they are public rights of way. They are the spaces that hold us together by holding us apart; the mortar in the wall. If we didn’t have them, it would be hard to leave the house, whether you have a car or not.
    The fact that we’ve insisted that car drivers pay for them is simply a reflection of the fact that they have placed a dramatic burden on these public spaces.
    Happy Trails,
    Ron

  17. Kevin

    Fritz– I am sorry you have been victimized by our unfair tax system, but that is not my fault, as I have always automatically voted against any tax for any reason. In a just society based on the so-called stakeholder philosophy, you would indeed have more right to public services because you contributed more. But, again, there is nothing I can do about that. It is an upside down system, wherein those who contribute little or nothing very often use public services the most.

    That is all I see going on here with the bicyclists demanding more public services in the form of road access, trails, and paths—or the entire redesign of our cities to accommodate their bicycles. Certainly some of these people have made a contribution, via taxes of one sort or another, to those public services, but I think their contribution is no more than the average property owner’s contribution and is definitely less than those who pay fuel taxes.

    I will phrase the problem in a couple of different ways. This is just another instance of a minority (bicyclists) demanding that the majority (motorists) spend money exclusively on the minority. Or one could look at the situation even more simply: If there were any merit to the idea of using bicycles on our streets and highways, everyone would be riding bicycles.

  18. Man, I always knew you were a little…out there.

    (a) Fritz never complained about his tax “burden.”

    (b) Most reasonable people would agree that building good community infrastructure is good for…well…the community.

    (c) A “stakeholder society” is another way of saying “oligarchy.” That’s not what this country is about. It’s about equality, opportunity, and egalitarianism. It’s not about reserving all the rights and privileges for the wealthy few.

    (d) We actually live in a democracy where elected representatives decide how the government serves the people. Missoula’s decision to spend money on open space, bike trails, and other like projects is a clear reflection of the community’s values and interests.

    (e) No one’s “demanding” money be spent “exclusively” on anything…except maybe one anti-tax zealot troll…

    (f) Your claim — “If there were any merit to the idea of using bicycles on our streets and highways, everyone would be riding bicycles” — is preposterous. That’s like saying if your ideas had merit, everyone would feel the same way you do. (Oh, wait!) There’s merit to maintaining a low-fat diet, but ice cream is still popular.

    You’re ignoring safety concerns, infrastructure, and tradition that might inhibit people from biking. Biking is cheaper, healthier, less stressful, and good for the environment. If our streets were exclusive to bikes, they’d be immeasurably safer, too. All I’m saying is that biking should be a reasonable option for Missoulians.

    PS – I pay property taxes, too, and fund the city’s vehicular-centric infrastructure projects. You don’t hear me whining about it.

  19. Kevin

    Touchstone— Fritz wrote, “I pay more than my fair share in taxes.” That sounds like he is a victim to me, but maybe he was bragging about being victimized.

    The rest of your pseudo-rebuttal is all meaningless leftist philosophy to me, which has no bearing on the discussion at hand and certainly no bearing on the way things work in the real world.

    As for you calling me an “anti-tax zealot troll,” I would politely remind you of your own rules regarding “personal attacks” and the maintenance of “civility” in this blog.

  20. I was careless in using the phrase “fair share” and realized it immediately after I posted it — “fair” is completely subjective and impossible to define. I should have wrote that I pay more than the average American.

    To restate what I think you’re writing, Kevin, is this correct? Because I contribute more to our public infrastructure than the average American and thus have more of a stake in it, do you believe I should have more influence in deciding how this infrastructure is used? In other words, in the ideal stakeholder version of the United States of America, should dollars equal votes? If liberal millionaires from the Left Coast continue moving into Montana and they decide — through their economic influence on the state — that Montana public roads should be reserved exclusively for Humvees — that would be okay with you?

    That’s how I understand your philosophy, and that’s what I am arguing against. My apologies if I’ve misunderstood.

  21. To take another angle on this issue: That University of Montana has about 14,000 students. It’s my understanding that probably most of the cyclists in Missoula are probably college students. Almost all of them will probably drive cars after they find gainful employment.

    If bicycles were banned from Missoula streets and thousands of college students suddenly had to drive cars to get around, what would that do to traffic in Missoula? Since neither UM nor the students contribute much to local property taxes, where will the funds for the additional required roads come from? How much space do 20 cars take up on the road compared to 20 students on bicycles? How many parking spots do these cars take at the Wal-Mart versus bicycles? There are only 4500 parking spaces on the UM campus for 15,000 students, staff and faculty. Where will the money and property come from for the 10,000 extra parking spaces required?

  22. matguy

    I think the funniest part of this is the idea that it would be preposterous to “redesign our cities around bikes.”

    Go to any city, including Missoula, and look at the idiotic things we do in order to make sure our cars are protected, easy to drive, and within handy reach when we want to use them again. We use huge amounts of public space in our cities for the sole purpose of getting cars through them.

    We plow four lanes of traffic through the middle of downtown Missoula in the form of Broadway- a road which primarily serves to get cars through and NOT to downtown Missoula, when a perfectly good bypass in the form of I-90 exists a mere quarter-mile away!

    We give up valuable sidewalk space for parking that gets used by local business employees instead of customers, and we force large stores to build parking lots designed for the day after Thanksgiving, pushing these stores to the back of their lots so they need large, ugly signs that can be seen from the road!

    Finally, we design bike lanes that begin and end with the whims of funding and design, that dump cyclists into positions where they are almost guaranteed to be in conflict with motorists, and then we wonder why motorists and cyclists alike are frustrated.

    The tax thing is pure BS and deserves less energy than I’ve given it just now.

  23. To take the tax argument to its most absurd end, lemme drop a couple of particulars about my tax situation.
    – I don’t own a house, so I don’t pay a lump of the taxes my neighbors do. Should I not get police or fire response while they do? Is it an unfair tax burden to my landlord (he doesn’t live here) or is it just the cost of being a home/landowner in the US?
    – I don’t have kids, but, for some reason, taxes implemented to support schools end up being partially paid for by me and many other kidless. Is this an unfair tax burden to me, or is it just the cost of being a contributing (read: tax-paying) member of American society?

    The “tax equals result” idea, while directionally correct for topics such as this one, doesn’t appropriately address the timeframe needed to understand shifts as profound as conversion to a bike lifestyle. It’s just not that simple. Just building a path for bikes doesn’t get people on bikes unless the path is door to door. As 4&20’s sad tale illustrates, the lack of a safe facility (public roads, i.e. the only available facility that’s truly door-to-door for all riders) on which to bike from home to work is a major obstacle to most attempted converts to the cycling lifestyle.

    To truly be effective, one must think in terms of bike-friendly ideas causing understanding in non-bikers, understanding allowing changes like new taxes and revised local “master plans” (such as Portland, OR’s bike master plan; see bikeportland.org) to be developed and proposed, taxes and plans allowing construction, or, generally more cheaply and easily, revision of facilities, and then, lastly, the improved facilities allowing adoption of the lifestyle. Making roads safer for bikes and moving forward with bicycle adoption aren’t on/off switches. The issues facing cyclists can’t simply be bad-aided with a tax or a fee; all members of society, locally and nationally, have to buy into the idea to make the solutions safe for everyone.

    Aight, that’s enough group-hugging for now. I’m gonnaa go ride my bike.

  24. guillaume

    … boy and I thought there was a segment of the population in Missoula that was enlightened. Was I ever wrong! Let me say it simply: too many cars, bikes don’t pollute AND don’t require any where near the resources to build, practically nothing to operate in terms of “infrastructure” (roads are way overbuilt for bicycle needs and use), and nothing to fuel. The bicycle “footprint” is almost non-existant compared to a car. The point is TOO MANY CARS. Cars demand too many resources and are killing the environment. Most people could resolve a large part of their transportation needs by bicycle but not many are bright enough to figure that out. When you get done with your calulators and legal references and convoluted logic, maybe you can try one out and you will find that all you have to do is sit there and make little circles with your feet and … you will get somewhere.




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