YES ! to municipal bike tax

So a City Councillor has suggested we tax bicycles, perhaps by levying a license fee. I suspect he pictures in his mind a miniature license plate, similar to the full size plates that a car has, or what bicycles in the 1950’s used to have. Some places use stickers instead of metal plates, but these are hard to read, and certainly cannot be read while an offending cyclist speeds off into the sunset after his or her dasterly deed.

I agree with Councillor Monette. The municipality should license bicycles and indeed all vehicles driving in the City.

Right now, the City maintains and builds/rebuilds the majority of municipal roads with  funds raised from property taxes. To some extent, having roads is a public good, that all benefit from, whether or not you have a private car. So by all means pay for the basic road, say a 20′ wide asphalt strip, from property taxes. This allows everyone to get everywhere, emergency vehicles to circulate, and taxis and buses to roam.

Anything wider than that – say four lane arterials like Centrepointe Drive, Greenbank Road, Baseline, Merivale, Innes Road — is largely for the benefit of rush hour traffic and discretionary travel, or to provide storage/parking for vehicles on the side of the road usually at no charge to the user. So all those additional road feet of asphalt should be charged back to the user who requires them. A municipal license would be a good way to raise these monies. Simply divide these costs by the number of vehicles, add 20% for overhead, and there’s your license fee.

Applying the road-provision-recovery-fee to the drivers that use the space would greatly reduce the taxes for those residents in neighborhoods like mine where upwards of 30% of households are auto-free, but pay the highest taxes in the city, to provide ever more roads for those who live in low density areas. Unfortunately we pay for roads “out there” and then those people naturally want more roads in built-up urban areas so they can drive more easily, so we end up with abominations like Bronson  which blight one neighborhood to facilitate those living in another one. Talk about a waste of tax money!

The City already puts municipal plates on taxis, so it’s not too far a stretch to imagine a city plate on all resident’s cars showing they paid the fee. Apply the license plate rule to those people who work in Ottawa and prefer to live in Kemptville or Arnprior or Pointe Gatineau. It means we would actually get some revenue for those people who use our streets and currently pay nothing for them while simultaneously lobbying to destroy more urban neighborhoods by ever-widening the streets for the benefit of their four-hour rush period every day.

As mentioned earlier, the physical license plate concept is so 1950’s. As a high-tech capital, we can do much better. Simply buy everyone a TomTom or similar GPS system. This would send data to computers from time to time, and drivers could be billed for how many kilometers they drove in which municipality (Ottawan’s driving in Kemptville would contribute to Kemptville user fees; Kemptvillers would pay when they drove into Ottawa).

some gps unit, pic from the internet

This pay-per-kilomter also rewards those who combine trips, use their vehicles efficiently, and helps correct the current overuse of cars induced because motorists do not see a direct charge for using roads. It would penalize people who make stupid trips, like driving the kids to school. It would make “cruisin the streets” much more expensive to motorists but cheaper to property tax payers, from whom much of the street costs would be removed. It would make driving more affordable to the low-income, as they would pay only for what they use, rather than the “average cost”. Insurance fees could readily be levied based on actual miles driven, and then surcharged for driving at riskier times (eg Saturday at 2am…) Ah, the joys of User Pay.

I can even imagine a scrolling text at the bottom of the TomTom screen showing the cost you are incurring in “real time”, sort of like a taxi meter, but being a user charge for the roads. This isn’t far fetched or extreme idea, after all, it is rather  like your home electricity meter. You pay for what you use. We don’t all pay a flat rate, or get “free” electricity because we paid our income tax, and now we pay more for the more expensive “peak use”. If we can meter electricity, we can meter mileage.

But wait, what about bikes? I suspect we could also install a GPS on every bike, or at least a transponder of some sort, to track cycling mileage. A GPS that showed me the safest, most direct, least hilly cycling route would be a nice convenience on my bike. Cyclists could then be charged for the cost of those roads they use or the cycle paths they follow. Since all the literature indicates cyclists are perhaps the cheapest mode, these costs would be modest. With the additional revenues earned from cyclists, more cycling infrastructure would have automatic funding.

But wait, what about other benefits? For example, if the GPS or TomTom unit measures your speed, and knows what road you are on, it also knows the speed limit (there was a “scandal” a few months back that the UK police were accessing TomTom data to find out where people habitually speed, sort of crime catching through crowd sourcing the data). So if you go 70kmh on King Edward, where the speed limit is 40kmh, the City could automatically ding you for the speeding ticket too. With automatic bill paying from your bank account a requirement of getting a municipal license, the revenue would flow in to the city coffers in buckets.

Monette, you are a genius. Let’s get going on municipal licensing fees for all vehicles right now. Get discretionary transportation costs off the property tax bill and onto the users.

11 thoughts on “YES ! to municipal bike tax

  1. This is a great idea. A lot of details would have be worked out, like enforcement and what to do about tourists, but the basic concept is sound. Replacing a tax with charges for actual use — the neocons have to support it, don’t they?

  2. As a high-tech capital, we can do much better.


    As the high-tech capital of eastern Ontario, Ottawa could be doing so much better.

    But this is the duckburg that won’t let third parties use bus GPS data, won’t let third parties tweet bus detours, and has cracked the whip about OC Transpo drivers who post to a transit-related forum. This is the town that adopted computerized next-stop bus announcements more than a decade, if not two, after the technology was available, and where they have wired for digital bus displays on the transitway “stations” downtown… but have deferred the actual installation of those displays until probably after the LRT is up and running sometime in the 2080s. This is Ottawa, where the transit displays in the few stations which do have them are the best 1980s technology, even if the screens are not located where passengers actually stage for buses, where it would be most useful (ever missed your connection at Blair or Hurdman because you stopped to wait for the interminable screen to scroll?) And hey, the screens actually even work almost half the time at Hurdman now! This is the metropolis that has a pathological fetish against outdoor digital display advertising, in its transit system or anywhere else.

    Ottawa is an utter embarrassment to its self-styled and utterly underserved claim to be the tech capital of anything.

    1. And who could forget — besides me, apparently — the “smart card” technology that the city every year promises will be implemented… “next year”. Yay, high-tech capital.

  3. I really do hope that you’re channeling Jonathan Swift and his Modest Proposal here.
    Because, you know, some of us would prefer not to live in a Big Brother state.

  4. How about we also issue every citizen a pedometer and have pay-per-use sidewalks. Better yet we all should have RFID chips imbedded on the soles of our feet and have sensors on crosswalks since pedestrians also use the roadway occasionally and providing crosswalk signals on the traffic lights add cost and complexity. Instead of pressing a button, there should be a credit card slot on every corner of a signalized intersection!

    1. Wow, I never thought of RFID chips in shoes! What a great idea! They already have transponder thingies on bikes – I’ve been watching the Tour de France and they are the little blue things on the chain stay.

      [You had me there for a moment Eric, I thought you were serious – phew!]

    2. Hey! That way, the bloody walk lights might respond on the same calendar day, which the current buttonized intersections seem to have problems achieving.

  5. You missed the point. This isn’t about anti-cycling sentiment or raising a few dollars off those free-loading cyclists. This is really about preventing bike theft. Really! It is. Seriously…

  6. My tiny little condo building pays $10k per year in property taxes for 40′ or so of frontage on the street. That’s probably an entire block’s worth in most of the further suburbs. You can have your huge roads when you pay for them; until then shut up.

  7. I see tongue is firmly in cheek, but I do want to point out that the strategy you use is what tractor-trailers use to determine road-fee taxes across provincial/state boundaries.

  8. I already pay lots of taxes (to the NCC, property, gas, sales tax, income tax…) and I think we should close down some existing roads that have been abused by motorists for far too long. The Ottawa River parkway, for example, is not a parkway as it was intended to be. It has turned in to a highway. I think the parkway should be closed down and opened to bikes only on one lane, and on the other it should be dedicated to parking. Buses should not use the parkway. I think this would promote the preservation of green space and make it possible to bike to and from the city core as well as allow motorists to use the greenspace instead of just speeding through endangering everyone else. I want the tax money I already spent to be put to good use, and I see no reason existing roads can not be used for bikes. The cost of maintenance should be less. License plates are not required, but some type of bike ID would be nice to help catch bike thieves….it should be privately run though because any government operation will cost more than the fees they bring in…the fees or taxes will not cover the cost of administering it…just look at dog licenses for example.

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