Cyclists vs. Drivers – Toronto Edition

A couple months ago I was invited by the editor-in-chief of Torontoist, a popular news site, to submit an article covering an “in-depth analysis on cyclists versus drivers on the cost of infrastructure, maintenance, health impact and beyond” within the context of Toronto. This ask was a natural extension of an article I wrote for the Hamilton Spectator on behalf of Cycle Hamilton in April 2016. The below content is my unedited submission to Torontoist. You can find the final version published on their website here.

The Freeloading Cyclist: How Toronto’s Roads are Paid for (and why we actually need more cyclists)

“Cyclists should be licensed”. Have you ever heard that statement from a driver in Toronto and felt your gut wretch in response? Or perhaps you’re one of the 56% of Torontonians who in fact supported licensing of cyclists in Toronto in a recent Forum Research Poll. It’s a natural reaction after all – on the surface cyclists appear to essentially be using Toronto’s roads for free. After drivers are forced to pay an average of $9,000 a year for gas, insurance, licensing, tickets, registration, maintenance, repairs, and so on, I imagine it can be pretty frustrating to watch care-free cyclists skirting the system and seemingly using the same road space for free.

But are Toronto’s cyclists really getting such a good deal? Are drivers undergoing severe hardship and bearing the brunt of the costs of maintaining our streets while cyclists cruise along without paying a dime? Hardly.

Driver User Fees Don’t Actually Pay for Roads

First of all, it is worth acknowledging that drivers do pay road user fees from which cyclists are exempt (unless they also own a car, which is not unlikely), including licencing, registration, and gas taxes. The revenue from these fees goes to the provincial and federal governments for large transportation initiatives, with some of it being allocated back to cities for use on transportation projects. In Toronto, this funding is actually invested into the TTC’s capital budget. So while driver user fees do help pay for transit investments, they don’t in fact pay for road maintenance and construction costs.

Roads are Funded by all Users

Every year, as part of the City’s budgeting process, the Transportation Services department releases its one-year operating budget and ten-year capital program budget. The operating budget pays for staffing costs and basic operations like pothole filling and snow removal, while the capital budget is used for road and sidewalk maintenance and construction, including big projects like the $2.3 billion Gardiner Expressway rehabilitation and the recently-approved $160 million Cycling Network Ten Year Plan.

The Transportation Services operating and capital budget each relies on a different source of funding. The largest funding sources for the operating budget is property taxes, a revenue source which is paid for by residents, regardless of their transportation choices. Similarly, the capital budget is nearly two-thirds paid for by a combination of debt and “capital from current” – essentially a transfer of funds from the operating budget, which again is mostly funded by property taxes. If drivers believe they alone are to be credited for financing the maintenance of our roads, they are certainly mistaken.

Cycling Investments Maximize Value for Money

When deciding how to allocate its spending, any financially-prudent government should be concerned about maximizing the returns on its investments. When it comes to the City of Toronto allocating transportation dollars, the same principles apply. For example, when deciding whether to invest in a particular transit project, governments must consider the benefits in terms of travel time savings, emissions reductions, etc. and weigh them against the construction and maintenance costs over time.

Fortunately for cyclists, the business case for cycling investments is a strong one. A 2012 study by the City of Copenhagen found that for each additional kilometre traveled by bike, a social gain of DKK 1.22 ($0.24 CAD) is achieved. Contrastingly, each additional kilometre traveled by car leads to a social loss of DKK 1.13 ($0.22). Every financially prudent citizen likes to see a city spending money on things that will actually deliver positive returns, and when you run the numbers for cycling investments with these figures, they look pretty darn good. Assuming an average one-way commute of five kilometres, if Toronto’s Cycling Network Ten Year Plan is successful in converting just 2% of Toronto car commuters to switch to biking, the investment will pay itself back.

Cycling Investments put into Practice

Toronto actually has had a pretty solid track record recently of attracting new cyclists with new investments. Take the Richmond-Adelaide cycle track pilot for example – in just one year, the installation of new, protected infrastructure on these streets resulted in a 200% increase in daily cycling trips, without negatively impacting car travel times! All for the cost of paint and bollards.

The freshly-launched bike lane pilot project on Bloor Street aims to achieve similar positive results, by adding parking-protected bike lanes along a 2.7km stretch of Bloor Street at a cost of just $500,000. Based on the Danish figures mentioned above, if the project generates just 1,100 new daily bike trips, it will break even (by comparison, the new cycling tracks on Richmond and Adelaide led to over 2,000 new daily cycling trips).

In case you got lost in the numbers, let’s recap. Car drivers in Toronto pay road user fees, while cyclists do not. Those user fees are in turn used to fund transit projects, and so in fact they are irrelevant in the “drivers-versus-cyclists” debate. What actually pays for roads are property taxes and new city debt, two costs that are paid by all citizens, regardless of their transportation choices. Finally, investing in cycling infrastructure actually deliver major value to cities, and local investments have shown significant success right here in Toronto.

So next time a driver proceeds to make a point to you about how freeloading cyclists need to start paying for the roads they use, perhaps it’s worth mentioning to him that as a cyclist you are more than paying your fair share of costs. Maybe even suggest that if he really wants to help pay for roads that he try cycling himself? I’m sure the he would appreciate the smugness.

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