Friday, March 8, 2013

Pedaling Licenses: Repealed in 1913, but Will the Legislature try Again?

In this 100th anniversary year of the State Highway Commission, the agency that became ODOT, there's another anniversary, far more obscure.

As talk about bike licensing and registration heats up at the Legislature, it might be worth remembering that the bike licensing and path building laws of 1899 and 1901 failed pretty badly, and after about a decade's worth of dormancy on the books, the laws were finally repealed in 1913, just a month before the State Highway Commission was created.

Watt Shipp (l) & Paul Hauser (r), circa 1900
(Image Courtesy of Sarah Hauser)
The bike path law of 1899 started off enthusiastically.  Primary responsibility for action on it devolved to the counties.  Marion County Surveyor B.B. Herrick, Jr. surveyed routes for five paths and again in 1900 surveyed routes for another five.

Mehama to Turner Bike Path Original Survey, June 6, 1899
This effort didn't go very far, and in Marion County it turns out path building was almost wholly limited to 1899. The plan was over-ambitious, and while fragments were completed, it's not clear that entire routes were ever finished.

Statement and Receipt, June & July 1899
for work on Stayton-Mehama bike path
After 1900 the $1.25 bicycle license/tax was also no longer collected here.  It was difficult to collect and manage on the administrative side, and without great progress on the paths themselves, people who biked found the yearly fee onerous on the user side.

In early 1901 the bike tax was declared unconstitutional, and a new law passed to replace it. Folks in Marion County just simply ignored the new law.  The county sheriff didn't enforce it, didn't collect it, and riders didn't pay it.  (John Calhoun, it was nullified!  The across-the-board non-compliance is a somewhat uncomfortable fact in this history of transportation, but it testifies to the inadequacy of the law.)

In Multnomah County and around Portland, where they had undertaken a much more ambitious program of path building, things petered out more slowly, but by 1905 the paths that were built were in poor condition and were not being maintained.  No new ones were being built.

Still, the law remained on the books, and was ostensibly in force in 1909 and 1910 when William Lord, former governor and father of Elizabeth Lord, compiled Oregon Statutes into Lord's Oregon Laws.

Bike Paths and Licenses in Lords Laws, 1910
By 1913 the law had been dormant in Salem for over a decade and in Portland for almost a decade, so when the Legislature was debating real road reform, it was natural to repeal the bike path and licensing law at the same time as the State Highway Commission was established.

Jan 31st, 1913
HB 200 Repealed Bike Path and License Law
A licensing fee almost certainly makes less sense now than it did back then.

Gas Tax used for maintenance and operation only
from the Salem Capital Improvement Plan
Property Taxes fund Road Construction!
from the Salem Capital Improvement Plan
In Salem property taxes, not gas taxes, are paying for most of the road construction in the past few years.

More than this, bikes create negligible wear-and-tear on the roads, as a policy goal we want more people riding and fewer car trips, and auto user fees (in licensing and gas taxes) fail badly to cover the costs of road repair and construction (more here).

If anything, it's the gas tax that needs to be raised, since it doesn't cover costs.

As one Oregon economist has said
Perhaps the stupidest public policy idea I have ever heard of is the proposed bike tax. It is not worth talking about the proposal itself as it is not going anywhere and is, as I think I mentioned, stupid. But what is interesting to me is that, in fact, the appropriate public policy is to subsidize bikes, not tax them.
And in fact, people on bike subsidize people in cars! Car use benefits from an enormous network of subsidy.

So why do we keep having this conversation? According to the Oregonian, the latest registration bill, introduced by Senator Larry George, is because those damn bicyclists are so annoying!
George tells me he introduced the bill -- SB 769 -- at the request of a constituent -- a Yamhill farmer who says she has trouble moving her equipment because of all the cycling tourists on the narrow- or no-shoulder roads in the heart of wine country.
Class, outsiderness, and the optics of "wine", it seems likely, lurk somewhere in the background here.  Could this be a farmer who resents the new-fangled wineries, the parvenus who fund them, and the city slickers who like to visit them by bike?    It's hard to see this as other than punitive, designed to reduce the numbers of those annoying people on bike - never mind the economic benefits of tourism for rural communities. 

The optics of bicycling are one of the fascinating things about the bike.  Can collectors, the semi-homeless, and the rascal on the one hand, and the leisured professional on an expensive bike out in the playground of wine country on the other.  Bikes are the domain of the rich or the poor - but not the middle.  In the public imagination, normal, everyday people don't bike.  Too often, the bike is not regarded as a useful tool for transportation, one especially useful because cars are expensive.  And it is true that out in wine and farm country they may not be so useful for transportation because of greater distances and lower density.  Bike transport is an urban thing, really.

The Portland BTA seems inclined not to oppose a tax or registration bill outright, but to use it as a way to talk about road funding.  If we could trade a tax on bikes collected at the point of sale for a significant increase in the gax tax, well that might be something to talk about.  Maybe there are other trade-offs that would also yield something meaningful and useful.  So not opposing one out of hand might potentially be a fruitful gesture. 

But on its own merits, bike licensing was a bad idea in 1913 and it's still a bad idea in 2013.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Interestingly, in the BikePortland wrap of the National Bike Summit, Maus says:

"In just the past few years there's been a profound shift in how bicycling is perceived in America. Bicycling has shed much of the cultural baggage that has followed it around for decades. The sport and spandex-focused Lance Armstrong Era is over and it's been replaced with images of well-dressed men and women using bikes as transportation in cities from Nashville to New York City.

Put another way; bicycling has come of age."

I'm not seeing this yet here. Perhaps others do.

Salem Area said...

Jonathan's comment was probably due to his recent trip to NY and DC. It ain't happening in the Valley, for sure! Regarding a bike license or tax, bring it on! I am tired of the auto centric folks' thesis that bikers don't pay their fair share. While we know it's a ridiculous argument, they seem to keep using it over and over again. Let's pay and take away one of their bullet points.

B+ said...

This is one of the best posts you have ever had, in my humble opinion. You make a lot of excellent points while also reminding us of our own history (which we forget at our peril...but all too easily).

I recall we had to have a bike license years ago in Corvallis, so I guess at least that city was finding ways to get some revenue from biking in the 1960's. Just a little detail to add to the mosaic....

Your bigger point about the futility of such laws is much so that it goes to support the notion that what we are dealing with here is not logic but emotions over complex matters pertaining to identity, control, and the future.

The cycling scene in Salem is changing a little bit (not a lot); I have seen more folks "in the middle" cycling around on bikes designed for utility. They are joining the already-out-there folks who have pioneered or who have no other choices, and that is good to see. The class issues you mention are very much part of the picture here.

Finally...I am always impressed by your ability to research something. It is tremendously useful. Thanks for being there for all of us!

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Thanks for the kind words!

Interestingly, a note written yesterday by an anthropology student has been making the rounds:

"We need to change our transportation habits. What needs to change first, the design of our streets, or the demands of our street users? Should we assume that the only way to change our transportation landscape is to engineer different streets? If people were clamoring for bike infrastructure, we wouldn't need to prove over and over and over that bicycling is a good thing. It would be a popular fact."

The meanings of bicycling and people on bike are important.

Over and over we keep repeating the same facts and engineering perspectives about the value of bicycling, but repeating facts doesn't seem to help very much. The discourse is, in important ways, fact-resistant! At heart it may be about feelings and cultural attitudes more than facts.

Cars have become maybe the preeminent symbol of "freedom." Politicians everywhere still genuflect to cars and Detroit. In the greater cultural landscape we will need to conjure an inversion - for bikes to become the preeminent symbol of freedom, the same patriotic expression of American mobility.

In this light especially, I like the fact that much of the first rush of talk about Pope Francis has been about his use of public transit!

(Hopefully we'll be able to do bike counts again this summer and make visible in an aggregate way the increasing middle!)

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