California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier recently introduced a bill that would allow local governments to impose a special tax on the sale of bicycles, and Richard Masoner over at Cycleicious has rightly called this out as bogus. A bicycle tax would do one thing, and one thing only: make bikes more expensive.
One of the primary arguments of bike tax proponents, as Masoner notes, is that a bike tax would lend "credibility" to bike advocates. Since bicyclists don't "pay their own way" they're perceived as not having a right to the road, and a tax would change that. The problem with this argument, as we all know, is that drivers don't pay their own way either, and we're all the beneficiaries of (and contributors to) an impenetrable web of cross-subsidies. We all pay for everyone else's roads, buses, trains, and sidewalks, and the truth is that personal income, rather than how you choose to get to work, is probably a much better predictor of how much you're subsidizing other people's travel.
Masoner's point is important, and I've made it myself many times, but I think we also need to consider how the landscape would change if a bicycle tax was implemented. Would bicyclist credibility suddenly be on par with that of drivers, or even above it? Would it change at all? I sincerely doubt it. In California, and most states, we spend billions of dollars on transportation every year, much of that on roads. If you tack a 10 percent tax (for example) onto a new $1,000 bike that someone's only going to buy every 5 or 10 years, you're not making a dent in road maintenance costs, to say nothing of new construction. Anyone who's committed to opposing bicycle infrastructure is going to realize this and their argument is going to be completely unchanged. All you've really succeeded at is making a healthy, environmentally-friendly, and more social form of transportation more expensive. Congratulations.
I honestly don't know the best way to resolve this "who pays what" argument. It seems to me, though, that if no one's paying the full cost of their travel habits, maybe we should do a little more to accommodate the people that limit their imposition on others to the strictly monetary. When someone rides a bike down the street they may take up some space and even cause others a slight delay, but when someone drives they take up far more space, put more vulnerable road users at risk, and leave a trail of air pollution behind them everywhere they go. If I'm going to help pay for your roads, and you for mine, why wouldn't we want to do everything we can to get more people on bicycles?