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Let’s agree on one thing first: bike paths are not free.
For 2023, the City of Montreal plans to invest $41 million for the maintenance and development of its cycling network. By 2032, a sum of 491 million is included in the Montreal budget. Adding the sums intended for BIXI self-service bicycles (15.4 million over ten years), we exceed half a billion dollars.
This is obviously much less than the 6 billion over 10 years devoted to roads included in the City’s budget, an otherwise incomplete figure since the entire metropolitan road network called “superior”, which includes the highways, is a provincial responsibility.
First of all, it should be noted that this user-pays principle is far from fully applicable to motorists. Yes, they pay registration and driver’s license fees as well as fuel taxes. Despite everything, they only assume about a third of the cost of roads in Quebec.
The idea of registration fees for cyclists comes up regularly in the news. At one time, several Quebec municipalities managed such systems. Older people may remember the little license plates they had to attach to their bikes. These systems were abandoned for a very simple reason: their administration costs exceeded the revenue earned.
The City of Toronto, for example, has just considered the relevance of registering bicycles. “Studies have shown that granting registrations does not justify the creation of a significant bureaucracy to oversee this practice,” the City writes in a briefing document.
“If cyclists were asked to cover the cost of registration, in many cases the registration would be more expensive than the bike itself,” it says further.
So much for the financial argument. There are others, perhaps more important.
Our societies are increasingly trying to internalize all the costs of a good or service. Eco-taxation, for example, aims to use taxes to discourage behavior that generates environmental costs and to encourage behavior that generates benefits.
However, the bicycle has several advantages over the car. It is non-polluting and less noisy. It reduces traffic congestion. It causes fewer serious accidents, uses less roads, keeps its users active.
Taking these factors into account and considering transit time, a study by Swedish, German and Korean researchers published in 2019 calculated that a car incurs costs equivalent to 16 Canadian cents per kilometer traveled, while a Instead, cycling generates profits of 27 cents per kilometer.
In this context, it is hard to see why a government, whether municipal or provincial, would discourage bicycle use through registration fees.
The provincial government grants thousands of dollars in subsidies to a Quebecer who wants to acquire an electric car because it is less polluting than a gas-powered vehicle. However, the electric car contributes to traffic congestion, represents an accident risk and is mainly acquired by wealthy people. This is not the case with the bicycle.
Considering this, one could argue that the practice of cycling, far from having to be discouraged by fees, should on the contrary be encouraged by subsidies.