Photo by Shane Harms
Cyclists "freeloading" over the Fremont Bridge.

History Leads: Bike tax?

Bicycle license and registration has happened three times in Seattle, will it happen again?

At the recent open house for the 17th Avenue Greenway, an elderly citizen put forth the proposition of cyclists paying “their share” for projects like Greenways. During this dire time of budget cuts, indeed, people are looking for ways to pay for the funding gap and keep the city moving. Somebody needs to pay, but who?

This begs the question: Has there ever been a tax for bicyclers?

The Ballard News-Tribune drew the curtain back on the beaming light of history and discovered the volatile interpolation between “free” and taxed bicycling in Seattle.

On November 14, 1879, the first bicycle ever seen in the Washington Territory arrived in Seattle. Since then a large swath of citizens have embraced the two wheeled machine as a primary mode of transportation. In fact, Mayor McGinn had a bicycle ambassador predecessor, Mayor George Cotterill (1865-1958). Cotterill spearheaded the construction of some of the first bike routes ever built in the nation.

In addition, Cotterill supported the first bicycle licensing tax the city council passed in1897. The license had a one-dollar fee which would be about $28.50 today.

On April 6, 1900 the Seattle Republican reported details of the ordinance: “Every bicycle must have a bell; be rung before approaching person for conveyance. Must carry a light, visible 200 feet, if riding any sidewalk after street lamps are lit. Speed limit on sidewalks, eight miles per hour; on streets, ten miles per hour. Passing any pedestrian on sidewalk, speed limit four miles per hour. Pedestrians have right of way on sidewalks.”

Penalty for breaking the law was a whopping $5 to $10.

80 percent of the funds went toward a bicycle road maintenance kitty. In April 1900 the Seattle Star reported that there were 1800 licenses registered and that there were still hundreds of riders liable to receive fines for not being licensed. One year later, they reported that only 686 riders had registered and that the "wheel" was "dying" because citizens were not coughing up the cabbage for a license. The cycling club that used the fees for trail maintenance asked police to bump up enforcement of the law. The ordinance was eventually repealed about a decade later.

Seattle didn’t see a bicycle licensing ordinance again until 1939. According to the Seattle Daily Times, the ordinance created a licensing fee that cost riders 50 cents and 25 cent for an annual renewal. It also upheld a past law that prohibited cyclists from riding on sidewalks.

City Councilman, and Council public safety chairman, William L. Norton sponsored the ordinance and said in a Seattle Daily Times article, “If a child knows he must buy his own license, and that doing so gives him certain rights and protection, as well as charges him with responsibility for obeying the traffic regulations, he is going to have a greater interest in obeying the law.”

Norton had originally sponsored the ordinance after his stepson was killed in a bicycle accident.

Later, in October of 1948 Norton accused the police department of not enforcing the law and not cooperating with the License Department. That same month the Seattle Times reported that Police Chief George D. Eastman and Norton called to repeal the ordinance.

“An ordinance that isn’t enforced ought to be wiped off the books,” said Norton. Norton called to replace the ordinance with a voluntary registration system, which the City implemented.

That volunteer system was in place until 1977 when the City tried to enforce a mandatory registration ordinance. Bikers paid $2 and the funds were used for a Bicycle Safety Program. This time the ordinance was design to increase the recovery of stolen bikes, which it did. Recovery of stolen bicycles went way up from six percent to 36 percent.

In July of 1977 the Seattle Times reported that the $15,000 budget the City had to support the program was exhausted and that only one quarter of the bicycles in Seattle were registered. The police department did not support the ordinance. Seattle Police Chief Robert Hanson wrote a memo to officers telling them to keep “low-key enforcement, ” and to only cite citizens for not registering if there was a crime involved. After a year the funding ran out and the short experiment was over. By November of 1978 there were announcements in the newspapers explaining that the registration was no longer mandatory but still a viable way to reclaim stolen bicycles.

One citizen, Goodue Livingston, wrote a letter to the Seattle Times that same year stating that the end of the bicycle registration was a "step backward" and a "downgrading" of the bicycle.

“The most common complaint of motorists about cyclists is that they are freeloaders … In cities where the bicycle plays a significant part in the transportation system, bicycles are registered as a matter of course. It is expected that they pay their share and, in exchange, enjoy the obligations and privileges of other vehicles,” said Livingston.

“The idea of registration is to raise the status of the bicycle from a toy…to a legitimate vehicle whose rider is willing to pay for the privilege of using the city streets.”

Echoes of Livingston’s argument are still heard today.

James F. Vesley, wrote in a 2012 Seattle Times op-ed that there should be a $25 annual licensing fee.

“Special licenses are not new. We license dogs, our cars, our boats, our motorcycles, our pleasures in hunting and fishing, as well as many other outdoor activities. Cyclists, known for their community spirit and exalted senses of self, should welcome this opportunity to help government support their activities,” wrote Vesely.

However, many cyclists have a different opinion and claim to already be paying their share through simply paying the taxes that come along with living in Seattle. The voter approved Bridging the Gap levy, which is paying for the 17th Avenue Greenway, is funded by property, commercial parking, business, occupation, and sales tax. All Seattleites in one way or another contribute to this fund. Moreover, most cyclists own cars, and therefore pay gas and vehicle licensing taxes.

If a licensing fee or “bike tax” were to be mandated, cyclists would essentially be double taxed, which would discourage riders, when it is in the City’s best interests to encourage ridership.

So why are more bikers a good thing?

In Copenhagen, where over 80 percent of the population are cyclists, there was a 2012 report that stated cycling actually saves the government money and that they lose money on automobiles. They derived their findings from the affect cycling has on transportation and health care costs. Translated to miles and dollars the report said that one mile of driving is a 20 cent loss, and one mile riding a bike is a 42 cent gain for society. Furthermore, a 2011 study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health determined that investment in cycling is set to save the city close to $594 million in health care costs by the year 2040.

So today, with more Greenways being constructed and ridership increasing, are cyclists “paying their share”? It seems they are, and then some. Regardless, let history show how successful a bike tax has been in Seattle: Without public consensus and participation, and wholehearted enforcement by police, the bike tax went flat.

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