Early in November, Alderman Pat Dowell introduced a controversial proposal to tax bicyclists, sparking a heated debate in Chicago about whether bicyclists should contribute more to pay for the city’s increasing number of bike lanes. The proposal would require bicyclists to pay a yearly $25 registration fee and complete an hour-long safety course. Alderman Dowell, who represents Chicago’s Third Ward, which encompasses parts of Bronzeville and the South Loop, suggested the proposal as an alternative to Mayor Emanuel’s proposed tax increase on cable TV bills.
Dowell calculates that the proposed plan could bring in as much as $10 million in revenue and would curb the rising number of bicycle accidents in Chicago. Dowell also made the point that bicyclists should share the costs of paying for improvements to Chicago’s roads. Dowell said, “We have an increase in bike ridership in the city, have provided bike lanes for bike riders, and they utilize the road, just like the people who drive cars and trucks. If we have to register our cars, bikes ought to be registered as well.”
The plan has met vocal opposition. In an article in Crain’s Business titled, “Time to Drive Right Over Dowell’s Bicycle Tax,” Greg Hinz writes, “Ms. Dowell has come up with one of the more obnoxious ideas to raise money that I've heard in a while.” John Greenfield, the Chicago editor for the online publication Streetsblog, wrote that the Alderman’s proposal was “ill-conceived” and “unworkable.” Chicago resident Tom Nagy captured the sentiments of many fellow bicycle riders when he told ABC7 News, “That seems a bit ridiculous, I mean it's a bicycle. It's something we've all been doing since we were five years old.”
Yet not everyone is opposed to the alderman’s proposal. The Chicago Tribune endorsed the bike registration fee and safety course in an editorial, arguing that the proposal “makes perfect sense” and that cyclists ought to take more responsibility for their actions on the road. Despite the best efforts of commentators to portray the alderman as “anti-bicyclist” Alderman Dowell has actually been a strong supporter of citywide biker friendliness, attempting to increase bike use within her neighborhood of Bronzeville through implementation of local youth bike camps and development of separated bike lanes on the popular Martin Luther King Drive.
The proposal is unlikely to pass, especially since Mayor Emanuel voiced his opposition. “I would argue I don't think that's the right way to go,” Mayor Emanuel said. He has pushed several initiatives, including a bike sharing program and a massive increase in the number of bicycle lanes, in order to make Chicago a bicyclist-friendly city.
Mayor Emanuel argues that these are the kinds of changes that will bring the kind of smart, young techies that help a city to thrive. “The two are not correlated, but it's not an accident Google and Motorola decided to move their headquarters where the first protected bike lane went, and also where you have a good mass transit stop,” Emanuel told the Tribune editorial board.
Dowell, on the other hand, is less focused on attracting young techies to Chicago than she is on the needs of senior citizens. She argues that an increase in cable television taxes would primarily affect senior citizens who, unlike younger people, cannot easily enjoy other forms of entertainment and live on fixed incomes.
Leaving aside questions of the merits of the policy, the proposed registration fee (and the outcry that ensued) showcased a larger generational divide between the young, mobile, tech savvy millennials and the poorer, older residents who have lived in Chicago for decades. Mayor Emanuel has said repeatedly that one of his top priorities as mayor is to attract young and talented people to Chicago. Emanuel’s comments on Alderman Dowell’s proposal demonstrated his unwillingness to pass any bills that would make Chicago unfriendly in the eyes of those who work at places like the 1871 start-up incubator. But these constituents do not, for the most part, live in Alderman Dowell’s ward and her proposal to forestall an increase in cable television taxes reflects the priorities of many of her constituents.
The discussion of Alderman Dowell’s proposal is polarizing, and limits opportunities for compromise on the issue. City officials should be crafting policies that attract young people to Chicago—but they can’t forget to pay attention to their older, less tech-savvy constituents. Alderman Dowell has not forgotten those constituents and the commentators who vilified her proposal ought to remember that.