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Do bicyclists get a free ride when it comes to using the road?

A recent letter complained cyclists aren’t paying for bike lanes and repaving projects that benefit them, and instead motorists are footing the bill in the form of gas and diesel taxes and vehicle registration fees.

It’s a sentiment that crops up from time to time — and a misguided one.

The vast majority of cyclists pay the same fees and subsidize road improvements because they also own motor vehicles. They just aren’t driving their cars when they’re out on a bike. And that’s a good thing.

But unlike countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands where cycling is widespread, ingrained with commuting and more heavily subsidized with government funds, cycling is generally a riskier proposition in the U.S. and Sonoma County, with fewer bike lanes or — the gold standard — separate, dedicated paths for cyclists.

As an avid cyclist for the past 10 years, averaging around 60 miles a week in the saddle, I’ve had my share of close calls on narrow country roads, especially ones with little or no shoulder.

I’ve had near misses with side-view mirrors that stick out on trucks, or people with boat trailers unaccustomed to hauling a wide load.

On busy city streets without a bike lane, even though legally entitled to some of the road, I don’t want to get squashed. So I’ll sometimes ride in the gutter to stay out of the way of fast-moving cars overtaking me.

I have a little less sense of vulnerability due to a small rear view attached to my sunglasses that allows me to see vehicles coming up from behind and — in theory at least — perform an evasive maneuver, if need be, to avoid getting hit.

It’s not all moments of terror, of course. There’s a lot of fun and discovery that comes with being out in the open on two wheels taking in scenic back roads and vistas, or even seeing different parts of towns at slower speed.

For the most part, motorists and cyclists co-exist and are considerate of one another. That’s despite anger that can flare up when cyclists don’t move over in time to facilitate passing motorists, or when impatient, speeding drivers dangerously overtake riders.

Most people seem to agree roads shouldn’t just be thoroughfares for driving.

A statewide poll last year showed 8 in 10 California voters believe in the need to change the way we build streets and roads, to make it safe for everyone to get around, whether they drive, walk, bike or use public transportation.

OK, it was commissioned by the California Bicycle Coalition. But it found Californians across all major political and demographic groups support building “complete streets,” i.e. roads with visible sidewalks and protected bike lanes, safe for everyone.

From a more neutral standpoint, the U.S. Department of Transportation acknowledges the need to fund bike and pedestrian programs and facilities, noting that poor accessibility contributes to sedentary behaviors associated with diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

When all the benefits are analyzed, studies suggest bike infrastructure pays for itself, not only by making people healthier and more productive, but by cutting down on traffic gridlock. Facilitating cycling has even been credited with bringing economic growth by increasing retail store visibility and sales.

Investing in bike and pedestrian infrastructure is relatively low cost once the policy focus is on moving people rather than cars. Portland, Oregon was able to build a bike lane network for about the same cost as a single mile of urban highway, according to a 2011 report by the Oregonian.

Bicycling actually saves a city money, according to researcher Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. He attempted to quantify the benefits of switching from driving to bicycling. He took into account congestion reduction, roadways cost savings, vehicle cost savings, parking, air pollution reduction, energy conservation and traffic safety improvements. Litman estimated that replacing a car trip with a bike trip saves individuals and society $2.73 per mile.

California, like other states, gets some federal funding for cycling and walking projects. But the Golden State also relies on other sources for such projects, including bond proceeds, development impact fees, general funds, local planning assistance grants, state fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees and vehicle transfer fees.

Some cities have taken it a step farther. In San Francisco and Long Beach, voters approved sales tax measures that help pay for protected bike lanes.

But when it comes to dunning cyclists themselves, only Hawaii has a bicycle registration fee ($15), and Wisconsin is the sole state with a bike user fee, according to bikeleague.org.

Obviously those aren’t significant revenue producers.

But when everyone helps pay for a public benefit, whether it’s schools, playgrounds, parks, trains, buses or, yes, bike lanes and bike paths, it’s a worthwhile investment.

Clark Mason is a retired Press Democrat staff writer. He lives in Santa Rosa.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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