Sooner Or Later We May Find John Kass Prescient


Background Reading

Tom Fucoloro writes in his article on the statewide bike tax in Washington State:

State Democrats unveiled a $10 billion revenue package for transportation Wednesday that includes monstrous investments in new highways and highway expansions and comparatively few investments in safe streets and projects that make it easier and safer to bike and walk in cities and towns across the state.

And yet, one proposed new source of revenue to pay for all this is a $25 tax on the sale of bicycles costing $500 or more. Yes, a bicycle tax.

John Kass writes in his article on the new Chicago bike lanes:

The thousands of Chicago bicyclists who’ve been pedaling to work each morning better finally realize something.

Your free ride may be over.

Get ready for bike tolls and the Rahm-PASS.

Gaining access to the streets as not only “permitted but intended users” of the roadways has its perks and its consequences. Motorists and pedestrians alike are going to ask for us to participate in the funding of those “pretty green lanes”.

What Makes Us So Special?

Well get ready for all of the excuses and explanations for why cyclists should get a “free ride” on taxation but eventually the taxes will get paid whether we like them or not.

Here are some of the reasons we should not be paying taxes:

  • It is estimated that a mile cycled in Copenhagen results in a $.42 economic gain for the government. A mile driven costs the government $.20.
  • Closer to home, a study in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health found that Portland’s investments in cycling will save the city $388 to $594 million in health care costs by the year 2040. When you calculate the statistical value of lives saved (grim, I know, but it’s a science journal), the amount of money saved jumps into the billions.
  • The state should provide incentives for behavior they want to encourage. Bicycling is unequivocally good for the state, both economically and in terms of health and well-being. To tax the purchase of bicycles up to 5 percent on top of existing sales taxes simply makes no sense.

Of course these represent data points. And as we already know from David Brooks data has its limitations:

Therefore, when making decisions about social relationships, it’s foolish to swap the amazing machine in your skull for the crude machine on your desk.

Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.

Data creates bigger haystacks. This is a point Nassim Taleb, the author of “Antifragile,” has made.As we acquire more data, we have the ability to find many, many more statistically significant correlations. Most of these correlations are spurious and deceive us when we’re trying to understand a situation. Falsity grows exponentially the more data we collect. The haystack gets bigger, but the needle we are looking for is still buried deep inside.

One of the features of the era of big data is the number of “significant” findings that don’t replicate the expansion, as Nate Silver would say, of noise to signal.

Big data has trouble with big problems. If you are trying to figure out which e-mail produces the most campaign contributions, you can do a randomized control experiment. But let’s say you are trying to stimulate an economy in a recession. You don’t have an alternate society to use as a control group. For example, we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.

Data favors memes over masterpieces. Data analysis can detect when large numbers of people take an instant liking to some cultural product. But many important (and profitable) products are hated initially because they are unfamiliar.

Data obscures values. I recently saw an academic book with the excellent title, “ ‘Raw Data’ Is an Oxymoron.” One of the points was that data is never raw; it’s always structured according to somebody’s predispositions and values. The end result looks disinterested, but, in reality, there are value choices all the way through, from construction to interpretation.

This is not to argue that big data isn’t a great tool. It’s just that, like any tool, it’s good at some things and not at others. As the Yale professor Edward Tufte has said, “The world is much more interesting than any one discipline.”

We are fond of trying to claim that waiting on more data before installing protected bike lanes is unnecessary:

Reply by Anne Alt 2-10 1 hour ago
Thank you for creating this petition. There’s more than enough data from other states regarding protected bike lanes.

But at the same time we are unhappy when data is used to indicate that our taxes are due. So what do we use to defend against this taxation, more data. We are in fact drowning in data that proves whatever we want it to prove.

If as in New York the installation of all those bike lanes does not result in lower accident and death rates across the board (as promised) we suddenly have to find some data that explains away this anomaly. But that sort of “shucking and jiving” can last only so long before the hand extended for taxes demands to be fed.

Tom Fucoloro points out that cyclists often overlap several categories. They often drive so they already pay gasoline taxes. But as with drivers who own multiple cars they too could complain that only the first car should be taxed and the remainder go free. That of course will not wash.

Cyclists have earned the right to be treated like everyone else on the planet when it comes to roadway usage. And that my friends means taxation as well. It would not surprise me to learn that pedestrians will have to fork over money for the use of newly created pedways that save then countless steps in the urban setting while offering the convenience of protection from the weather.

And of course the users of Segways are already taxed at every turn for the privilege of using our sidewalks. Taxes are what will make the hearts of Libertarians everywhere “skip a beat”. They place the burden on the users who get the newly created infrastructure and that is as it should be.

So let those breezes flow through your hair. Just keep your wallet handy to pay that toll and taxes.