"Washington, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare: Tax $$$ for Rich, Educated, White Riders," a new ReasonTV video by Jim Epstein and Kennedy, has elicited a number of critical responses from a wide range of rich, educated bike enthusiasts bothered that anybody would take issue with subsidizing the habits of the relatively well-off.
The video notes that the program has received around $16 million in federal, state, and local subsidies and, according to the program's newest user survey, is used exclusively by well-educated, mostly affluent, and mostly white folks. The video makes the bold and apparently novel argument that while biking is fun and wonderful and all kinds of awesome, there is no good goddamn reason that cash-strapped taxpayers should be subsidizing the preferences of elites.
The always-interesting Felix Salmon of Reuters argues that since "the government subsidy for bikeshare is basically a rounding error in the grand transportation budget," there's no reason to sweat it. Indeed, he writes, to cut a subsidy despite evidence of customers' ability to pay is "silly." I prefer to think that what's silly is politicians using tax money to sweeten a deal that should be covered by markets.
Then there's Salon's Will Doig, who says that the Bikeshare program is "something to celebrate" as upwards of "four thousand people use it every day."
Doig is exercised by the class consciousness of the video, because it's one thing for liberals to get pissed at handouts for the well-off but libertarians just don't seem to have the same street cred:
It's an argument that's carefully calculated to befuddle people who are used to arguing against inequality, and who typically rage against the idea of government handouts for the well-off. Suddenly, bikeshare users are being asked to justify a publicly funded system that's not used by everybody equally.
Except that we don't have to justify it, because it's public transportation.
Two things come to mind: First, you don't have to be a self-identified "bleeding-heart libertarian" to be pissed off at a political economy that systematically screws the very people it so often claims to be helping (though it helps). And as for Reason specifically, we spend a helluva lot time railing against subsidies that go to the wealthy and well-connected, whether we're bitching and moaning about Solyndra-style scams, the mortage-interest deduction, or rail, a form of public transportion that is overwhelmingly preferred (at least in theory) by plutocrats and typically funded by reductions in less-dreamy forms of transit such as buses that are favored by the hoi polloi. (To his credit, Doig shows a nice libertarian streak in complaining about restrictions on developing historical areas, smoking outside, and more.)
The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis spins a variation on the but-it's-so-small-a-subsidy argument ("Taxpayers subsidize every mode of transportation in some measure"), noting that the Bikeshare subsidies are a lot less than a $300 million bridge project. Seriously. Yes, comparing handouts for a bike business to building a bridge. Wotta bargain! His big finish?:
So why, as Reason puts it, "are affluent, educated, and employed whites riding taxpayer-subsidized bikes?" The red-herring issue of user demographics aside, it's an odd polemic for lovers of freedom and limited government to undertake. Compared to the bulk of government transportation spending, Bikeshare's proven to be relatively cheap, effective and extremely popular.
Yes, it is a red herring to point out that the folks using a tax-subsidized program could afford to pay for it on their own. Especially given how flush with cash all levels of government are, right? DeBonis implies that Bikeshare folks are just barely getting by because they are, as a group, less rich than other area residents. As Bikeshare's survey notes, a mere 39 percent of users had incomes of $100,000 or more, compared with 65 percent of all regional workers! (To get a sense of where all that dough is coming from, watch this Kennedy interview with Andrew Ferguson about the capital district's parasitic economy.)
Finally, there is Will Sommer of Washington CityPaper, who takes ReasonTV to task for not pointing out that a $1.3 million federal grant aimed at "addressing the unique challenges transportation challenges faced by welfare recipients and low-income persons seeking to obtain and maintain employment" hasn't yet kicked in:
It turns out that Montgomery County's Bikeshare grant doesn't start until later this summer, a fact that goes unmentioned in Reason's piece.
"You may think it's dissembling to include that grant," Reason editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie told me. Maybe! Gillespie, not surprisingly for a libertarian editor, has qualms about the government funding Bikeshare no matter who's using it. But it certainly seems cheeky to criticize Bikeshare for failing to attract less-affluent users before that part of the program's even started.
Cheeky isn't the word I'd use. Again, note that according to Bikeshare's own survey (which some defenders of the program point out relies on web replies, is self-selecting, uses months-old data, etc.) that zero percent of current users have only a high school diploma. As I told the good-natured Sommer on the phone, I'm happy to check back in next year and see just how far that awesome-sounding subsidy moves the needle in terms of poor people using Bikeshare, especially to get to and from work in an area known for some of the most unpredictable and disgusting weather on the Eastern Seaboard.
I get that the folks above dig the program and don't mind commandeering some of our money to help them feel good about things. But if we're going to spend a million bucks on subsidizing commutes for poor people, why not just buy them bikes? As for the rest of us, if you can afford to rent a bike, why not do so on your own dime? As Kennedy notes in the vid: "We all know biking is awesome, but we don't need government programs to pay for it."
Indeed, if even such a minor and fanciful outlay as subsidies for a bike-renting business elicit such pushback, is it any wonder that we're so fucking broke at all levels of government?
Reason on transportation, mass and minor, which is indeed a hotbed of awful subsidies and boondoggles.