“Should cyclists pay a road tax?” This question, printed boldly on a full MAX wraparound ad, has drawn the ire of some cyclists over the last week. Oddly enough, the question focuses on a misconception that we debunked in the bike issue.
Comments on the issue—which ranged from thoughtful responses to outright anger—showed up in droves on Jonathan Maus' editorial at BikePortland.org, where he wrote, “The problem is that the question has (yet again) been posed in a discriminatory and unbalanced way.”
Ad firm Webtrends, who commissioned the sky-blue ad, says its primary goal was to create, quantify, and organize a community response. They certainly got the level of feedback they wanted, but some of it in a different tone than expected. Justin Kistner, Senior Manager of Social Media Marketing at Webtrends, didn't expect the corrosive replies. “We picked a topic that we care about," Kistner said. "The majority of people don't arrive here by car. What we did want was a lively, informative debate, which we got.”
More locally made fireworks after the jump!
Kistner, whose job it is to monitor web response on topics like this, took a good amount of the heat directed at the ad when he joined the discussion on Maus' post. “I was polite, and they took that as being condescending.”
On Fridays, Kistner hosts an event at the Green Dragon called Beer and Blog, an event that's become a major focal point of Portland's tech/advertising scene. He invited anyone who disagreed to come speak with him in person in a rational, friendly manner. Adding to the discussion in his or her own thoughtful and pertinent manner was BikePortland.org commentor “DJ Hurricane," who said, “You are scum and the world will be better off without you.”
It's not all piss and vinegar over at BikePortland.org, though, despite the rep of Portland's cycling community as a kerosene-soaked powder keg. An anonymous commenter on Maus' post wrote, "This argument is a tiresome one, but the more educated and prepared we are to debunk such unfounded platforms, the more successful we'll be at pushing forward a more fair and egalitarian system. Great energy and efforts, everyone. Keep up the momentum."
Much concern in the debate focuses on safety and the idea that the ad might make irate drivers, who already question the idea of sharing the road, even more dangerous. I asked Maus how significant the safety threat was from an ad like this. "Very significant," he said. "Not [from] the ad itself, but the coverage that it gets. It adds fuel to ignorance and [to the] fire regarding that issue, and it's a patently incorrect issue to begin with. It just goads people on. You're already in a tenuous situation where you have cars and bikes sharing limited space. This emboldens people to feel like bikes don't belong on the road."
Kistner claims that much of the response has been positive. KATU's post on the subject received over 400 comments—more than twice as many as the BikePortland post. Although some of them favored cyclists or thoughtful discussion, most of them seemed to be jubilantly anti-cyclist and heartily in favor of a “road tax." KATU user Swede760 wrote, “All we have to do to make bicycalists [sic] pay their fair share is to have to police actually enforce the laws and issue tickets and fines. I have yet to see a bicycalist [sic] in Portland follow any of the traffic laws, the city would get rich quick just from fines."
Also caught in the controversy is TriMet. The agency refuses to take responsibility for the ad, arguing that the state court decision Karuk Tribe v. TriMet prevents them from refusing ads based on content. (Now's your chance, Westboro Baptist Church!)
One thing Maus and Kistner agree on is one fact many people don't seem to know: Cyclists already pay as much of a road tax as motorists. Property and income taxes pay for the majority of local roads, while interstates and highways get funding from motor vehicle-related taxes, with the exception of eight percent of funding that comes from general taxes—i.e. everyone. So cyclists are actually paying some extra tax money for highways they can't even use. (When was the last time you saw a cyclist blowing stop signs on I-5?)
Full disclosure: I don't know Justin Kistner very well, but we did once pose next to a guy in a chicken suit for a photo: