Bicycle licensing and why it's the wrong thing to push for

Bicycle licensing for dummies

A would-be American politician is calling for the licensing of bicycles, and he may come to regret picking this particular fight. (In fact, because of a twitterstorm and articles such as this one, the fight is already over: "it’s important to know when others make good points and prove mine wrong," wrote the listening would-be politician.)

Joel Engardio, a candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, wrote a piece stating that it’s "time to mandate bicycle licenses", and that cyclists ought to "put skin in the game". He has been swifly condemned on social media. Industry guru Gary Fisher, a San Francisco resident, tweeted: "I recommend to all my followers, do not vote for Joel Engardio, this person in office is another step backwards!

When politicians and would-be politicians suggest bicycle licensing they ought to do a bit of research first. Here, to save them the trouble in the future, is an idiot’s guide to the pros and cons of bicycle licenses. 

It’s true. Some countries have had bicycle registration and licence schemes. Japan still does (all bicycles sold in Japan are registered with the local government but this is an anti-theft measure, not a law to administer cyclists). In Switzerland, until recently it was compulsory to have a CHF-5-10 ‘Velo Vignette’ (bike sticker) ‘license’ but as well as being a registration scheme it was a way of getting cyclists to purchase third-party liability insurance. However, in March 2010, the Swiss parliament started to debate whether to abolish the licenses, and then did. Political bean-counters said the costs of the scheme far outstripped the revenue.

Lots of countries used to have bike-badge registration schemes: from Argentina to the Seychelles. In fact, the little tin badges are collectible, and can be found on eBay. The schemes were discontinued for the same reason dog licences were discontinued in the UK: administration of the schemes, such as the bicycle licensing by-law in Toronto (created in 1935, ditched in 1957 and suggested but rejected in 1984, 1992 and 1996), always costs way more than the income.

But, for sake of argument, if a bike registration scheme was introduced in a city, how much should cyclists pay? They don’t pollute, they don’t cause cities to gring to a halt so it could be argued cyclists ought to be paid by the city to cycle. OK, that’s not going to fly, so how about if cycle licensing costs $0?

That’s how much it costs in Milwaukee. Residents are required to obtain a license for each bike they own. The scheme is mostly a bicycle theft deterrent.

Despite having the most cyclists in Europe, neither the Netherlands nor Denmark have bicycle licensing schemes.

Er, like car registration plates, and motoring training and tests, stop motorists from speeding, talking on mobile phones and blowing through red lights?

The cyclists most likely to break traffic rules (rules designed to lessen the lethal potential of motorised vehicles and moderate the bad behaviour of motorists) are those most likely not to pay for bicycle licences and third-party insurance, or seek out cycle training. Young lads, for instance. And it’s young lads who, later in life, don’t buy car insurance either.

When he was mayor of London, Ken Livingstone said he would introduce bicycle operator licences for cyclists in the capital.

“I think I’m now persuaded we should actually say that bikes and their owners, should be registered," suggested the predecessor to Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan. "There should be a number plate on the back so that the ones breaking the law, we can get them off the cameras.”

Bicycles with number plates big enough to be read by traffic cameras? The idea was dropped.

If a pedestrian or driver spotted a youth doing something illegal on a number plated bike, what would the police do with that information? Likely, nothing. Because that’s what they do for pretty much all ‘minor’ highway infractions. Try this at home: ring the police and report a speeding car. Give the number plate, and say you saw the driver doing 40mph in a 30mph zone. What do you think the reaction would be?

Even with GATSO cameras it’s not a dead-cert that a speeding motorist will be nabbed. There’s lots of wriggle room, and plenty of lawyers happy to be paid to do the wriggling.

Go to the police with just a license plate number and expect short shrift: whether that plate is on a car or a bicycle. But why stop at cars and bicycles? Why not prams? Or horses? Or pedestrians?

To drive a car you must be licensed, must pass a test and, in the UK, be aged over 17 (the age is lower in the US). To ride a bike you merely have to balance. Children aren’t allowed to drive cars, but they are allowed to ride bikes for the simple reason that bicycles are not killing machines.

If a licensing system were brought in, would children have to have ‘child cycling licences’? At what age would the cut off be? 16, 8, 4? If children were exempt from licensing, would that stop them from using roads on their bicycles?

One of the reasons for Toronto not reinstigating its bicycle registration bylaw was the netting of children. The City said “licensing of bicycles [should] be discontinued because it often results in an unconscious contravention of the law at a very tender age; they also emphasize the resulting poor public relations between police officers and children.”

Motor vehicles are licensed because of the threat they pose to other road users. Motorists who drive recklessly can cause severe damage to property and people, yet, because of airbags and crumple zones, can climb out of their vehicle unscathed. Cyclists who ride recklessly risk, for the most part, only their own life and limb. Hit a car; risk death. Hit a pedestrian; risk serious injury. Cyclists pay rapt attention; self-preservation polices itself.

Many beginner cyclists lack basic skills, and their road sense leaves a lot to be desired. But cycling is a tough teacher: get it wrong on the road and you’re toast. Cyclists therefore have to get skilled quickly.

Training sessions would help in this regard and – with Bikeability – such sessions are more widely available than ever before. But it isn’t compulsory for motorists to take driving lessons: all they need do is pass a test. And just the one. For the rest of their life, that’s it.

OK, so why shouldn’t cyclists have to pass a test? Simple: cyclists do not operate heavy, powerful, fast, frequently-lethal machines. Cyclists, like pedestrians and equestrians, use the road by right of way; drivers use it under licence. Under licence because, unfettered, drivers are dangerous. Heck, even with loads of rules and regulations, drivers still cause the roads to be dangerous for other road users.

Restrictions on the rights of motorists have a long history because the danger posed by cars has a long history.

This is seemingly the most persuasive argument for bicycle licensing and bicycle taxes. If cyclists paid a bit of cash each year it would get motorists off their backs: they could say "but we do pay for taking away ‘your’ parking spaces for bike lanes."

Thing is, cyclists already do pay. Bicycle infrastructure in most countries is paid for by general and local taxation, which is paid by all, not just motorists.

Nevertheless, asking cyclists to pay a token amount – a pedalling peppercorn – is something that will come up for ever and a day. Being able to wave a piece of paper proving there’s been a payment is something some cyclists say they would welcome.

But “paying our way” with usage fees or taxes creates a pot of cash that, were it to be ringfenced for bicycle infrastructure, could become seen as the only pot of cash for cycling. The fund would never be big enough.

For instance, in Maine, USA, legislators wanted to impose a two percent surcharge on new bike sales. State lawmakers said in 2011 that proceeds from this new tax would go toward a Bikeway Construction Fund.

According to Nancy Grant, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, about 10,000 bikes are sold in the state each year. “If the average price of a bike is $400, the total funds collected would be $80,000. That would hardly cover the engineering and design costs of a typical bike/pedestrian project, much less the construction. Subtract the cost of administering this tax, and there’s even less,” she said at the time.

Jerry Porter, manager of the bike shop inside of Ski Rack Sports in Bangor, Maine, asked why the bill targetted just cyclists because bikeways are also used by runners, joggers with baby strollers and dog walkers, as well as others. “I don’t know why they’re targeting us,” he said. “We’re already paying taxes as it is.”

And, back in the UK, cyclists already pay some cash. The UK bicycle industry has a levy fund. It’s called Bike Hub: a tiny fraction of the money spent in bike shops goes into this fund and helps pay for pro-cycling programmes such as British Cycling’s Go-Ride scheme, the Bike Hub smartphone navigation apps, and Bike Week.

Paying for infrastructure is a whole different level of funding, and requires tax-payer’s cash: just as road building and maintenance requires tax-payer cash.

Ah, but what about if the ‘ring fencing’ was uncoupled from infrastructure-spend and, say, went on teaching programmes and the like? Sounds good in practice but legislators can do the funniest things and there’s never any guarantee their promises will be kept.


Making people register to use bicycles would mainly serve as a barrier to greater levels of cycling.

And this, deep down, is what many make-cyclists-pay proponents probably want. These sort of motorists want cyclists out of “their” way, off “their” roads. Cyclists are pesky and slow, goes the unthinking thinking. “They ride two or more abreast; they wear Lycra; they slow down legitimate – i.e. motorised – road traffic.”

When you hear a call for compulsory cycle training, bicycle licensing and bike taxes (“just pennies a day, why would you object to that?”) it’s not a call for fair-play, it’s a call to drive everywhere.

Those who want cyclists to be trained, registered, pay "skin-in-the-game" taxes, and apply for licences to cycle don’t want to share the road with lots of licensed, fee-paying, trained cyclists, they want fewer cyclists.

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