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By Kristen Steele
The bicycle is such a simple invention and extension of human mobility that even my two-year-old enjoys the thrill of wheeling around on his Radio Flyer bike. This may be why, for many of us, the mention of requiring bicycles to be licensed or registered with the government raises hairs on our arms. It just instinctively feels wrong, like requiring pedestrians to register shoes, or roller-skates and scooters to don tags. But as cycling becomes more widespread, inevitable conflicts arise between road users, and some people are quick to propose legislative solutions.
Licensing and registration are two different issues in theory, though the terms are most often used to mean the same thing: a way to link a bicycle to a person. Bicycle registration is just that, linking a bicycle to a person in a database. While the major arguments for bicycle registration are that it helps recover stolen bicycles and generates new money for bike programs, registration programs almost always cost more to administer than the revenues they generate. And, since private bicycle registration services – such as the National Bicycle Registry – are available for cheap, many cities have discontinued mandatory registration in favor of optional programs.
Bicyclist licensing applies to cyclists as drivers licenses apply to motorists. Although some proposals to license bicyclists have been motivated by a desire to train cyclists on the rules of the road, I was hard-pressed to find a North American city that has seriously considered bicycle licensing with a mandatory education/test requirement. Where bicycle “licensing” does exist in North America, it is generally referring to a bicycle registration program.
Wherever the idea of actually licensing cyclists has been verbalized, it has died quickly. One reason is that licensing relates very little to education. Consider drivers licenses. After the initial license is issued, a renewal license – 10, 20 or 30 years later – only requires a small fee and testing to ensure you’re not blind. And, the main reason for licensing drivers – to keep people off the road who pose a threat to others – isn’t as applicable to cyclists. While a 3,000-pound (1,361-kilogram) car can be a deadly weapon, most cyclists who make mistakes on the road are only putting their own lives at risk.
Over the years, mandatory bicycle registration has existed and been repealed, or proposed and shot down, in places such as Portland, Toronto, Detroit, Tucson, Los Angeles, Seattle and New York City. Why? The resulting laws:
* Cost more to administer than they generate in revenue;
* Open the door to police harassment of bicyclists;
* Deter some people from cycling;
* Do not improve cycling safety; other efforts are more effective at educating cyclists and motorists on how to share the road.
These precedents are useful to consider when the idea of registering bicycles creeps up. Last year in Philadelphia, PA, after a couple of high-profile accidents where cyclists were found to be at fault, two city council members proposed legislation that would mandate bicycle registration. According to Sarah Stuart of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, “The negative reaction to the bills was overwhelming. The pushback that the councilmen who introduced the legislation received was dramatic and much more than either expected. They were pilloried in the press and blogosphere.” Stuart reports that things have since cooled off and the proposals have been put on hold.
Alfred Whitney Griswold said, “The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.” Campaigns and programs that promote cycling and bicycle safety are always better ideas than those that criminalize cycling.
Kristen Steele works for the Alliance for Biking and Walking, the North American coalition of over 160 bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations.
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