Monday, April 9

License to Pedal

Last week the subject of licensing bicycles came up in conversation. I can't remember if I've ever really broached the subject on the Pavement's Edge, and because I'm too lazy to read back through four years of posts to find out, I'm just going to tackle it full-on.

The arguments for compulsory bicycle licensing are few, and dubious. One is that there would be an increase in accountability for scofflaw cyclists. Motorists could report cyclists that flaunt the law. Assuming motorists could see a bicycle-sized license plate and as a whole would not abuse the ability to report infractions there would be some tool in place to track down and penalize those that break the law.

A second, and more dubious on an order of magnitude, argument is that the increased revenue from the licensing fees could offset the costs associated with "accommodating" cyclists.

I think these two general arguments are a good place to start. There are so many factors and issues that I could go far on into the night rambling about them. I'll spare you the brain damage.

Let's look at accountability. Sure, if you had a license plate attached to the rear of your bike and you blew through a four way stop, or, heaven-forbid, caused an accident then witnesses could call the law enforcement authorities and give an accurate report, and you would presumably be held accountable.

There are a few problems with that scenario. How big would a license plate or decal have to be for a witness in a motor vehicle or on the side of the road be able to make out any information? You could not impose upon cyclists a license plate sized for a motor vehicle. A reduced scale plate wouldn't be effectively visible at any measurable distance, and if a cyclist were traveling at a high rate of speed the plate would be a blur up close. Of course, a witness could follow a cyclist until such time as they could read the plate clearly, but that opens up many other issues. Where on a bicycle would a plate have to be mounted? A non-cyclist would probably just point to the rear of the saddle. But that effectively takes away the only viable place for the underseat bag for tools and spare tubes on bikes with no panniers and is the best place for a rear light if the bike has no fenders. Where else on a bike could you place a license plate? Sticking out perpendicular from the seat stays?

And then let's assume someone could read the license plate on your bicycle. The witness reports that you blasted through a controlled intersection. What do the local authorities do? What would they do if you were in a motor vehicle? Of course that answer will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but the reality is that most likely nothing will be done unless the action resulted in an accident or incident, unless there was a mandate to crack down on so-called scofflaw cyclists, in which case there may not be equitable treatment between motorists and cyclists.

I'll get back to that, but before I do, let's go back to the idea of licensing bicycles as a way to generate revenue for a municipality. Let's assume there are two types of adult cyclists: utilitarian and recreational. For the strict utilitarian, carless cyclist, the fee to license a bicycle might actually be reasonable. Unless...the individual has chosen the bicycle because they are too poor to afford the associated costs of driving a car. The fees would have to reflect a vehicle that is of less value and impact upon the infrastructure. Let's face it, assessing the same fees for bicycles as for automobiles is a drastic inequality. But for the recreational cyclist, those that may only ride on the weekends or infrequently at best, the reality of licensing and additional fees may encourage them not to ride a bike at all.

Revenues generated by the licensing of bicycles would hardly cover the administrative costs of managing the system. And if the fees were substantial enough to cover the costs and generate revenue on top of that then it follows that there would be a high instance of non-compliance.

I think the onerous nature of implementing and enforcing such a program is why you see so few such programs in existence.

From a personal standpoint, I would be very reluctant to willingly comply with bicycle licensing unless there were some guarantee that the enforcing jurisdiction would crack down on anti-cycling behavior and would do everything in it's power and more to reduce the marginalization of bicycles on the roadways. And I don't think that's ever going to happen.

While I believe cyclists should be accountable, and should obey all traffic laws, I also believe there is a huge lack of equitable treatment between cyclists and motorists. Scofflaw cyclists get a disproportionate amount of press while a vast majority of scofflaw motorists are ignored and legitimized through a lack of enforcement.

The reality is that cyclists are accountable under our current system of laws. There are laws and consequences that directly apply to the scofflaw cyclist. If stopped by a law enforcement officer, the nefarious two-wheeled menaces can be fined and can have points taken from their automobile drivers' licenses. Those without drivers licenses can also be penalized and are still accountable under the law.

Given the practical constraints of a bicycle licensing system I think the wise course of action would be to allow the current system to work. It seems to be working fine for motorists, and in most cases favoring them.


...for long hiatus between posts. Last week was jam-packed with all kinds of work related fun, the best of which being my day and a half sitting in a Bicycle Facility Design Class hosted by CDOT. I say that in complete seriousness. It was an awesome class. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have already been using the new lens I have acquired to view, not only cycling facilities, but transportation facilities in general. Wow, never thought I'd say this (because of a distinct math disability) but I might actually like being an engineer.

The instructor was a planner/engineer and he did a wonderful job of speaking both languages.

Ah, and then over the weekend I waded into a shed-building project and came out stiff and sore, but with 75% of a shed complete.

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