Legislating cycling: for the good of cyclists or a form of punishment?
Photo of errant cyclists by Tino.
Even in the obscure corners that this blog occupies, we hear people enthusiastic about legislating cycling. Writing this post really feels like beating a dead horse long after its been buried and then exhumed and then beaten again. A small segment of the population remains enthusiastic about legislating cyclists and/or bicycles, so I feel a strong need to cover this territory again.
Toronto has studied the issue of mandatory licensing for cyclists a few times already. Each time the city's staff have studied the issue and come to the conclusion that it would be difficult to implement; and won't meet the assumed goals. The proponents aren't even clear on the means, whether it be licensing for cyclists or registration fees for bicycles or both, so the report has had to make guesses about the intentions and means.
What is the purpose of legislating cyclists? How is helping anyone? Let's look at the stated goals and see if they justify the means.
Make cyclists pay their fair share
This fringe also considers cyclists as "freeloaders" who are taking up road space paid for by the drivers. Former mayoral candidate Mammoliti promised to implement a bicycle fee to help ensure that cyclists paid their "fair share". Without an ounce of research they come to the conclusion that drivers pay for the streets through the licenses (complete nonsense) and that therefore cyclists should pay through a bike registration fee. It matters not a whit to them that city streets are paid through our property taxes regardless of the mode of transportation used. Nor does it matter to them the burden placed on society through air pollution, climate change, health care costs brought on by car-bound sedentary lifestyles, sprawl and so on.
Aside from the considerable evidence that cyclists pay more than their fair share, a license or registration fee would not produce much profit. Instead it would merely create its own perpetual motion money machine. The City report pointed out that the cost of obtaining a license to drive a motor vehicle is considerable, much the fee goes simply towards the administration of the system. If cyclists were required to get a license it could likely be more than the cost of their bicycle.
A license for cyclists would just create a bureaucratic black hole. No one would be happy with this result, except for the staff hired to stamp the licenses.
If cyclists have a license, or a license plate, then the police can enforce traffic laws, or so is the claim of proponents. The argument, however, doesn't stand. Police already have the tools for enforcement but often choose to focus on bigger crimes. Any cyclist can be stopped and fined for contravening the Highway Traffic Act. City staff pointed out that the police have limited resources and asked "Do we want them checking up on and enforcing licenses, or do we want them enforcing traffic laws?" Still one must give some benefit of the doubt when even the former Toronto Cycling Committee chair, Adrian Heaps, doesn't know that enforcement is possible without licenses: "Cyclists should be obeying the rules of the road. They should be subject to moving violations just like everyone else,"
Prevent bike theft
The fuzzy idea here is that a license on a bicycle would help prevent bike theft. Well, bicycles already have serial numbers stamped into the frame and cyclists can register their bikes for free. It's unclear how having to attach a removable license plate would reduce bike theft. In fact, it probably doesn't help at all.
Increase education of cyclists
This is an enticing idea, that requiring a license would increase the skill of cyclists and thus increasing their safety on the streets. Surely this is a noble goal. But even here the means fails in terms of practicality and fairness.
First, just who is required to get a license? What about children? Do we ban them from the roadway until they are old enough to pass an exam? What about recreational cyclists? "Sorry, I'd love to go for a bike ride this Sunday but my license expired last year." What about the occasional BIXI user? Forget it. All those people who might be enticed into using BIXI for a part of their journey just won't. What about people crossing municipal boundaries? Tourists aren't going to come with a license. Commuters from the 905 won't have one. What about recent immigrants? The poor? Through such legislation you are effectively making one of the last really cheap forms of transportation illegal. Something that is so accessible to these groups would become inaccessible and force them into paying for public transit or force them to pay large amounts for the privilege of riding a bike.
Second, given that administration eats up much of the cost of licensing, it doesn't really seem like a cost effective education system. Cyclists will have to first fork over the registration fee and then also pay someone to give them lessons. If education was really the goal isn't a more direct route to just include it in our education system? And if they got educated in school, why bother with a license since they'll already know how to cycle safely?
Does anybody license cyclists?
I could find no jurisdiction that has ever attempted to license cyclists. This in itself provides a strong clue that it is unfeasible and pointless. As for putting licenses on bicycles - or registering bicycles for a fee - smattering of jurisdictions have attempted this as listed by the Toronto Star. Toronto itself had a bicycle license law which was repeated in 1957. Most of them have abandoned mandatory bicycle licensing since it is so much work to administer and police have better things to do than to see if some kid has registered their bike.
Given the single-mindedness of the licensing proponents, despite the overwhelming problems, one might conclude that the real agenda here is punishment of cycling scofflaws. No one is saying this explicitly but it's no secret that the proposals for legislating cyclists are coming most strongly from the contingent on the right who just don't like cyclists. Well, if you were part of this group then you probably see licensing as just punishment for uppity cyclists. Best to put them in their place. There is no making sense with this group - they hate cyclists and want them gone. I'm just not sure why they haven't propose licensing schemes for pedestrians, skateboarders and rollerbladers.
As for the other minor group, the hardcore, vehicular cyclists who are also calling for licenses, I can only appeal to reason. Licensing is quite expensive and will produce the desired results of education at a much higher societal cost than just putting the money towards incorporating cycling into public education. It will end up excluding large numbers of people. Gone are the recreational cyclists, the poor, the recent immigrants, the BIXI users and the tourists.
The one thing that is similar between the anti-bike brigade and the vehicular cycling enthusiasts is that they both have a lot of contempt for the average cyclist and hold this view of them as scofflaws incapable of following any rules of the road. This an image perpetuated by the media. It's unfair and false. The average cyclist is boring in how they play it safe: stopping at red lights, wearing a helmet, riding on the right side of the road and so on. They're not perfect but it hardly seems reasonable to come down heavy on them.
We have to ask ourselves, if not punishment, why would we even consider this? The communal cost of legislating cycling will end up much higher than any supposed gain.