Why aren’t cyclists licensed?

Occasionally the issue of licensing cyclists and/or registering bicycles comes up in the media and from politicians.  Just like motorists should be required to be licensed, and just like motor vehicles are registered, so the argument goes, cyclists should be licensed and cyclists should have to purchase registration for their bicycles.  Upon examination, however, the arguments given for these proposals turn out to have little merit. Licensing as well as registration would be punitive, unlikley to be enforced or unenforceable, expensive to administer, unnecessary, and above all an additional barrier to cycling.

Arguments for cyclist licensing and bicycle registration

1. “But cyclists should pay their share!”

There is a common misconception that motorists pay for building and maintaining roads through user fees such as vehicle registration and licenses.  From this misconception the argument is then made that bicycle facilities like bike lanes should also be paid for by user fees.  In fact, however, the lion’s share of Calgary’s transportation budget comes not from user fees but from the City’s general fund, mainly property taxes—taxes practically everyone in the city pays, whether they cycle, walk, drive, or use transit. Vehicle registration and driver licensing fees, on the other hand, are collected by the province and spent on provincial highways; none of it comes to the city.  About $154 million are collected from passenger vehicle registrations a year in Alberta, but even this only covers less than 7% of the Province’s $2.5 billion transportation expenses.  Moreover, most cyclists are also licensed drivers and own cars—a cyclist licensing or bicycle registration fee would thus essentially be a punishment for choosing active transportation.

Roads are a public good. Like the Police Service, they should not only be paid for by people who use them, but by everyone (including cyclists)—and in fact they are. Cyclists pay much more than their fair share of road costs. In recent years, the City has only spent about $2.5 million a year for cycling infrastructure, about 0.4% of the total capital expenses for transportation. The 2011 Cycling Strategy calls for capital spending of $5 million a year for the next four years. That’s about 0.8% of all transportation capital expenditures, or roughly 1/2 of cylists’ “fair share” (assuming by a 1.5% commuting mode share). In terms of operating expenses, expenditures of approx. $2m for cyclists a year amount to less than 0.3% of the City’s expenses for roads, traffic, parking, and transit (2011 Annual Report). Less than 0.4% of Calgary’s 6,700 km of roads have bike lanes on them.

The majority of Calgarians are interested in cycling more, and the City’s transportation plan supports encouraging more active transportation. Recent research demonstrates the significant societal benefits of more people cycling: reduced traffic congestion, improved road safety for all road users, decreased noise and air pollution, and health, longevity, and productivity of cyclists in contrast to motorists. The “allocation of funds by existing user mode-share” model of funding is a recipe for perpetually static transportation system. If we hope to move beyond the status quo and improve the life of Calgarians by making cycling a viable transportation option, more resources need to be put into cycling, and we must avoid imposing additional barriers to cycling.

2. “Licensing will make cyclists more lawful.”

Another common misconception is that cyclists are more prone to break traffic laws, and that they would be more law-abiding and could (only) be ticketed if they were licensed and their bicycles registered. There is no evidence that cyclists as a group do violate traffic laws more often than other road users do. Moreover, Alberta’s current traffic laws already apply to cyclists and are enforced by Calgary Police and Bylaw Services—cyclists do get tickets! When police enforce traffic laws, they charge the cyclist, not the bicycle. Cyclists receive tickets for traffic violations in almost the same way that drivers do.

The purpose of licensing car drivers is to provide a mechanism to remove dangerous drivers from the road. If a car is used improperly or is not roadworthy, it poses serious threats to public safety. Bicycle users and bicycles do not pose the same threat to public safety, and do not need to be regulated in the same way (this is especially true when cyclists are provided with proper infrastructure).

Neither licensing nor registration are necessary in order for traffic laws to be enforced. Better education around cycling, for both cyclists and motorists, could achieve safer roads without creating a barrier to cycling as mandatory licensing would. In fact, practically no jurisdictions in Canada or the US currently require special licenses for cyclists.

3. “Bicycle registration will reduce theft.”

Licensing cyclists as individuals will do nothing to reduce theft. While a system for registering bicycles themselves would help reduce bicycle theft, it should not be mandatory. A mandatory bicycle registration system would introduce an unnecessary barrier to cycling which would be expensive to maintain. There are currently voluntary bicycle registration systems available to Canadian cyclists, such as Bike Revolution. A voluntary CPS supported bicycle registration system in Calgary would be welcomed by Bike Calgary.

Problems with mandatory bike registration:

1. Accessibility of Cycling

One of the benefits of cycling is that it is a mode of transportation accessible to all, whether young or old. Would children be licensed? If not, would they be prohibited from cycling until they were old enough to obtain a license? Cycling is an accessible and enjoyable way for Calgarians to get active- with mandatory registration or licensing, many would lose access to this.

2. Expense

Many other Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Ottawa, have already looked at registering cyclists. Licensing systems have been found, nearly universally, to create more costs than revenue. For instance, Ottawa estimated that a bicycle registration program would cost $100,000 a year but only bring in $40,000 in revenue. On top of being a barrier to more widespread cycling, a licensing or registration system would be a drain on the City’s financial resources.

3. Enforceability

In light of the plain fact that an unregistered bicycle or an unlicensed cyclist are not a significant danger to anyone, it is unlikely that Calgary Police or Bylaw Services will expend any resources to police licensing or registration. Indeed, they don’t do that for motorists, either: people aren’t randomly pulled over to check if their “papers are in order”. But an unenforced law, especially if it is associated with a significant cost, will just not be followed.

4. Jurisdiction

Driver licensing and vehicle registration are a provincial responsibility, and the Alberta Traffic Safety Act does not give municipalities the right to introduce licensing schemes for road users. It is unlikely that the City of Calgary has the legal authority to mandate cyclist licenses.

1935 (Repealed in 1957) Major reasons why licensing has been rejected:

  • The difficulty in keeping a database complete and current
  • The difficulty in licensing children, given that they ride bikes too
  • Licensing in and of itself does not change the behaviour of cyclists who may disobey traffic laws
One of the reasons for Toronto not reinstating its bicycle licensing 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.”
OTTAWA 2011 N/A A committee of bylaw officials from the former municipalities decided a bicycle licensing system would cost too much to run and have little impact to the costs of stolen bicycle investigations. At the time, staff estimated the licensing system would cost at least $100,000 annually but only generate up to $40,000 in revenue each year.
REGINA Regina has a bicycle licensing bylaw on the books, but in practice it is not enforced; the system has been handed off to a community association, which operates it like a voluntary registry.
CALGARY 2003 When a new pet registration scheme wasimplemented in Calgary, Calgary Parks and Animal and Bylaw Services investigated the possibility of raising funds for pathway operations through a similar bicycle registration scheme. It was found that admininstrative expenses were prohibitive. The initiative was dropped.
3/1/2010 Implemented, but revoked 15 days later
* 2% surcharge idea scrapped March 2011 *N/A Maine proposed a 2% surcharge on new bike sales, proceeds intended to go towards a Bikeway Construction Fund.
According to the Bicycle Coalition’s Grant, 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,” Grant said.
Registration is no longer required or available through a state program in Minnesota. The Minneapolis City Council made the registry optional and as a result, participation in fell off. The program was run by the Dept. of Public Safety.

The administrative costs were more than the revenue generated, so the state abandoned the program. After administrative costs were paid for, excess revenue was to be spent on infrastructure.

Minnesota had the only state-wide bicycle registration system in the US. State law does not currently require all bicycles in Minnesota to be registered. Registration is voluntary, however cities or counties may make the state registration mandatory in their communities by passing a local ordinance. The state system is the only bicycle registration allowed under Minnesota law.
Mar 2010 Tucson City Council voted to investigate requiring Tucson cyclists to register their bikes and pay a $10 per-bicycle licensing fee.
According to the proposal document, the licensing program would actually cost the city money.“Bicycle licensing programs have been considered by Tucson Pima County Bicycle Advisory Committee and the Tucson Department of Transportation. The cost of such programs have been found to exceed potential revenues for the price that the market would bear for the license.”

Matt Zoll, the Pima County Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator and long time member of the Tucson Pima County Bicycle Advisory Committee, said in the last 20 years the TPCBAC had done some research on bike registrations. He said most places discontinued their registration programs because they couldn’t pay for themselves.

SWITZERLAND (Nationally, not by municipality) 2010 (Repealed 2012) CHF5-10 bicycle tax/license, which provides 3rd party insurance coverage for riders. The administrative costs of the license, which is obligatory in Switzerland, outstrip the revenue.

Licenses no longer required as of 1-Jan-2012, but RC insurance is required ( responsabilité civile, or general third-party insurance coverage, not specific or limited to bicycles. The insurance covers damage caused to another person or property and includes accidents such as footballs kicked through neighbours’ windows and more serious and expensive injuries caused to other people.)