The UK’s Department for Transport is pretty good on registration for cyclists: the standard reply is along the lines of “if we required cyclists to be registered and carry number plates we’d have to do the same for pedestrians.” Drivers of cars and HGVs and vans require licenses and identification plates because they are no longer benign road users: strap on an engine and you become a potential danger. Road users without engines pose little risk to others. However, some motorists feel cyclists should be regulated because “they’re all tax-dodgers”. And the “you don’t pay road tax” gibe is just one of many arguments used against cyclists by some motorists. Another is “you all ride through red lights” and “you all ride on pavements.” Now, a simple tit-for-tat response would be to reply that motorists routinely drive through stop-lights on red; and the motorists’ habit of parking on footways is now so commonplace it’s seen as perfectly legal. However, two wrongs don’t make a right and, while the social identity theory will always mean the “out” group is demonised by the “in” group there’s little point in dwelling on this so how about examining some of the arguments about compulsory registration, compulsory training and testing, a “bicycle tax”, and compulsory licensing for bicycles?
Calls for bicycle licensing are frequently voiced. It’s official policy for the UK Independence Party, which wants all bikes to carry ‘Cyclediscs’ to prove riders have insurance “to cover damage to cars” and which would “deter dangerous cyclist behaviour.” (You know, like licenses and number plates make all motorists drive below speed limits). UKIP also wants cyclists to be forced to dismount when there are signs saying so.
But there are calls for licensing from friendly quarters, too. For instance, a graphic in the extensive ‘cycle safe’ campaign in The Times, in February 2012, seemed to suggest that bicycle licensing would be a requirement if cyclists ever wanted to be shown “consideration” on the roads. Such a concept may be attractive to legislators seeking easy and cheap “solutions” but is bicycle licensing worth the expense, and would it work? And do calls for bicycle licensing – and cyclist testing – reflect a genuine desire to improve road safety or is it a means for the motorised majority to reduce cycling levels with regulations?
THEY DO IT IN OTHER COUNTRIES
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 as an anti-theft measure). 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 specialist websites and 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.
Jersey was looking into registration of cyclists but as the Deputy of the States – Jersey’s parliament – made a major gaffe in his submission, the idea never got off the ground.
In July 2011, councillor Monette of Ottawa asked the City Operations team to evaluate whether it would be worth creating a bicycle licensing scheme. In January 2012, the answer came back no and non.
The City Operations team said:
Given limited benefits and significant challenges, and primarily based on the fact that bicycle licensing would act as a significant barrier to cycling, it is recommended that bicycle licensing not be implemented in the City of Ottawa
But, for sake of argument, if a bike registration scheme was introduced in a city, how much should cyclists pay? It could be argued cyclists ought to be paid by the state 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 appears to be mostly a deterrent to bicycle theft, similar to the voluntary bicycle registration schemes in the UK such as BikeRegister.com.
“There’s no licensing here. I’ve heard from city officials in a number of cities that they have worked out the cost of a bike licensing scheme and none of them have found it cost efficient. Toronto was one of the cities.”
Marc van Woudenberg of Amsterdamize.com said:
“No licensing scheme here. I did a bit of research with cycle organisations Fietsberaad and Fietsersbond on whether it has ever been suggested in the past, but couldn’t find any reference.”
The argument “they do it in other countries” doesn’t hold water: other countries in Europe have ‘strict liability’, the insurance concept that, in a small way, helps to protect cyclists and pedestrians, but the UK has chosen not to opt in to this (and the mainstream press can be whipped up into a frenzy of hate when the idea is broached).
You know who really liked bicycle registration schemes? The Nazis during World War Two. The bicycle on the left is a French semi-recumbent and features a WWII bicycle number plate, as required by the occupying army. (The bicycle belongs to the Embacher collection and is a screengrab from the wonderful Cyclepedia iPad app).
The Nazis liked bicycle registration? Not according to the very funny Downfall spoof below:
IF BIKES HAD NUMBER PLATES, CYCLISTS WOULD BE SCOFFLAWS NO MORE
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, it has to be said, designed to lessen the lethal potential of motorised vehicles and moderate the bad behaviour of motorists) are those most likely not to wander into the Post Office for bicycle licences and third-party insurance, or seek out cycle training.
[Young lads, for instance. And it's young lads who don't buy car insurance either. According to the Motor Insurers' Bureau, of the 1.2 million drivers aged 17-20, a whopping 243,000 (20 percent) are believed to be driving without insurance.]
When he was still mayor, Ken Livingstone said he would introduce bicycle operator licences for London cyclists.
“I think I’m now persuaded we should actually say that bikes and their owners, should be registered. 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?
MOTOR VEHICLES ARE LICENSED FOR GOOD REASON
To drive a car in the UK you must be licensed, must pass a test and be 17 or over. 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. No-one in their right mind would allow an eight year old to drive a car on the public highway, but children, quite rightly, are allowed to ride bicycles on the public highway.
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 preclude them from using roads on their bicycles? It’s already happening: in the name of safety, a school in Watford has linked up with the police to create ‘bike passports’ for pedalling pupils.
“Any pupil who fails to meet…conditions will not get a bike passport and will not be allowed to cycle to school.”
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 attention; self-preservation polices itself.
BEFORE A LICENCE IS GRANTED, CYCLISTS WOULD NEED TO SIT A TEST
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.
In 1998, 904 pedestrians and cyclists in the UK were killed by motor vehicles; two were killed by bikes. In 2001, 825 people were killed by motor vehicles; none by bikes. In 2004, 669 by cars; one by bike. The highest level of deaths was in 1999 when five pedestrians were killed by bikes. In same year, 863 were killed by cars. Yes, there’s a very good reason why motorised vehicles are licensed, and bicycle aren’t. (And, of those deaths caused by cyclists, only about one every four years is of a pedestrian struck on a footway; most of the rest of the time it’s pedestrians hit by cyclists on the road and, as every bike rider knows, pedestrians seem not to realise getting hit by a cyclist is gonna hurt).
Restrictions on the rights of motorists have a long history because the danger posed by cars has a long history.
PAY TO GET ‘SEAT AT THE TABLE’
This is probably the most persuasive argument for bicycle licensing and bicycle taxes. If cyclists paid a bit of cash each year it would get motorists off our backs: we could say ‘but we do pay for taking away ‘your’ parking spaces for bike lanes.’
Thing is, we already do pay. Bicycle infrastructure is paid for by general and local taxation, not ‘road’ tax. Motorists may feel they get no benefit from bicycle infrastructure they wrongly assume they’ve paid for via ‘road’ tax but there are lots of examples of tax payers’ money going on amenities only a portion of the community will benefit from. Schools, for instance. Child-less tax-payers pay for facilities they’ll never use. Hospitals: stay healthy and you’ll never get the benefits from your tax money. Motorways: cyclists aren’t allowed on them, but adult cyclist tax-payers still pay for them.
Nevertheless, asking cyclists to pay a token amount – a pedalling peppercorn – is something that will come up time and time again. Being able to wave a piece of paper proving there’s been a payment is something many cyclists would welcome. On another story on iPayRoadTax.com, ‘Neilwheel’ writes:
“I cycle a lot on the canals. Come summer, hardly a ride goes past without someone coming out with the ‘cyclists don’t have any right to be on the towpath’ line. But up my sleeve I’ve got a British Waterways Cycle Permit. Most people have never heard of, let alone seen, a canals bike permit. It’s an instant shutter-upper.
“A Band A tax discs for bikes would have the same effect. Rather than save the government money, the scheme should be argued for. Plus you have a National Cycle Register at no extra charge. Call for the ‘disc’ to be an embedded chip and you’ve also got an theft deterrent.
“Play them at their own game, that’s what I say.”
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 want to impose a 2 percent surcharge on new bike sales. State lawmakers say proceeds from this new tax, mooted in March 2011, 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.
Jerry Porter, manager of the bike shop inside of Ski Rack Sports in Bangor, Maine, asked why the bill targets 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 cycling-to-school initiative Bike It, 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 programs 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. The key thing to get across here is that ‘car tax’ is not a user fee, it’s a tax on cars. Nobody pays user fees to use roads, exempt for some bridges and the M5 motorway toll. As bicycles attract VAT, they already contribute to the national purse.
A common argument for a ‘bicycle tax’ is that it’ll get motorists off our backs. No, it won’t, those who wish to complain about cyclists aren’t really fussed about what we pay – many think we’re all paupers! – they just want us to get the hell out of their way. No amount of bike tax payments will appease these folks.
So, via VAT – and things like the Bike Hub levy – cyclists already do pay taxes. And, via income tax and council tax, cyclists also pay for roads, bike paths, hospitals, the defence budget etc etc.
OK, CYCLISTS WILL PAY, BUT HOW MUCH?
Not a lot. About 1/5000th of what a motorist pays for the emissions tax that is vehicle excise duty. About 3p a year.
Here’s why, thanks to James Valencia over on a silly poll on the Daily Mail (amazingly, it’s actually The Guardian).
The fair tax payable would be so ridiculously low compared to car tax.
DISTANCE: A typical habitual bicycle user might to about 2000km per year for an average 10km daily ride on working days excluding holidays. The car equivalent would be 10000 to 20000 based on typical stats., so let’s cut it in half (15000km/annum) to be generous and call it 7.5 times more distance covered. Alright, let’s be even kinder to the car and round it off to a factor of five: The average car covers five times more kilometres than the bike.
FORCE: The car surface/area is about 140mmx 50mm x 4 wheels weight about 1500Kg. The bike equivalent is 20 x 10mmx 2 wheels, for weight about 80Kg including average rider. The ratio of force exerted by the car and by the bike is the ratio of the product of surface and weight (proportional to the force). That gives you a force exterted by the car on the road 1312 times greater than the bike. Let’s call it a thousand since this is a gross approximation. So, the product of distance travelled and force exterted is (1000 newtons relative) x 15000km for the motor, and (1 newton relative) x 2000km for the bike.
Though as I said, we were kind to the car and rounded this down to five times the distance for the car, at a thousand times the force exerted on the road per kilometre.
All in all, this means (multiply the two) that the average car wears down the road five thousand times more than the average bike.
Then, one should consider the extra road furniture and general expense that cars require, and which bikes do not.
But continuing our exceptional niceness to cars, let’s ignore all that and say that bikes should pay just as cars do, and charge them the absolute maximum possible, which is in proportion to how much they wear out the roads, with no consideration given to other road services. The bikes should, in this case, pay one five thousandth of what the car pays. In my case (my car is cheap), this is 3p per year.
FORGET LICENCES, WE NEED RECOGNITION IN LAW
Bicycling’s Bob Mionske feels that calls for licensing of cyclists and the erosion of our rights to the road “are vindictive in nature, and rooted in a deep-seated desire to remove us from the roads.” He wants recognition for cyclists:
First, policies that promote the safe integration and expansion of cycling into our transportation infrastructure must not only be adopted, they must also be implemented. Second, traffic laws should be sensible, actually recognizing and reflecting that the needs of cyclists are different from the needs of motorists. Third, the traffic laws need to be enforced, by officers who actually understand the laws they are enforcing, with attention shifted away from petty violations, and focused instead on the most dangerous violations. Finally, when cyclists are injured or killed by negligent drivers, the statutes, and enforcement, should reflect the seriousness of the incident, with law enforcement attention directed to the behavior that actually caused the harm.
LICENSING CYCLISTS WILL LEAD TO FEWER CYCLISTS
Perhaps that’s the actual goal of those who want compulsory cycle training, registration and licensing schemes? But cycling ought to be encouraged, not stifled. Cycling is clean, quiet and green. It’s healthier than sitting in a car. More cyclists equals less urban congestion.
MORE CONS THAN PROS
A national bicycle registration and cyclist licensing scheme would cost a lot more to run than it would bring in; and would fail to prevent traffic law transgressions. (The gert big numbers on the side of Boris Bikes in London have not been used to report naughty Cycle Hire scheme riders).
In the UK, the Government has shown it is not minded to make cyclists register before hopping on their bikes. In 2006, Lord Davies of Oldham said:
The Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 provides for the registration of mechanically propelled vehicles so it would not be possible to register bicycles or cyclists under that Act. To enable the Government to administer the registration of cyclists, changes in legislation would have to be considered along with extensive changes to computer systems.
There are more than 20 million bicycles in Great Britain—many of which change owners frequently—and one in three adults owns a bicycle. To register them would entail the establishment of a system parallel to that presently existing for motor vehicles.
The cost of such a system would, in the Department for Transport’s view, outweigh any possible benefits and so we do not propose to take this idea forward.
Making people register to use bicycles would mainly serve as a barrier to greater levels of cycling.
And this, deep down, is what many motorists probably want. They want us 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 – ie motorised – road traffic.
Those who want cyclists to be registered, want them to display their registration details on big number plates. They may also want bikes to carry signal indicators. Maybe another two wheels would be good, too. And an engine. Oh, hang on, that’s a car.
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 ‘road tax’ and a bike tax, and apply for licences to cycle don’t want to share the road with lots of licensed, fee-paying, trained cyclists, they want less cyclists full-stop. The ‘no pay, no say’ crowd would use any payment as a “but you don’t pay enough” argument.
NOW FOR SOME LIGHT RELIEF…
Suggesting that cyclists to pay ‘road tax – which, in the UK, is an emissions-based tax and for which cyclists would pay the same as Band A motorcars, i.e. £0 – is as ludicrous as asking pedestrians to pay a ‘pavement tax’. Just as it’s not cyclists wrecking the roads, it’s not pedestrians cracking pavement slabs. In both cases it’s motorists.
Pedestrians will be issued with a sandwich board fitted front and back with a number plate, so they can tracked when they cause accidents. There will, of course, be space on the boards for advertising of the governments choosing in order to keep the costs down for the pedestrian.
Pedestrians will have to have liability insurance cover of three million pounds before they can legally take to the streets. Government statistics have shown that pedestrian accidents cause millions of pounds worth of damage to expensive vehicles every year.
In 2009, Dr Ian Walker wrote a great piece about ‘pedestrian tax’ and license plates for pedestrians:
If pedestrians want to walk on our streets, which we pay for with all our driving taxes, then they need to pay their share and take their part of the responsibility. Anybody who walks anywhere should undergo training, should have to pay an annual tax towards the facilities they enjoy, should display a license plate so they can be identified, and should each be made to carry insurance in case they are ever involved in any accidents.