More thoughts on bicycle licensing

Yesterday, another columnist decided to suggest that Toronto should revisit bicycle licensing. Blogger Robert Kirsic suggests that a licensing fee of $200 for individuals and $500 for bicycle-servicing businesses would improve safety and compliance, and promote Toronto as a bike-friendly city. Do we really need to open this debate again? Alright, here goes.

First of all, the suggested fee is ridiculous. Most of the cyclists on the streets of Toronto are riding beater bikes for a variety of reasons, from poor road maintenance to high levels of theft. A fee of $200 is more than what the vast majority of commuter and recreational bicycles are worth in this city, and nearly double what it costs to register a personal vehicle worth hundreds of times more. That is just asking for non-compliance.

Although Kirsic doesn’t say how often a license would have to be renewed, he does suggest that cyclists should have to pass a skills test every two years. Currently in Ontario, drivers of G-class vehicles pay a fee of $75 to renew their licenses every FIVE years. Furthermore, after an initial series of skills tests to obtain the G-class license, drivers are not required to re-test until the age of 80, unless their license is revoked. Generally licenses are not revoked except for the most serious of offences, or for repeated minor offences, although failure to pay the renewal fee can lead to license cancellation. Considering that another common reason to choose cycling over driving is cost, does Kirsic mean to suggest that a cyclist without the means to pay the registration fee should be denied the privilege of cycling in this city? To suggest that cyclists should be tested so much more rigorously than vehicle drivers is absurd.

Kirsic admits that the issue of licensing young children is a problem, and suggests that only those over the age of 16 should be required to pass the skills test and pay the registration fee. While I have no stats to back this up, I would guess that the majority of us learned to ride a bike at a very young age. I was three or four when my dad taught me. In middle-class North America, it is a rite of passage both as a child to learn and as a parent to teach. Why should those of us that have been riding for a decade or more be arbitrarily required to demonstrate proficiency, just because we reach a certain age?

Bicycle licensing is an issue often brought up as a way to improve cycling, by people on both sides of the argument. Rationales differ, but generally proponents of licensing argue that a license would make a cyclist more accountable and responsible for their actions, and for violating the rules of the road. Proponents either aren’t aware or choose to ignore the fact that cyclists can already be charged for Highway Traffic Act violations. City police in Toronto can and do enforce these laws with education campaigns and blitzes, the same way that they enforce the laws on vehicle drivers. Adding another layer of licensing bureaucracy is not going to improve this situation at all. It will just cost more money.

Another argument often cited by proponents of bicycle licensing is that cyclists do not pay their fair share of the costs of installing and maintaining bicycle infrastructure. This is just simply not true. Road maintenance is funded primarily by property taxes, which we all pay one way or another. Granted, some revenue for transportation services also comes from fuel taxes and the Personal Vehicle Tax, taxes which are borne solely by drivers. However, consider that a typical car outweighs a typical bicycle by a factor of 100, and takes up 2-3x the road space (not to mention fuel regulation & delivery infrastructure, and other things). Could you say that an automobile costs 100x more than a bicycle in terms of road deterioration? At the moment I can’t locate any studies to back up these numbers, but basic math and common sense seem to indicate that an automobile costs much more in maintenance than a bicycle. Considering that vehicle registration fees are not hundreds of times more than proposed bicycle license fees, it’s actually cyclists who are getting far less value for their tax dollars.

One more argument (or incentive, maybe) in favour of licensing is that creating a database of licensed bicycle serial numbers will deter theft, or allow stolen bicycles to be identified and recovered. In fact, the Toronto Police Service already offers this service free of charge. Here, the anti-theft licensing argument is a moot point.

So does this issue come back to “war on cars/war on bikes” mentality? This issue is not about which side “wins”. It’s not about causing more conflicts between drivers and cyclists, in fact pretty much the whole point of pro-cycling advocacy in this city is to reduce such conflicts. I just want to share the road and be safe. It’s true that there are some fools out there riding on sidewalks, passing streetcars, running red lights and doing all sorts of rude and ignorant things on the road. Trust me, they’re as much a problem for cyclists as they are for pedestrians and drivers. And trying to force a license on people who already don’t want to play by the rules will be a futile waste of time and money.

Here is some more good reading on the subject of bicycle licensing:

About Greg Burrell

Greg is an accountant, cyclist and political observer living in Toronto, Canada with too many cats.
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  • Excellent post, Greg. You should it in to the columnist/paper to knock some sense into them.

    • “send” it in was the word missing in that sentence.

  • I get a kick out of the $200 fee plus every two year skills testing. You’d swear cyclists are killing and injuring thousands of people each year.

    In my own personal experience, licensing is brought up by those who are against bicycles. Nothing more nothing less. They don’t have any interest in making roads safer.

    As for fuel taxes that go towards roads — isn’t most of that directed at highways which cyclists aren’t allowed on? Property taxes generally go towards municipal roads.

    I’m not crazy about the database of serial numbers either. I find bike frames in the garbage often and will fix them up for myself (or occasionally sell). If I’m pulled over and didn’t bother to register another bike and it still has the previous owner in the database, I’d be charged with theft.

    +1 for the top link on the history of bicycle licensing in Toronto. My Dad grew up in Toronto (Etobicoke actually) and he never knew anyone that rode a bike and was licensed.
    He looked it up (found the top link) and was surprised it was ever in place.