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Why Bicycle Licensing (Almost) Never Works

The idea is almost always a money-losing, ineffective mess. Only Honolulu manages to register lots of bikes—and brings in a lot of revenue in the process.

Photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune

Another Chicago campaign season, another proposal to enforce mandatory bike licenses. This time, it’s the incumbent and challenger in the 43rd Ward runoff, Paul Biasco reports in DNAInfo:

The moderator of the debate last week, Kenneth Dotson, president of the Lincoln Central Association, asked, “Do you support a requirement where bicycles [would] be licensed?

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said licensing could be the answer to making biking safer in the city.

“Implementing safe bicycling is something we have toiled on in our ward with some success, but there is more that needs to be done,” Smith said.

(FWIW, Smith and opponent Caroline Vickrey also support bike infrastructure.)

I’ve said it over and over again: if you really, truly want to improve cyclist compliance with the law, there are countries that do it well—especially the Netherlands—and they do it in part through a comprehensive educational system for cyclists and drivers alike that begins in elementary school. (Their form of driver’s education is also more comprehensive, and traffic fatalities have fallen faster there than in the United States in recent decades.) The Active Transportation Alliance’s Ron Burke gave Biasco some similar suggestions. You get what you put in. Contrary to the beliefs of most newspaper columnists, merely intoning the words “fixie” and “hipster” like a curse is just an exercise in filling copy quotas.

On the other hand, bike licenses have been tried throughout North America, and what you usually get is a bureaucratic facepalm.

Ottawa: “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.”

Long Beach: “The city cited more than 1,000 cyclists for riding without registration last year, according to a city report, but the cost to administer the bicycle license program greatly exceeded its revenue. The vast majority of cyclists in the city did not have their bikes registered to begin with.”

Seattle: “Seattle has over 500,000 bicycles in the city and found maintenance of the project difficult due to the required cost of record keeping and police manpower required to maintain the program.”

Medford: “In Oregon, the City of Medford recently repealed its ordinance requiring bicycle registration. According to the chief of police, ‘There are so many people commuting on bicycles who don’t live in Medford. We just think this is an unnecessary ordinance and is really unenforceable. It really doesn’t work in the best interest of our community.’”

San Jose: “San Jose has required bike registration since 1974. But a city audit earlier this year found the mandate is seldom observed today. The program doesn’t make enough in fees to cover the cost for busy cops and firefighters to create and maintain a useful license database…. But with an estimated 22,000 bicycles sold each year in San Jose, the city in the 2008-2009 budget year collected just $636 in bike license fees. The auditors surveyed two fire stations, where the licenses are distributed, and found that only nine licenses had been issued that year.”

San Diego: “The city’s Fire Rescue and Police departments reported the licensing program has drawn virtually no revenue for any city department over the last three years.”

Houston: “Out of the many thousands of bicycles in the city limits, only about 100 were actually registered. Since people move around so much, even those who registered their bikes had outdated data, and finding the owners if the bike was stolen and recovered was usually impossible.”

Los Angeles: “Currently LAPD lacks the resources in staffing and funding to implement and maintain the program in the manner it was designed. A lack of fiscal procedures exist to purchase and distribute licenses to the public, monitor and maintain the citywide database, and an overall lack of personnel to properly implement the program. To date the database has not been regularly maintained nor is the information readily available to police personnel, licenses for purchase are not regularly available to the public, and the program is not enforced by the police.”

So it’s like digging a hole and filling it with data. I don’t blame people for hearing a good idea when it’s suggested; unless you’re really interested in this stuff, the fiscal efficacy of the Medford, Oregon bike licensing law probably passed you by. But it’s almost always a ridiculous failure.

Almost. There is one city that appears to have designed a successful bike tax, if you think such a thing is possible: Honolulu. A one-time, $15 registration is required—$5 to transfer it to someone else—on bicycles with wheels of 20” or larger, which effectively exempts children’s bikes. (Adults could avoid the fee by riding a folding bike with 16” wheels, if they expect to have time on their hands.) And it brings in a reported $400,000-$500,000 a year, about the cost of the excellent new deluxe protected lanes on Dearborn. All that money has to be spent on infrastructure or other cycling programs. On a smaller scale, Colorado Springs has been charging $4 per new bike since 1988, and brought in $2 million over 20 years, a respectable sum for a city of less than half a million, and enough for 30 miles of lanes at 2014 Chicago costs.

What seems to distinguish Honolulu’s registration/licensing program from other cities is that it’s required to be done at the point of sale: when you buy a bike, you fork over the fee, the store puts you in the system, and the city mails you the license. That part of it works like an excise tax. As a result, there are a lot of registered bicycles: over 300,000 on the island of Oahu, which has a population of just under one million.

(Of course, they have an advantage, being a small island in the middle of the ocean instead of the transit hub of the country; the harder it is to bring a thing into a jurisdiction, the easier it is to regulate it.)

If you’re buying a bike, or bringing one into Honolulu, it has to be licensed. And there has to be a stick to enforce that; if there wasn’t, it would eat into bike stores’ business. That stick is the city taking your bike. As with cars, the city takes it, and gives you a period of time to pick it up and pay the fine ($15 plus a one-dollar fine). After about two weeks the city can sell it, though you can get the money if they do.

There are a couple ways of looking at this, and it really depends on how you feel about taxes.

One is that taxes and fees dissuade people from doing things, and, all things considered, it’s good to have more people biking. Like, next time you’re at a stop light, picture a couple cars in front of you disappearing and turning into bikes. It might be a modest fee, but it’s also disproportional to similar fees on cars—five to ten percent of a modestly priced bike, compared to Cook County’s one-percent “use tax” on cars.

The other is that taxes pay for things people want, and cycling advocates tend, in my experience, to be particularly conscious and knowledgeable of the cost of infrastructure, and less likely to view taxes as an affliction. Half a million dollars a year, to use Honolulu’s experience, can pay for a significant, high-profile piece of bike infrastructure, and it’s comparable to the federal portion of spending that goes to walking/biking infrastructure in Chicago. If the city promised one additional Dearborn-like lane a year with the proceeds, it could get significant support from cyclists, and perhaps even bike shops—more bike lanes, more customers. That’s why bike taxes sometimes do get the support of advocates (like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance) and bike-friendly pols (like Portlandia’s U.S. House rep, Earl Blumenauer).

“Safety” has a nice ring to it, but absent plans for significant cyclist education, licensing will do nothing for that; no one’s going to not blow a red because of a seat-tube sticker. But it might have a role to play, if a small one, in furthering the only means to increase cyclist safety: better infrastructure and education normalizing cycling in the city.


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