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License Bikes?

December 14, 2010

At Thursday’s City Council hearing on bicycles, Council Member David Greenfield asked DOT head Janette Sadik-Khan if she had considered requiring bicyclists to get licenses.  Greenfield said that this is commonplace in California.  Gothamist mentioned the idea in a headline on their site on Friday. (Although John Del Signore’s tongue-in-cheek posts are hardly anti-bike.)

So, is bike licensing commonplace in California, as Greenfield suggested?

It is not.  In fact, it is becoming increasingly uncommon.

First, here’s VC section 39002(a) of the California State DMV code.

A city or county, which adopts a bicycle licensing ordinance or resolution, may provide in the ordinance or resolution that no resident shall operate any bicycle, as specified in the ordinance, on any street, road, highway, or other public property within the jurisdiction of the city or county, as the case may be, unless the bicycle is licensed in accordance with this division.

Yes, California cities and counties may require bicyclists to be licensed, and other parts of the DMV code say that it’s the job of the state DMV to “procure and distribute bicycle license indicia and registration forms to all counties and cities which have adopted a bicycle licensing ordinance or resolution.”  But there is no statewide mandate, just help from Sacramento if a local government decides to enact a bike registration law.

So how are bike licensing programs working out, especially in California’s big cities?  Here’s the San Jose Mercury News from November 29:

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.

“I think the last time I licensed my bike was third grade,” said Councilman Sam Liccardo, an avid cyclist. “Given the fact that nobody seems to know much about the license requirement, it made sense to get rid of it.”

The City Council on Tuesday is expected to repeal the bicycle license requirement from the municipal code, a move recommended in the February audit that said the provision should either be enforced or dropped.

In San Jose, a one-year license cost $2.  Going all in for three years only cost $3.  So how much money did San Jose collect?

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.

Not only that, but the two stations didn’t keep locked cash boxes to store receipts.  Plus, the police weren’t too helpful because it seems they had more pressing matters: “Although police were supposed to establish a license database where the information could be accessed to aid in recovering stolen bikes, they had not done so, telling the auditors they were too short-staffed.”

Then there’s the issue of enforcement.  Even if the police could devote resources to pulling over bikes–“License and bike registration please.”–how much revenue could they generate to cover enforcement costs?  Here’s San Mateo’s city code, which still requires that bikes be licensed:

Any person violating the licensing, registering or reporting provisions…shall be guilty of an infraction for which the fine to be imposed shall not exceed five dollars for each violation.

LA, San Francisco and other California towns tell similar tales.  Not enough revenue, not enough participation, no cost-efficient way to enforce ordinances.  San Mateo, Berkeley, Oakland and other cities still require bikes to be licensed, but I’m sure the ratio of bikes sold to licensed riders is not very good in those locations either.  Plus, many of the cities that require bike registration use it mainly as a tool to aid in theft recovery, not in enforcing traffic laws.

Licensing opens up a whole host of administrative and logistical questions.  If you license bikes, what’s the age requirement?  Sixteen and up?  Thirteen and up?  Would police arrest or ticket a ten-year-old for riding on the street with his parents?  Many people have more than one bicycle; do you license the rider or the bike?  The list of questions can grow so large that it soon becomes clear that no amount of money could possibly cover the answers.

As Noah Budnick said during his testimony on Thursday, licensing bikes is another barrier to entry that has a negative effect on the Safety in Numbers phenomenon of cycling.  The more cyclists there are, the safer cycling becomes and the more cycling behavior falls in line.  Even pedestrians benefit.

Time and time again, the lessons are clear. The cheapest and easiest way to make the city safer for cyclists is to enable more cyclists to get on the road.  Does Greenfield really think that netting $636 dollars is worth creating another level of red tape for the DMV, DOT, and NYPD?  His remark may have been casual and off-the-cuff, but these things gain traction in the hands of our hysterical local media.

Update 10:32 AM:

Peter Walker at the Guardian’s bike blog has a post on the same subject.  He brings up some of the same points, notably that licensing would discourage cycling and be hard to enforce.  But he also adds this important piece of information:

There’s a reason why third party insurance costs hundreds of pounds if you drive a car while for cyclists it can be tacked on to the modest membership charge for a cycling organisation, or added to your home insurance as a freebie. We cyclists very, very rarely kill people. There are some very real problems on the UK’s roads – six people dying a day on average, 60-plus more badly hurt – but we’re really not it.

Like anything, it’s about perspective. Those who say that bike licensing is necessary are simply ignoring larger facts about cycling.

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