Recurrent Themes of Bicycle Licensing and Registration

Bicycle License Plate

Bicycle License Plate From The 1940s


Change is always difficult. People become accustomed to the way things are. When there is a threat of change, they cringe and resist. Such is the current state of affairs on American roads.

Due to economic, environmental, and health reasons more people are choosing to ride bikes. Unlike in the past, they are using bicycles to travel, not solely for recreation.

In a modern society, most travel occurs by way of roads, usually paved roads. Those roads were constructed when motor vehicles became more prevalent in society, so people have come to associate roads with cars.

In America, as in many places in the world, cars are seen as a status symbol and represent a comfortable modern life. Many people aspire to this life because it is an outward sign of success.

But, with the passage of time, it becomes necessary to redefine success in the context of the present and the future. The environment has taken quite a beating from industrialized societies. The global economy is faltering and threatening to catapult legions of people into poverty. To survive the onslaught, it is crucial to adapt.

This adaptation is appearing on America’s roads. A new breed of citizen, the cyclist, through choice or exigency, has elected to introduce a non-standard type of vehicle onto the roads. In some ways, this change represents a shift in social standards. It is a move away from flagrant extravagance to circumspect resiliency.

As many people try to economize or reduce their carbon footprint, modern views of comfort, luxury, and convenience are being challenged. With vast shifts in ideology afoot, it’s no wonder the push back has been fierce.

Motorists, who don’t want to change their expectations regarding the convenience and speed of motorized travel, are desperately trying to reduce or eliminate cyclists — harbingers of a new method of travel  — from the road.

On a superficial level, they use threats and harassment to intimidate cyclists off of the road. But on a deeper level, they are looking to penalize cyclists to make it harder for them to use the roads.

One way of doing this is to demand identical treatment of drivers and cyclists. Their argument is that if cyclists want the same rights as motorists, then they have to pay for them in the same way motorists do. And, since motorists are required to obtain a license and registration to operate a motor vehicle, they want cyclists to do the same to ride a bike.

This creates a whole host of problems, none of which seem to prevent anti-cyclists from demanding that cyclists have the same vehicle operation requirements  as motorists.

Recently, this issue surfaced in New York City  — one of the most contentious battlegrounds for motorists’ versus cyclists’ rights — when a resolution “petitioning the city and state to require bicycle registration and some kind of identification for the vehicles, like a license plate” was approved by the Transportation Committee of the UES’s Community Board 8. The full Community Board will vote on it before sending it on to City Hall and Albany.

Despite the unenforceability of such a law, the Transportation Committee felt a need to resurrect it. The reason for this: “‘Many cyclists have the sense that they are not under the obligation to follow the rules of the road,’ CB8’s transportation committee co-chair Jonathan Horn said.” And, “members of the board said it wasn’t fair that motorists were hit with rules that cyclists weren’t. ‘You know what? I don’t want to spend the money for my car (registration) either,’ said board member Rita Popper.”

So what we see is a futile effort to punish cyclists, via licensing and registration, for the alleged infraction of not following the rules of the road. One of the most obvious problems with this punitive approach is that all cyclists are being punished for the behavior of a few. Furthermore, a license should not be issued as a punishment, even for those who don’t obey the rules of the road.

In reality, this law will never pass. A lot of money has been spent on bike lanes and New York’s new bike sharing program — which couldn’t operate if a license was required to ride a bike in New York.

As one commenter on this story said:

“The state already did a study on bike licensing and found that the administration of a bike licensing program would cost MORE than the revenue it would produce. So this is a non-starter.”

Why, then, did the committee raise this issue again, knowing that the cost of administration would exceed the revenues produced? Maybe it was blinded by a desire for retribution.

The committee should have considered, aside from the difficulty of enforcing such a measure, the number of tourists who visit New York. Would they all be required to obtain a license to ride a bike when visiting New York?

With respect to bicycle registration, this is another punitive action whose intent is to hold cyclists accountable for infractions of the law. How exactly would this work? It’s not uncommon to borrow someone else’s bicycle. In the event of an infraction, who would be held accountable, the rider or the bike’s owner? Unless infractions were enforced by stopping cyclists and checking their licenses, there would be no way to hold the violator accountable. So, what would be the purpose of the license plates?

This concept is even more ludicrous than it first appears because it would be difficult to affix license plates, to all bikes, that are large enough to be read at a distance. A small license plate could not, in most situations, be used to track down a particular cyclist.

What this whole recurring licensing and registration theme comes down to is the desire of certain motorists to punish cyclists for daring to ask drivers to change their habits. Drivers simply don’t want to give up their way of life. But, unfortunately for them, the world is changing. And only those who can acclimate to new conditions are likely to survive and prosper.

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