You will be hard pressed to find a bike rider who thinks bike rider registration and license plates are fantastic ideas. Tabloid newspapers and shock-jocks, however, bring up the topic with each anti-bike-rider story or rant. It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, but there are a lot of supporters who share the view that bike rider registration and licenses means that cyclists are finally accountable and are paying for their right to use the roads. The fact is that everyone will be worse off with registration and/or licensing, including the vehement anti-cyclists.
In New South Wales, following several fatal and serious accidents involving cyclists, the Minister for Roads and Transport, Duncan Gay, announced his solution, “I am increasingly persuaded that we need to look at a license for cyclists.”
Mr. Gay also promoted the banning of cyclists from certain (unspecified) roads. He noted, “It’s not going to worry the ones that are doing the right thing, but the bad ones that are running lights, crossing over, being aggressive, they’re a large part of the statistic”.
I’m not sure what statistics Mr. Gay is referring to, since he hasn’t produced any statistics. But what I do know from my requests to the ministerial office for information is that, under instruction from Duncan Gay, the Department for Roads and Transport is now spending tax payer money to investigate the licensing and registration of bike riders. It’s been done before, in Australia and in other countries, and it’s been abandoned everywhere it’s been tried. So, before we get as indignant about this as the shock-jocks and band-wagoneers are about cyclists, let’s have a look at five good reasons why bike licensing is stupid.
1. Bike licensing will cost everyone more money, including motorists
The reason bike/rider licensing, for the purpose of rider identification, has been abandoned everywhere it’s been tried is the cost. The administration burden for implementing and managing a bike rider licensing system will cost more than any revenue generated by it. Unless it’s a purely “user-pays” system, the cost will be passed on to tax payers. If it is a genuine user pays system, the cost of registration would be more than the price of many bikes. Any sort of cost-benefit analysis rules out bike registration purely on economic grounds.
2. Bike licensing will not make cyclists more accountable
The ‘accountability’ argument presented by Duncan Gay is flawed in many ways, reasons which came to mind include:
a) Police will generally not act upon reports of cyclists breaking the law, even if they can be identified. Many bike riders have experienced this when reporting offences, such as near misses or abuse, by motorists. Unless there is a collision, police generally don’t take action. Even with video footage, the police may call the offender and give them a warning, but very rarely will any reports from the public be actioned.
b) ‘Cyclist-at-fault’ collisions are few and far between; it is has not been documented that ‘hit and run’ incidents caused by bike riders is a problem. The reverse is in fact true, ‘hit-and-run’ occurrences for ‘motorist-at-fault’ accidents is unfortunately not uncommon. In discussing shock-jock demands for registration, The Age newspaper wrote, “Victoria Police defended its record of catching errant cyclists, saying it was not aware of issues regarding identification of cyclists who commit road offences.”
c) Licensing doesn’t stop motorists from breaking the law, why would it stop cyclists? Speed and red-light cameras have caught motorists to the tune of $90 million and $70 million dollars respectively in NSW in a year. If these motorists speed and/or don’t stop when there are well sign-posted cameras about, what are motorists doing when there aren’t cameras about? Revenue raised by cameras has increased, which means that motorists are only accountable in a financial sense… and only sometimes.
3. Bike licensing will not reduce accidents or deaths
NSW Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi responded to Duncan Gay’s claim that licensing will ‘magically’ increase the safety of bike riders, “There’s no evidence that bike licensing schemes help in reducing accidents and tragic deaths. In fact, in places like Los Angeles and Switzerland they have been abolished a short time after being introduced.” A piece of paper or a metal plate attached to your bike is indeed a poor defense against danger.
4. Bike licensing will reduce the number of bike riders
I suspect that the real intention of all of this bike licensing talk is to reduce the numbers of cyclists. From a simple economic point of view, this makes no sense. The Federal Government calculated in the 2013 Walking, Riding and Access to Public Transport Report that each cycling trip saves the economy $21.
While the numbers show that cycling contributes towards the nation in terms of reduced health care, vehicle emissions, road wear, small business, as well as other social and cultural benefits, it also benefits motorists. Every cyclist is one less car on the road and one less parking spot occupied. Motor vehicles cause traffic and congestion, not bikes. We need more bikes, not less.
Forcing additional licensing and registration for cyclists, when 90% of legal-age riders already carry a drivers license, is an additional hurdle which will turn some away from the bike; cycling will be less convenient and attractive. Further, it won’t just be the current crop of cyclists who feel the strain; licensing will create a bureaucratic mess when it comes to children. Will they have to pay to ride up and down the footpath? A generation of current cyclists, and all generations of future cyclists, will be affected in one fell swoop.
5. Bike licensing does not solve the problems
Politicians and sensationalist media who are against cycling will reap popularity points if licensing or registration is introduced, but it will be a pyrrhic victory. Bike licensing will not actually solve the problems, because the real problems are not being addressed. The real problems are with road user education and awareness, and intelligent transport infrastructure.
Road users, motorists and cyclists, need more awareness of other road users and of their responsibilities on the road. We’re already heading down that pathway with cyclist and motorist education campaigns, and laws such as the minimum safe passing distance law, which is being trialed in Queensland. These initiatives don’t stop bad things from happening, but they do reinforce necessary awareness. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer has said that “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” In Australia we’re moving toward acceptance.
Changing attitudes towards cyclists is changing the societal software, the hardware that this requires is intelligent transport infrastructure. This is infrastructure that still accommodates the car, but also makes transport alternatives convenient and integrates them. It means that effective transport solutions that reduce congestion, such as public transport, cycling, and walking are fostered and become viable.
The spending required for cycling infrastructure (and for alternative transport) is a drop in the ocean compared with spending on new roads and road maintenance. Elevating the importance of cycling will result is real and long term positive effects for all road users.
Improving transport for everyone
One of the core arguments used by motorists who are intolerant of bike riders is that cyclists slow them down. This is primarily psychological, since motorists are rarely delayed in their total trip time by bike riders. However there are roads which require smarter infrastructure to allow safe passage for bike riders and eliminate the impediment to flowing traffic, and this is where the local, state and federal governments each need to step up to their responsibility.
The long term costs savings and benefits are unfortunately not compatible with our short political cycles in Australia. Because politicians know this, they usually focus instead on short-term expensive ‘patch up’ solutions to appease the masses and industry; more roads and more lanes for more cars, and more congestion, but more political points.
I’ll conclude by conceding that politicians aren’t all to blame for this situation. We’re a democratic society and any group as large as bike riders are should have a stronger voice that is heard around the nation. But cycling advocacy in Australia today is not unified; there are a lot of voices, a lot of enthusiasm, but also a lot of competition. This limits the effectiveness of cyclists as a whole to stand up and oppose ideas as stupid as licensing and registration. The disparity limits the strength we have as bike riders to push for positive initiatives and developments that will benefit our communities for years to come.
My message to you is “don’t let your voice be lost”.
Photo credit: Children on bike © Spin Baby