April 15, 2015

The real flaw in bike licensing

A comment-worthy piece in Metro:

Why bike licensing schemes simply do not work

In almost every city that has tried, licensing has been a complete flop. The latest Canadian example is Regina, where city officials decided last week to scrap its long-standing $5 mandatory bike license.

The reason? Everyone — cyclists, police and civic officials — chose to ignore it. Only 150 to 200 bike licenses were being sold every year, and no one had been issued a ticket for riding without one for years.

There be the issue: If the licensing scheme is to work, it must be regulated and enforced.  That costs money.  If the licensing scheme – usually justified so the cyclists will ‘pay their way’ – is to cover both a contribution to infrastructure and the costs of enforcement, then the fee has to be scaled up to the point where it discourages cycling.

Is that the idea?

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  1. I’m certain that advocates of bicycle licensing do not want bicycles on the road at all. “Discouraging” is an extremely subtle way to put it, if they could say ban them they would (and I suppose some in fact do).

    1. There is basically no such thing as “bike insurance” for the typical cyclist. I inquired at ICBC and they have no such product. The closest they came was an “underinsured motorist” policy which pays the cyclist (or anyone else, including a pedestrian or car passenger) if they’re hit by a car that doesn’t carry enough insurance.

      Most cyclists are insured via their homeowners or renter’s policies, which typically have a 1$ or $2 million general liability clause. So for example if I were to hit a pedestrian with my bike and be sued for because the injuries resulted in a loss of future income, my homeowner’s policy would cover that.

    2. Car owners require insurance because a) cars can easily cause more damage than your average Joe can afford to pay for on his own, and b) these types of crashes are common.

      A cyclist causing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage is possible, of course, but vanishingly rare. Corner cases are not a good basis for public policy.

  2. Seems to me that a bicycle licensing scheme that involves a tag that must be displayed on the bicycle would be a great way to reduce bicycle thefts. It would certainly make it much harder for thieves to re-sell bikes. And easier to trace stolen bikes. There are many private databases that try to track this, but their problem is that they’re not universal or tied in to police databases. There’s absolutely no reason it would have to cost very much.

    1. If you look at the City of Toronto website, they didn’t think licensing would do much to reduce bike theft since any kind of identifier can be stripped from bikes.

      1. Yes, I looked at the website. They gloss over the issue of theft pretty quickly, because their focus is on licensing cyclists.

        Of course you can strip identifiers, just like you can strip license plates from a car. I haven’t seen that as an objection to licensing cars. If you’re required to have an identifier, and you have to register the bike when you change ownership, no-one is going to buy a bike with no identifier. (Obviously within real-world limits).

        I still think this would make a difference to the theft problem. And actually encourage cycling. Because people would be more inclined to take their bicycles to more places knowing they’re less likely to be stolen.

    2. There’s a much easier way — just record the serial number that’s already engraved on your bike, usually on the underside of the bottom bracket. That’s how I got my bike back from the police after it was stolen.

    3. Such a system already exists, it just isn’t mandatory.

      You can register your bike with the Canadian Police Information Centre, using the serial number that all bikes already have. This is a national registry. Details on the VPD site.

      You can go into a community policing office and they have previously offered services to engrave driver’s license numbers on bikes, to make it easier to return them if recovered.

      A tag doesn’t help, it is easily removed. A serial number is better, but can also be hidden.

      What would actually help is more, and more secure, bike parking.

      1. The CPIC lets you check if the police have recovered your stolen bicycle, or if it’s been reported stolen. That’s not the same thing. Same as engraving a serial number in a voluntary fashion.

        Imagine there was a mandatory, highly visible tag required for each bicycle. (Like a license plate for a car). It doesn’t matter that it’s removable. If you see a bicycle without a tag, it automatically attract attention. Because it doesn’t have a tag. Similarly, you go to some address to buy a bike you saw on craigslist, and there’s no tag, or the seller’s id doesn’t match the owner of the tag, you know it’s hot property.

        I am quite sure this would reduce theft. It would make it easier to take the kids with their bicycles to some iffy places without having to carry 800 kgs of bicycle locks that will hold a thief up for a minute or two. YMMV. I’m not holding my breath for anyone to support this, because politics.

        1. That would be nice if it’s cost effective and works. Switzerland had bike licensing until recently, with tags, but it’s my understanding that it didn’t stop bike theft. Bike theft is a big problem in terms of deterring people from cycling, but the question is how many resources (including police time) is it worth putting into? I agree with Jeff, the first step is to provide more and better quality bike racks. Also secure bike parking at all transit stations, bus exchanges (user-paid) and at work places.

          Bait bikes are another option to reduce theft, done by Whistler RCMP.

      2. I’m just not seeing the benefit. Someone steals my bike. They are riding down the street. Is someone scanning all the plates for stolen bikes? Is this a municipal tag, or provincial, or national? If national, what about all the stolen bikes shipped south for resale?

        1. It isn’t that I choose not to see them. I don’t see them. I don’t understand how license plates on bikes replace locks. I don’t understand how stolen bikes are identified when being ridden by the thief, unless we stop a percentage of bikes and do license plate inspections. I don’t understand the geographic scope of your proposal, and how you are going to stop bikes being transported across whatever border is determined. I don’t understand how visitors will ride their bikes here. I don’t understand how people who choose to buy a stolen bike will be prevented from doing so, license plate or not. I don’t understand how this can be done cost effectively given the administrative overhead.

          I suspect that the above challenges are why we can’t find successful examples of bike licensing systems.

  3. In Vancouver, we currently have a system of bike courier licenses (with a test) and then an annual bike courier license which is a plate attached to the bike.

    So, how has that worked out in improving safety?

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