David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
Short answer: Because it’s pointless and expensive. But that hasn’t stopped a few intrepid cities from trying.
Hamilton, Ontario, a steeltown of half a million on the shores of Lake Ontario*, has traditionally been known as the flinty industrial sibling to nearby Toronto. But signs of downtown revitalization are bringing the usual mixed bag of gentrification-related discontents—rising rents, fears of displacement, and an obligatory bicycle-v.-motorist squabble. The city is trying to build out its bike infrastructure to meet the obligations of an ambitious 20-year master plan adopted in 2009, including a $2.3 million cycle track on the Claremont Access, a heavily trafficked road where a local schoolteacher on a bike was killed by a motorist in 2015. To help pay for the lane, some lawmakers are proposing that the city establish a licensing fee for bicyclists. “They should have some skin in the game,” Hamilton councilor Terry Whitehead declared.
A perhaps predictable furor ensued, with the bicyclist advocacy group Cycle Hamilton voicing opposition to the licensing scheme. “I think the research has been pretty clear that it’s not worth it, that any revenue you might create is eaten up by the bureaucracy of it all," the group’s vice-chair, Johanna Bleecker, told the Hamilton Spectator.
The idea of licensing and registering bicycles like motor vehicles gets bandied about frequently in the endless debates over whether cyclists are freeloading on infrastructure the Good Lord (or at least, the tax code) intended for cars and trucks when they ride on public roads. (Here’s a good study on why bicyclists are in fact paying more than their fair share to use roads, in case you feel one of these debates coming on.) A handful of municipalities do require such fee-based licensing, however. And it’s not always a complete and utter waste of time, money, and resources. (However, it usually is.)
Bike licensing is usually proposed by lawmakers who tout it as a safety measure, a theft deterrent, and a source of revenue. Probably the best examination of whether licensing succeeds on any of these fronts comes from Hamilton’s neighbors in Toronto, where, from 1935 to 1957, bicyclists were indeed required to register their rides for annual licenses, for 50 cents per year. There was a metal license plate and everything, according to this very thorough website from the City of Toronto. The law was scrapped for a delightfully Canadian reason—the fear that licensing “results in an unconscious contravention of the law at a very tender age,” which can lead to “poor public relations between police officers and children.”
Still, efforts to revive velo-licensing surfaced several times in the 1980s and ’90s, only to be batted down by voters. The first and best reason: It would be too expensive to run the required bureaucratic machinery. “If cyclists were asked to cover the cost of licensing, in many cases, the license would be more expensive than the bicycle itself.”
That hasn’t stopped other cities from floating the notion from time to time. In 2013, a Chicago alderman proposed a $25 a year fee for city bicyclists. Here’s a run-down on the topic from 2015, when that city was again contemplating a cyclist’s tax. “[B]ike licenses have been tried throughout North America, and what you usually get is a bureaucratic facepalm,” concludes Chicago Magazine’s Whet Moser, who lists failed efforts in cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Houston among those that took a whack at bike licensing at various times over the decades. Perhaps the lone success story, he concludes: the $15 fee that Honolulu administers.
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.
Only a handful of mainland North American cities currently have mandatory bicycle registration laws. In CityLab in 2015, Sarah Goodyear looked at one of them: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where a (free) bicycle registration ordinance became a tool for racial profiling, according to local critics. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, it will cost you $1 a year to comply with a local township regulation, with the funds going toward bike path development. Another example is Salt Lake City, Utah, where there’s also a state law requiring licensing. “Both are somewhat lightly used,” says Becka Roolf, the city’s bicycle/pedestrian coordinator. She’s not sure how long the laws have been on the books. The license itself consists of a sticker; it costs up to $2, but this local nonprofit will pick up the tab for you. “It’s largely to aid in returning stolen bikes,” she says. “It’s definitely not a moneymaker.”
Roolf adds that Salt Lake City isn’t running checkpoints to enforce their registry, so they don’t have to deal with the cops-busting-kids problem that doomed Toronto’s program. “If you have a 2-year-old with a tricycle, technically, they should be registered,” she says. (Honolulu gets around this by only requiring licenses for bicycles with 20-inch or larger wheels.) And, of course, there’s the inconvenience of losing your license every time you ride beyond the city limits. The inherent goofiness of this situation, Roolf admits, reflects a deeper disconnect about bicycles in American life, a confusion that continues to foil even good-faith efforts to integrate these devices into our civic fabric. “It’s an interesting dynamic. Sometimes our laws are set up based on the idea that a bike is toy, and sometimes it’s a form of adult transportation,” she says. “As a society, we don’t seem to have worked that out.”
*CORRECTION: This post originally stated that Hamilton was on the shores of Lake Erie.