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License to Ride

By David Hoffman

In this article, Urban Velo explores the pros and cons
of licensing bicyclists and registration of bikes.

For many of us, obtaining a driver’s permit and then license was a rite of passage as a teenager. In fact, for the majority of Americans (I do not presume to speak for those readers in other countries) we can’t wait to ditch our bike and begin driving. I remember looking for excuses to go to the grocery store just days after I had obtained my driver’s license just so that I could drive less than one mile for some oddball item. Driving was a sign that I was growing up and becoming responsible. We were taught that if we wanted to drive on public roads, we had to pass a test and pay for the privilege. And most of us (myself included) couldn’t get there fast enough.

So what happens when you ask bicyclists if they want to be licensed and register their bikes – or even worse, pass legislation requiring them to do so?

There are two separate issues here. The first is whether or not bicycles should be licensed (registered) within a municipality, and the second is whether or not bicyclists should have to obtain a license (operator’s permit) to be legally allowed to ride a bike.

Share The Road?

(Or, “Hey – my taxes at the pump pay for this road!”)

A recent article that appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sparked us here at Urban Velo to examine this question in greater detail. The article quotes a local citizen who writes, “Bicyclers [sic] are due to pay some of the costs of their special lanes and parking space removals with a ‘city bicycle license’ for using arterials.” While this logic is flawed (I’ll deconstruct it, shortly), it is an almost perfect encapsulation of the mindset that bicyclists and bicycle advocates are up against.

The basic premise of this argument is that bicyclists should have to pay for all of the “special” facilities that they use. Many people reason that the taxes that they pay at the pump are used to pay for the roads that they drive on. This is only partly true. In fact, the taxes that you pay at the pump (here in the US) are for federal and state roads. Local and county roads are built and maintained with taxes collected locally. The vast majority of the “special lanes” and other bicycle-specific facilities are built on the local and county roads, and therefore not built with the taxes collected at the pump. The misinformed citizen in Seattle then intimates that cyclists should help subsidize parking space removals.

While the first incorrect part of the argument dealing with how roads are built with our taxes can be excused as a widely held misconception, the second part relating to the removal of parking spaces cannot. Parking for automobiles (and cyclists) is a privilege, not a right. Many of us in advocacy joke that most Americans treat access to plentiful and/or cheap parking as a Constitutional right. As a politician you can kiss babies, pass resolutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and feed and house the poor; but if you remove parking spaces you’ll almost certainly lose your next election. The truth is that parking of any kind in the public space amounts to public storage for private vehicles.

Should Bicyclists Be Licensed?
This question rears its ugly bureaucratic head when vocal citizens or decision makers feel threatened by the increasing numbers of cyclists in their community. It is a question born out of the desire to gain control over a group of people who some feel are not paying their fair share of the system or are somehow getting a free ride. It’s funny; if you ask people if they want more taxes and laws in their life most will look at you as though you’re crazy. But ask if it is OK to tax and regulate others and they’ll put up little resistance.

The top two arguments against licensing cyclists are that, 1) It creates yet another barrier to cycling in a system which has been historically built to exclude cyclists, and 2) It is completely unnecessary, due to the fact that cyclists can (and are) routinely pulled over and cited by the police for vehicle code violations already. You don’t need a license to get a ticket for running a stoplight. And you still have to pay the fine regardless of whether you’re on four wheels or two.

Transportation Alternatives in New York City ( fought and successfully defeated a proposed bill in 2004 that would have required anyone older than sixteen to obtain a bike license from the City of New York. This bill was defeated with overwhelming support from people from throughout the state. The basic argument was that it would create yet another obstacle to riding, and would undermine any “safety in numbers” effect by reducing the number of cyclists on the road.
To be fair, there are a couple of legitimate concerns that could be used to justify licensing of bicyclists:

Many cyclists lack the skills to cycle safely. Driver education is required for operating a motor vehicle, why not require cyclist education as well?

Licensing will help to enforce “same roads, same rights” by penalizing cyclists who disobey traffic laws. It will also appease motorists who complain of lawless cyclists.

The number of reasons that can be used to directly counter the ones above include:

Licensing is not necessary for education, and considering how poorly some states educate their motorists, it’s clear that the two have only a tenuous link.

At what age do you require someone to be licensed to use a bicycle? For example, if the age is 12, are 11-year-olds not allowed to bike? And if they are, why is a less competent 11-year old bicyclist allowed to ride without a license while an experienced adult is not?

The core reason for licensing: to have a mechanism for removing drivers who pose a serious threat to the safety and property of others. The purpose of licensing is not to educate, or even to ensure good behavior. The proof is in the numbers: licensed motorists kill over 40,000 and injure over 2 million people a year. How many people do unlicensed cyclists kill and injure per year? Licensing will discourage potentials cyclists by creating yet another obstacle.

Sadly, this question will continue to be raised the by the misinformed as the number of cyclists and bicycle-specific facilities continue to swell. Fortunately, to date no state or local municipality requires a cyclist to have an operator’s license to bike. Savvy advocates have been able to use the question of whether or not cyclists should be licensed as a conversation opener to discovering what deeper concerns there might be with bicycling in their area.

Opportunities for positive public relations exist, such as with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s ( “Co-Exist” and Transportation Alternative’s ( “Give Respect Get Respect” campaigns.