So you want to license my child – The insanity of bicycle licensing

“Hey, you got a license to operate that thing?” Image – Washington DC bicyclists enjoying a separated lane ride, via Transportation Issues Daily.

It’s funny and interesting what topics really move people – like bicycle licensing. It often seems to generate strong opinions for and against.

Melissa Bruntlett publishes the Velo Family Diaries blog, subtitled “Family life on two wheels.” She describes the blog’s origins:

The blog started out as an idea for a summer project, chronicling my adventures with my two kids, Coralie and Etienne, as we get out and about in Vancouver, BC. We have lived without a car since June of 2010, so I wanted to have a journal to share with my kids about how we got around on our bikes and using transit, and of course all the fun things we can and did do.

After speaking with many people who are consistently amazed with how mobile we are as a family, I felt compelled to share our stories with a broader audience, and Velo Family Diaries was born. The posts on this blog share our triumphs and challenges as a bike friendly family, illustrating the many things accessible to a young family in Vancouver and the cities we travel to. The hope is to inspire others to give a bike friendly lifestyle a try, and to promote bike riding to the next generation as cycling continues to grow in popularity.

Recently Melissa wrote fairly passionately against bicycle licensing. We republish her story, unedited, as a guest post:

So you want to license my child: The insanity of bicycle licensing, by Melissa Bruntlett

Being an advocate for increased bicycle ridership, better infrastructure, and reigniting the number of children who ride bikes, I tend to read quite a few articles and posts on the subject. I will admit, from time to time, I venture into the comments, just to see what others are saying, and also to see if perhaps, finally, the general population has given up on this whole “war on cars” nonsense. One suggestion I frequently see from those commenters, who feel people who ride bikes are being pandered to, is that bicyclists should have to get a license. The belief is that if they are using the roads, then they should have to be licensed. I’m still a bit perplexed as to why there is such a push for bicycle licenses, mainly because I have a six-year-old who does ride on the road and a four-year-old soon to follow. So to understand it a bit better I looked into it. Here’s what I found out.

Many motorists believe that by licensing people on bikes, it will turn them into better road users. From obeying traffic laws to respecting other road users’ space. It is true that there are some pretty aggressive cyclists out there who run through stops signs, blaze through intersections without looking for traffic, and even disrespect pedestrians at crosswalks. I have to point out, though, that licensing these people will not change their behaviour, just as requiring people to pass a driving test and obtain a license to drive a car has not stopped some motorists from speeding, rolling through intersections instead of coming to a complete stop, not yielding to pedestrians, or worse still, crashing into each other. Not licensing because it won’t change behaviour does seems a little fatalistic, but I would argue that there are many reasons motorists must be licensed – you have to be 16 to drive a car, driving is a very complicated task with many regulations and rules, and most importantly: cars are 2-tonne metal machine capable of causing death and destruction. A bicycle can be ridden by anyone, any age, weighs about 20-40 lbs, and cannot kill someone, if by chance they are hit by a bicycle.

Another argument I hear frequently is that people on bicycles need to share the cost of road usage and wear and tear. The fact is that all adults living in a city pay taxes, whether through income, purchases, property taxes, etc, regardless of their mode of transportation, be it car, bus, rapid transit, bicycle or plain old walking. Those taxes go to various expenses, not the least of which include road repair and upkeep. But ok, let’s look at it from the monies earned through licensing point-of-view. Copenhagenize summed it up quite succinctly in a related post written in March of 2010 (Source). Essentially, if you compare the average weight of a car, around, let’s say, 3500 lbs, to the average weight of a bicycle, around 30 lbs, a bicycle weighs about 0.9% of that of a car. Here in BC, the cost of a driver’s licence is $75. If you based the cost of a bicycle license as 0.9% of that, then a bicycle license would cost $0.68. Mathematically, that just doesn’t make sense, and the government would actually lose money in setting up a system like this, not to mention the administrative costs lost over time. So, to sum up, licensing bicyclists would cost tax payers more money, leaving even less from an already strained budget for repair and upkeep of our shared roads.

There is also the negative impact of licensing bicycles to consider. The biggest would be a large reduction in cycling numbers. Riding a bicycle is cheap, easy, and can be done by anyone. Requiring people on bikes to get licensed will turn a lot of people away, who would opt for other modes of transport instead of dealing with the hassle of getting a license. I think it’s pretty apparent that riding a bike is a form of exercise, whether your racing or just using a bike to get around town at a leisurely pace. If a large number of people decreased their level of frequent exercise, and opted for a more sedentary way of travel, so increases their health risks due to inactivity and weight gain, and thus increases the strain on our health care system, costing tax payers more money.

Outside of the cost to both the government and its taxpayers and to individual health, and whether or not it will make cyclists behave better, I have a question I blurt out every time I hear about licensing cyclists; What about the kids?! Many children start learning to ride a bike when they are between two- and three-years-old. Usually by the time they are school aged, those same children are riding on their own bike confidently, many on roads with their parents. What governing body, in their right minds, is going to require that toddlers pass a test and ask their parents to pay to licence their 16″ one speed BMX? It’s a ridiculous idea, and would only cause less and less children to learn the freedom of riding a bike, which, once again, would decrease physical activity in our young people. But again, I ask, do you really want to license my four- and six-year-old?

When all the facts are laid out, requiring licensing for cyclists would be a massive drain on time and money with little to no reward. Having a license doesn’t necessarily mean people will behave better. Understanding the rules of the road, and respecting other road users is common sense, and believe me, those of us who ride bikes are instilling that respect in our children, not so much for the benefit of the motorists, but more for their own safety. So, next time you’re frustrated with a bad cyclist, or the proposal of a new bike lane, take a breathe and really think about how this really impacts you before going on a rant in a comments section about licensing cyclists. We’re not out to get you, we have not declared a war on cars, and nothing makes you look more like a jerk then suggesting a small child should get a license to be able to feel the joy of riding on two wheels.