5 reasons why licensing cyclists in Toronto is a bad idea
City Hall took the first (small) steps toward licensing cyclists Wednesday as the public works committee asked staff and Toronto Police to find ways of better enforcing cycling by-laws, with an apparent focus on cracking down on riders using the sidewalk (though it's quite possible there's an ideological bent to this request). The idea of licensing cyclists isn't a new one in this town — according to a 2005 City briefing note, between 1935 and 1956 it was mandatory for all bicycles to display a license plate. Since then, the City council has rejected proposals for bike licenses on three separate occasions — in 1984, 1992 and 1996. Here's why the scheme didn't work in the past, and why it won't work now.
1. It costs too much
When city council is trying to keep expenses down, it doesn't make sense to spend money on a costly license implementation and enforcement scheme for cyclists. Yes, some bikers break the rules, but there are only a few reported cases of pedestrians and cyclists colliding each year. Contrast that with roughly 1,100 bike and motor vehicle accidents in the same period. Even if every incident was reported and resolved with a fine, the cost of enforcing the scheme will always outweigh the financial return.
2. It doesn't work
We know because we've tried it. Not only that, bike licensing isn't common in major North American cities. There's no reason to believe a licensed cyclist will refrain from cutting across the sidewalk simply because there is a plate attached to the bike for the same reason some drivers break the rules. Issuing tickets to offenders is the best way of snuffing out the occasional pedestrian-cyclist collision and boosting the number of bikers wearing helmets and using lights at night. (Ed.'s note: it is only illegal not to wear a helmet in Ontario for those under 18 years old).
3. There are too many complications
Figuring out how to handle cyclists from outside the licensing boundary, one-off Bixi riders and children biking with pedestrian parents are just a few of the obstacles any scheme will have to overcome. The inevitable disputes over individual infractions could also prove costly to resolve.
4. It discourages new riders
Why make riders jump through hoops at a time when the City should be encouraging people to climb into the saddle? The savings compared to driving or taking the TTC are a major reason people choose to don a helmet. A complex system of licensing and fees is not the way to coax down those on the fence about biking. City Council needs to spend its cash finding ways to make the streets safer for those without the benefit of metal armour.
5. It doesn't educate cyclists
I'm almost certain a straw poll of cyclists on the road today would find many are unaware of some of the basic rules of the road. Issuing correct hand signals when turning, wearing the appropriate gear and staying off the pavement are covered by by-laws in Toronto without the need for a license. Channeling the money into educational schemes has proven a more cost-effective way of reducing accidents.
Despite the negatives, a scheme designed to directly benefit cyclists and improve infrastructure could be a positive thing. When licensing schemes are implemented elsewhere, the cost is low (usually under $10 for several years) and the money is used to track stolen bikes, keep cycle lanes clear and give pedal-powered road users a voice. Perhaps if the scheme was approached from a positive angle instead of one designed to punish the occasional rogue biker it might get more support.
Writing by Chris Bateman / Photo by Derek Flack