Updated 26.10.2023

28 March 2010

The Folly of Bicycle Licences

Cycling in Copenhagen2

Once in a while the issue of "bikes should pay" rises to the surface like bubbles of methane in Lake Kivu. In the UK, they're tackling it quite well with the I Pay Road Tax project. Several readers have sent links to Jonathan's post over at BikePortland so I figured I'd do a post about it.

Regarding bike registration in Europe, there are half a billion citizens in the European Union alone. 100 million of them ride a bicycle for transport according to the European Cyclists' Federation. None of them are inconvenienced by bicycle licences, least of all the Netherlands or Denmark - the two countries with most bike usage.

I posted about this ages ago and since then I've heard that a number of cities have actually calculated what the administrative costs would be. None of them have found that licensing bicycles was cost-efficient. Lately there is talk 'over there' about a symbolic appeasement fee. Cyclists paying a fee to get the motorists et al to shut it.

Here are three counter-arguments to bike licensing from my ragged little bag of opinions:

1. Road Usage and Wear and Tear
Firstly, imagine the logistical nightmare of registering tens of millions of bicycles. You need to pay to develop or adapt a computer system to register them and you need to hire people to run the system to issue registrations and pay for producing licences.

Consider the aforementioned impact on the roads. Your average car in 2005 weighed 1650 kg [3582 lbs]. My best guess as to the average weight of a bicycle is about 13 kg [30 lbs].

Based on those numbers, a bicycle weighs 0.8% of a car.

You don't need a degree in rocket science to see that the weight impact on the roads made by bicycles is marginal. Let's say a car registration costs $100, based on various factors including wear and tear on the roads. Based on that figure, a bike registration should then cost 80 cents.

Then you'll have to subtract from those 80 cents. In Denmark we have road taxes and environment taxes built into our car registration, not to mention weight taxes, depending on the car's size. A car's environmental impact is considerable, but a bicycle has none. Let's say a 50% reduction in the 80 cents fee for zero environmental impact, just to pick a number.

40 cents per bike. That 40 cents would be reduced to almost nothing after you subtract adminstration fees. Indeed, you'd be well into a negative number.

I'm not an economist, but I can already see that the project would not be very profitable. The enforcement issue is another ball of wax. I, for one, would prefer my police force to take care of business more important to society that checking cyclists for registration papers. In short, developing a registration system for bikes would be a monumental waste of taxpayers money and that is in nobody's interest.

All that money gone to adminstration of bike licences could be spent on infrastructure and campaigns to promote cycling.

It is also worthwhile to consider the very simple fact that more bikes with a marginal impact on the roads means less wear and tear. This reduces the necessity for time-consuming and expensive road works to fix the potholes, etc. It will be cheaper for motorists, not to mention much more convenient, not having to suffer as many construction delays.

2. Health Impact
The cyclist, besides having a marginal impact on the roads, will also end up benefiting society on a whole by transporting him or herself by bike. The health benefits are many and they are well-documented. In direct relation to cars, it is interesting to point of some of the many studies regarding pollution.

The level of dangerous, polluting microparticles inside a car are much higher than outside - on a bike, for example. There are a couple of links to earlier posts below regarding this.

Cyclists Can Breathe Easy
Traffic Kills 10 Times More People Than Traffic Accidents

In addition to it being more dangerous to sit inside a car than outside one, consider this excerpt from the above link:

In Denmark almost 4000 people die each year from pollution from cars. That number is ten times higher than those who are killed IN the traffic. According to a recent study, breathing the pollution from the automotive traffic is more dangerous than merely being the traffic.

3400 people die each year from illnesses directly related to the particles released from the exhaust of cars. On top of that there are 200-500 people who die prematurely from heart disease and high blood pressure caused by the noise generated by traffic. Yes... just the NOISE!

I can't even begin to imagine how these numbers will mulitply when applied to any North American city.

So... cyclists are actually reducing health care costs and, in effect, freeing up hospital beds for those who need them. They are also increasing their health levels - which will give them fewer sick days and a more effective working life, thereby contributing more positively to the economy.

In Denmark we've determined that cycling is much more cost-efficient than cars. Indeed, for every kilometre cycled the nation enjoys a net profit of 25 cents. For every kilometre driven by car, the nation suffers a net loss of 16 cents. Due to a host of health factors, wear and tear/road maintenance factors, etc.

In Copenhagen a study has determined that for every kilometre cycled, the city earns $1.10. Pure profit. Based on the value of our cycling citizens living longer - 7 years - and being less ill whilst alive (subsidizing those poor motorists and their illnesses as we slog away at work with fewer sick days) as well as the value of health care costs saved.

So far there the 'should cyclists pay' debate is frightfully unbalanced. Which is why there is every reason that cyclists should:

3. Get Paid To Ride
All of the common sense above should somehow lead to rewards for cyclists. A city council that builds segregated bike lanes, thereby encouraging citizens to ride, will be spending less on road works and public health.

Tax cuts for cyclists. Tax rebates when you buy a new bike. You name it. There's a wealth of creative options out there.

Instead of demanding that cyclists pay, motorists should be buying us beer and thanking us on behalf of themselves, their children [present or future], the nation and society in general. (insert operatic climax with full orchestra here...)

So. Bicycle registration and 'licences'? Doesn't make sense. Common or otherwise. Or let's start a shoe tax for those pedestrians sponging off our public funds.