Should Cyclists Be Licensed?

Almost daily, I read comments in various papers and blogs by drivers who demand that cyclists pay their way. These comments usually include suggestions that we license and register cyclists and bicycles, and charge taxes or user fees of some kind. This morning, I read one in the Richmond Times Dispatch, my local paper. In recent weeks, the RTD editorial page has included some very thoughtful pieces from the paper’s editor in chief, Tom Silvestri, and others. Perhaps in response, this morning’s paper included a Letter to the Editor from a Mr. James. I seized upon the opportunity to enlighten this reader, and perhaps a few others.

Mr. James–  as the saying goes, facts are stubborn things.

1. Roads are only partially paid for by vehicle and fuel related taxes. The rest comes from general state and local taxes, or bonds, which are paid off with such taxes.

2. Cyclists pay sales tax when they buy bikes and anything related to bikes.

3. Most cyclists own cars and pay fuel and vehicle taxes. Many own homes and pay property tax as well.

4. When cyclists ride instead of drive on the roads that they are already paying for, they do much less damage, resulting in lower maintenance costs.

5. When cyclists ride instead of drive, they reduce demand for imported oil, which comes at a high cost in human life and national treasure (as evidenced by the last two decades of continuous wars which are at least in part the result of our need for oil from the Middle East).

6. When cyclists ride instead of drive we do not need to expand or build the roads as much, and taxes can be reduced or spent on better things than paving our scenic countryside.

7. When cyclists ride instead of drive, they reduce the need for parking at their destination. Parking is extremely expensive, even when it is “Free.” Read “The High Cost of Free Parking” by Prof. Donald Shoup. You can get it at Amazon.

8. When cyclists ride instead of drive, they reduce congestion, resulting in shorter travel times for drivers, and less fuel wasted in traffic jams. See #5 above.

9. When cyclists ride instead of drive, they are healthier, and so is everyone else, reducing the cost of healthcare, regardless of who is paying.

10. When cyclists ride instead of drive, they reduce the CARnage on our roadways that claims almost 40 thousand lives every year, the equivalent of crashing a fully loaded 737 airliner every day, 365 days a year.

11. When cities incorporate cycling into their transportation planning, more people ride and fewer drive. In Portland, 8% of all commuters now ride their bikes, up from less than 1% in less than 20 years. That’s a dramatic reduction in driving. (See )

So, Mr. James, by all means, let’s license all bikes and cyclists, and track their use of the roads, mile by mile and PAY THEM to ride. And while we are at it, let’s license all those recreational shoes and pedestrians too. And finally, let’s think seriously about taxing drivers for the true full cost of their transportation choices, which are heavily subsidized by any measure. We can’t have any freeloaders using our precious asphalt now can we.


Tom Bowden

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18 comments… add one
  • > Many own homes and pay property tax as well.

    Renters pay property taxes too, it’s just included in their rent. Landlords’ property taxes aren’t free.

  • Right on, Mike. I was gonna say the same thing. In fact, I recall reading a study about a year ago that indicated that owners of multifamily units tend to pay a higher rate of property tax than single family homeowners. Those costs are of course being passed on to the renters, so at least in some cases they’re actually paying MORE in property taxes relative to the value of their residence. I’m having trouble finding this article/study, so if this sounds familiar to anyone please post the link here. I’m gonna keep searching in the meantime.

  • Mike and Shane – you are both right, but I wanted to keep things simple.

  • Biker road-use fees, if set in proportion to number of riders and a realistic estimation of the cost of wear and tear or other bike related road expenses (trail building, bike lane striping, etc.) would be a good thing. I’d even pay a little more for a single-payer bike insurance program.

  • Nick, I think it’s fair to say that the cost of wear and tear is essentially zero. As far as bike-related road expenses, that’s covered pretty well in the above article: most people who bike also own vehicles and pay all the associated fees and taxes, and since much of transportation infrastructure is actually paid for with sales and property taxes (among other things), and given how little is spent on bicycling infrastructure it’s very likely that it’s already more than paid for by its users.

    I’m also not completely averse to raising bike-facility revenue from bikers, but what I AM averse to is anything that will counterproductively decrease bicycle ridership. Charging people to use their bikes when it has so many benefits compared to vehicles is extremely backwards, and even moreso when it would inevitably decrease the number of people choosing to ride their bikes.

  • While I do not believe Cyclists need to be taxes, I do think there should some type of licensing. I see far to many people on bicycles that are not following the rules of the road. (e.g. riding on the wrong side of road, go the wrong direction on one-way street, not stopping at stop signs or lights). There should be some sort of training, since bicyclists are required to follow the same rules that automobile drivers do.

  • Karl-
    That’s the difference between “cyclists” and “GOBs” (guys on bikes). For the most parts, “cyclists” follow the rules of the road. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and those people make ALL of us look bad. Same with the GOBs.
    People in cars, who have no frame of reference, see GOBs and guys in lycra, astride high $ bicycles, as one in the same. When GOBs ride down the wrong side of the road, or do the very hipster, red light dash, again, it makes “cyclists” look bad.
    I own a home, a big SUV, and tens of thousands of dollars of bike stuff. I paid taxes on ALL of it. Not paying for training, licensing fees, or any additional taxes to “allow” me to use the road that I’ve already paid for…

  • Via email, Scott Troy wrote:

    Dear Mr. Bowden,

    I ride between 100 and 150 miles a week for recreation around Hampton Roads. I am in favor of licensing riders & registering bikes for all riders over the age of 13. The main reason – safety for riders and cyclists.

    I see riders of all styles misusing the roads and endangering everyone’s safety. I lie the idea of licensing with a 25 to 50 questions test so bike riders – roadies, fixies, mountain, crusier, hybrid, touring, cyclocross, etc – know what is expected of them and drivers on our shared roadways. We all see salmon, riders without reflectors, red light runners and any other number of offenses created by riders. If we want cars to know what cyclists expect – how to pass safely with at least 2 feet – and Share the Road then cyclists should be held to a higher standard of knowing the laws. We need to be accountable for our actions when riding just as motorized vehicles need to be accountable for their actions when driving. Basically, if we want cars to know the laws then so do we.

    So, while I understand and respect your points about cost, I feel safety of all road users is just as important. In addition, VA DMV should have separate 10 question basic driver – cycling test as part of the licensing exam for drivers to include: safe passing of cyclist, due care (boy does VA need this law passed by the General Assembly), 2 minute red light law, allowable usage of the full lane by cyclists, etc.

    I am on your side. I want safety and understanding between all road users.



  • Scott:

    I’m old enough to have been taught how to ride a bike (safely) and negotiate the streets as a pedestrian when I was in elementary school. Back in the day, there was a program called, SafetyTown - which specifically taught these skills to children.

    I’m a cyclist who obeys the laws. I respect and ride by the rules of the road. I support police ticketing all users, including cyclists that don’t. Hold all road users to the same standards and let them face the consequences when they don’t.

    Rather than licensing cyclists, I would encourage educating young people on how to ride safely (hopefully getting more kids to get away from the X-box and get some exercise) This includes educating our drivers that the roads belong to all of us and to focus on driving while on the road.

    In many of these recent crashes with cyclists, I really wonder what role distracted driving played. It seems, today, people want to do everything in the car except focusing on driving. Driving a car is probably the most dangerous activity most people engage in today and until they take this responsibility seriously, innocent people, including cyclists, pedestrians and other drivers will die needlessly.

  • It should be clear by now that licensing is a rather ineffective education vector. It doesn’ work for motorists, why should it work for cyclists?

  • I sent in a letter last week after the incident with our Motorcycle ride and the Burke’s Garden century. Oh yea, I got no response from this organization on that either. But since that incident I think cyclist should definitely be licensed. If nothing else they would perhaps learn a bit of road manners that they don’t get riding around in they’re SUV or whatever talking on their cell phones.

    Oh yea, I use to be a bicycle racer…

  • Robert McNabb – If licensing is the key to education, how is it that there are so many dangerous and ill informed drivers out there. Half the police don’t even know the law when it comes to bikes on the road. I was pulled over on the Mayo Bridge and told to ride on the sidewalk not 50 yards from the sign that says Bicycles Prohibited from Riding on Sidewalk. Drivers and even the police make it up as they go and their view of traffic law is usually a thinly disguised version of their own preconceived notions.

  • Mr. McNabb:

    I think you would probably agree that most cyclists are licensed drivers. I would argue that Virginia needs to update its educational, “curriculum” for motorists including how to share the road with cyclists and other drivers.

    I am also a licensed motorcycle rider and we would all benefit with something similar to the Motorcycle Rider Training Program for drivers. The current, “education” and testing requirements for a license are, IMHO, a bit of a joke.

    As stated in my earlier comment, many of our road users are far too casual behind the wheel. Being a bicyclist has made me a far more careful driver.

  • I’m a licensed Motorcyclist and Commercial driver. I especially try to share the road in my loaded log truck. (No I don’t ride a harley I have a 2 ducatis :)) But this I’ve noticed about bicyclist around here, there is no attempt to share the road by the biggest part of them. They seem to suffer from that chihuahua mentality or mob mentality when in a peloton. Pretty bad attitude I might add. So I think bicyclist could learn a thing or two with a training program also.
    The incident I refer to last weekend involved a peloton and a car along side talking to them or part of the group, no one has owned up to it. The car of course in the wrong lane and we came round a curve and found these idiots. No time to brake no were to go but to try the side of the road and there was damn little of it. Did I say my wife was riding pillion, well she was. We managed to keep the bike upright and my wife stopped me from turning around and kick ass.

    Have a great day, but think about others when you organize your rides.

  • When I moved back to San Francisco from living abroad five years ago, I wound up living in a downtown area where owning a car or motorcycle was/is out of the question since they are stolen or burglarized almost nightly.

    I was forced to switch from driving a car (I’m 43 so 27 years of owning cars) to riding a bike since public transport is akin to hell here. I hated it, it sucked. The first two months I felt tired, sweaty, old, fat, and out of balance/wobbly.

    But then something amazing happened. After a couple months of awkwardness, three things I totally didn’t expect happened. I lost the awkwardness, and began to become one with my metal horse, it became an extension of my muscles and thought. The second thing I totally wasn’t expecting was when I finally had a chance to buy a car, I realized those days were over. Even today, I can’t look at a car seriously. So anyone buying a new car today given the future of oil is someone who’s simply not thinking ahead since by the time that car has lived it’s life (about 20 years) there won’t be a drop of oil left, so they’ll have enjoyed their car, but at the cost of the planet they’re standing on, and that’s just bat sh_t crazy…

    During my getting to this place, at any time, I’d have leaped for a car, to give up my bike. But once I got used to riding, and fell in love with my metal horse, my desire to drive, relaxing in traffic, and anything good that cars provide now seem so utterly wasteful to me. Don’t believe me, next time you want to drive to the store to pick something up, push your car the whole way. All that energy to push that multi-ton vehicle to the store for your snack is real, it really takes a lot of energy to push such a large heavy vehicle around, and we humans do it hundreds of millions of times a day around the world.

    Now I want the US to follow Europe who’s paving the way with bicycle super highways. Why aren’t we leading this given our conscious awareness of how oil hurts our culture and even kills thousands of people indirectly through wars needed to sustain that black goo in our vanes.

    I’d like to see an article on just addicted human beings are to cars/the auto and oil. Show me a freeway packed with bumper to bumper traffic, and I’ll show you a bunch of people who felt just like me, that life without a car simply isn’t possible.

    Well folks it is, it sucks getting there, but it is, and if you’re willing to bite the bullet, I promise you it will be one of the most important life changing decisions you’ll ever make. No more diets, gyms, exercise machines.

    Because of my living situation, I use my local gym only for showers. I’ve been going for five years, and have never worked out, not once, and I look awesome (better than I did in my 30s). This going on for so long, many regulars there can’t understand how I look so buff and lean when all I ever do is shower there. It’s really got em scratching their heads. And I’m pretty sure some hate me for looking good while never working out, and then drive home to watch TV.

    The future? Imagine you’re walking in a park and come across a small foot bridge. As you reach the top, you notice this is a bridge over a bicycle super highway. You see people peddling away going fast and then a bike goes whizzing by at 50mph. Now electric bikes have had their limiters removed since bikes don’t compete with cars anymore. And Lisa Smith who’s riding her bike from San Francisco to Redwood City couldn’t be happier as she flies over the bike super highway.

  • Hold on, Tom. You were pulled over by the Richmond Police and told not to ride on the sidewalk? I’ve been pulled over by the Richmond Police and told to ride on the sidewalk.

    Very good list, BTW.

  • Kirk – I was told to ride ON the sidewalk not 50 yards from a sign that said it was illegal to ride ON the sidewalk. I was pulled over with flashing lights, siren and a bullhorn warning “THIS IS NOT A BIKE LANE, THIS IS NOT A BIKE LANE”

  • I want to know who were the monkeys that signed off on the design for bicycles so we’re between-

    Traffic, otherwise known as large metal objects traveling at much higher speeds

    and people parking and opening their doors, or traps that spring at any time.

    Is it so hard to have made the leap that-

    Bike path
    Driving lanes

    would work a whole lot better for everyone. Or even better since bikes are so light, why not have elevated bicycle freeways. I’m sure it would help add more bicyclists.

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