Should Seattle license cyclists?

The PI’s got an interesting article on licensing cyclists. It’s a popular and perennial idea – it’s even come up in the Washington Legislature repeatedly in recent years. The concept generally seems to be that cyclists should pay to use roads.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to figure out that licensing cyclists to pay for roads isn’t a good idea. It generally isn’t taken too seriously in Olympia and elsewhere, the PI Sound Off section notwithstanding. The PI has actually hosted editorials on the facts of how cyclists fund roads in the past.

The PI article does a pretty good job of showing just what a bad idea this is, although you really have to read the whole article to get a full picture.

One (this one anyway) might wonder why licensing cyclists is such an attractive idea. There are several underlying thoughts: That cyclists are not paying for the roads like drivers are; that a licensing program would generate revenue to pay for additional facilities; that licenses would allow more enforcement; and would legitimize bikes on the roads.

An earlier article in the PI goes a long way in explaining away the first concern. Here’s a quote from the abstract of Whose Roads which is cited in the article

Although motorist user fees (fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees) fund most highway expenses, funding for local roads (the roads pedestrians and cyclists use most) originates mainly from general taxes. Since bicycling and walking impose lower roadway costs than motorized modes, people who rely primarily on nonmotorized modes tend to overpay their fair share of roadway costs and subsidize motorists.

The PI article yesterday by Ms. Galloway goes a long way to refute the second point. The idea that a licensing program would help pay for anything beyond administering the licensing program simply isn’t borne out in the real world. Even if a licensing program were to pay for itself entirely it would significantly increase the cost of cycling financially and logistically. What would the benefit of this additional cost to cyclists be?

The implied answer is that licensing allows additional enforcement – if you can license something you can revoke the granted licenses. That is, if you have an enforcement arm. If licensing programs don’t generate enough revenue for funding infrastructure why would they make enough for additional enforcement? More importantly, why is a licensing program needed for enforcement in the first place? There are plenty of enforceable laws to go around if we had sufficient interest in enforcing them.

Wiping these reasons out of the way leaves us with the single best reason for having a licensing program: to legitimize cyclists as users of the road. It’s pretty sad that this is the best reason because it’s almost no reason at all – cyclists have paid for road usage (see above), and have a legal right to the roads, why should we need any additional stamp or endorsement to use them?

Regardless of the reality of the situation there’s little doubt that a few people think of cyclists as illegitimate road users. I think the best outcome of a licensing program would be curing these folks of these thoughts, although even this goal is wildly optimistic. It’d be much cheaper, easier, and more effective to just ignore these folks and keep riding bikes.


Wow, looks like the news conglomerate was good enough to run this story (license for bikes) on the King 5 news tonite. I have to hand it to the editors who chose to focus on those in seattle who “don’t have a choice but to ride bikes”—the implied homelessness issue has absolutely no place in the discussion and only serves to muddy the waters. Even more weirdly, they closed the story with the anchor person telling us that the DOT doesn’t think it would raise much money (duh). All this really does is raise the question “why is this news at all?”.

I agree that it wouldn’t be very effective in getting the nuts that scream “you don’t belong on the road” to realize that I do have that right; they are crazy and nothing will get a crazy person to change their thinking.

But there are a whole lot of people who aren’t crazy who actually think cyclists don’t have a “right” to be on the road and I think licenses would change their thinking on this. Some of these misinformed people are wearing badges and if nothing else getting them to understand our rights would be an improvement.

I’m all for it.

The Front Page article (slow news day?) asked: Should Bicyclists Be Licensed?  As a cyclist, I say sure; does this mean the harassment will stop?  If so, then Yes, a thousand times Yes!

Seattle’s Master Cycling Plan is expensive, and I don’t know for sure if it’s money well spent, but make absolutely no mistake: the frequently heard meme (which Angela Galloway buys hook, line, and sinker in her article) “cyclists should pay their fair share” has nothing to do with cost and everything to do with sharing the road.  Some motorists just can’t stand to see anyone in their way, and since some cyclists break traffic laws, cyclists as a whole become an easy scapegoat.

In all fairness, I must divulge, I got pulled over by the Seattle Police for rolling through a stop sign.  The officer gave me a stern warning.  Nineteen years ago.

But Licensing, the word the headline uses, isn’t city registration fees (which is all the article discusses); it is a state matter involving competency standards and testing.  I’m all for it.  Assuming some provision would be made for child-cyclists, let’s license bicyclists.  After all cyclists receive ample benefits on the roadways of our state - I feel that every day that I’m out on my bicycle,...

And if we’re only discussing city registration of bicycles, then can we institute city only registration of cars?  All this traffic people complain about would evaporate if we could keep the suburbanites in their Suburbans off the streets We Pay For!!!!

While we’re overhauling Washington’s road laws, I propose that Driver’s Licenses be valid for four year’s driving out of every five.  The fifth year would be valid for cycling only.  Think of the benefits, after all America is plagued with obesity, urban sprawl, and is, per capita, the greatest contributor of greenhouse gasses.

Bicycling never caused sprawl or obesity.  It’s time for bold vision from our politicians.  C’mon, let’s license bicyclists; I’m not kidding!

When I was [in London](/tag/london), I rode through congestion zones and it was a remarkable difference. Intense traffic, then nothing. [The congestion zones]( discourage the use of private cars, to reduce congestion, and to raise funds for investment in public transport. If Seattle wants to get serious about reducing traffic, then they should adopt such a program and bikes get a free pass, instead of a license. I think Seattle is probably the only city that upon the launch of a new trolly complain that it’s slowing their single-occupancy cars down. Like I’ve said before, look no further than Pikes Place Market to see Seattle’s car culture in full.

If this means (in the interest of “fairness”) that I get the entire lane, then let’s do it. I’m game. We’ll no longer need a $240M plan. :)

For those who are opposed to cyclists on the road, I believe nothing will appease them.  They drive aggressively and abusively around slow-moving cars, and I believe they will continue to drive aggressively and abusively around cyclists, licensed or not.

Moreover, I am concerned about the chilling effect a licensing requirement would have on cycling.  The single thing that makes me feel safer on the road is other cyclists.  Would the number of cyclists dwindle if cycling becomes more of a hassle than it already is?

Hey, thanks all for the lively discussion! Looks like the PI editorial board’s made their call on where they stand:

I’m still curious why this is a news story at all. Clearly it has some legs—1) the merits of making cyclists legit users of the road (at least here in the southerly end of biker-ville), and 2) “It’ll pay for stuff”.

But I still don’t buy that either of these are really worth a damn. I’m much more interested to find out who’s lobbying the press for the ‘license the bikes’ issue and driving any political discussion. Somebody’s got an interest here and is directing the discussion.

Regarding making bikes more legitimate on the roads here’s my plan. Free, optional, state sponsored stickers. No administration muss, no bitching about where the money went at the end of the day, no worrying about the haves v.s. the have nots. Host them on a web site, include a license agreement which indicates you’ve read the cycling license laws (check box) and print them out at home. Want something fancier? I’ll print you a vinyl decal for a few bucks. We’ll make a new one every year so you can collect them all!

I’m pretty serious about this, I’ll even front the State for the first design. If the issue is legitimacy, we should go no further than relying on the existing laws that give it. If folks need a sticker to remind themselves and other of them then let’s do it. But steer well clear of making a mandatory, paid for license. Mandatory paid for licenses are what’s called ‘the thin end of the wedge’ and will only serve to further fracture the Seattle cycling community. Let’s ride united.

If there’s any community that needs a little separating around here it would be the motorists. It’d be very helpful to figure out just how small a percentage of car drivers out there really believe bikes don’t belong on the roads. I bet it’s fractional.

Long rant short, yes let’s make a license—Free, optional, and fun. Let’s make it mountable on all road vehicles—cars, bikes, mopeds. Let’s dedicate it to civility, as in ‘we’re all in this together let’s play nice and enjoy the ride.’

Re: “Somebody’s got an interest here and is directing the discussion”.

I have a much more cynical, curmudgeonly interpretation of what’s happening.  If PI-on-the-web is like a lot of other websites, its business model is to deliver reader eyeballs to advertisers, and the way to do that is to drive traffic to their site.  Cycling-related pieces, both pro- and con- have triggered, at least over the past six months, the most intense traffic in Sound-Offs. 

On what is supposed to be the slowest news week of the year, I can imagine the PI editorial staff trying to stimulate traffic by publishing provocative pieces that are guaranteed to get a relatively small set of stakeholders making multiple visits to the site over the course of several days to engage in the forum.

I can’t think of any other reason for this article to appear now.  It’s really out of the blue.

I think I’m with Ted Diamond on this one. These discussions only serve to keep the polarized polarized.

Frankly, the PI article was lame, the editorial was lame and the resulting Sound Off was lame. At least it generated some (at this point.. I’m sure it will go up) 43 comments and who knows how many page views on an ad-displaying Sound Off page. Hmmmm…

Personally, I’d love to see an article that looked into the costs of such a registration system, looked at road costs and funding AND included the full data about our subsidized auto system (everything from automaker tax breaks to oil company subsidies to our military policy in the Middle East). Once we the full story maybe we could have a real Sound Off conversation about taxes, registration and “rights’ to the road.

Who am I kidding. The same unhappy people would be back on the Sound Off pages—still spewing their hate after only having read the headlines.

I’ve lived in Zurich, Switzerland for the past year and all bikes are required to carry a small sticker that indicates the owner has paid a nominal licensing fee (around $5 per year). We have well-maintained bike lanes on many roads and a national network of cycling routes. In the U.S., I think the biggest concern you will have with licensing is making sure the money it raises is properly spent. If bikes are licensed in Washington, you’ll need a watchdog group to keep an eye on the funds.

After reading the Sound Off pages, it makes me wonder if we can ever come to a place where bicycles are seen as a legitimate form of transportation by the majority of the population.  Most people only think of bicycles as “toys”.  I no longer live in Seattle, been in Sumner the last three years, and in areas like this, this is the prevailing attitude.

I’m not sure that I see licenses, or stickers, as being much help.  Unfortunately.

@Michael: Just a clarification: The $5 you have to pay in Switzerland is for insurance. If you harm someone else riding your bike then this person doesn’t have to rely on you being capable of paying. It has nothing to do with financing bike lanes or whatever.

From the other side of the mountains—

I found this site via a Google search I did on licensing cyclists—great reading.

I’m interested in the idea for a cyclist’s license myself for a very different reason than anything to do with legitimizing bikes on the roads we pay for (because we shouldn’t need to do that)—namely, to give cyclists a form of personal photo ID parallel to the driver’s license.

Think about what a driver’s license is used for BESIDES anything to do with proving you know the rules of the road (which so many drivers prove daily they have forgotten, when it comes to sharing the road).

I specify that I’m an organ donor, I use it to prove who I am when using a credit card or writing a check, once upon a time when I turned 17 I used it to get into R-rated movies on my own, I used it in conjunction with a health care power of attorney to prove who I was when I needed to assist my aging mother with her health care providers, I used it to prove identity when I registered to vote, and probably some other things that aren’t coming to mind right now.

The “driver’s” license is an essential form of personal identification. Why are drivers the only ones who get this?

Personally, I wouldn’t make it mandatory, but I would provide the option to strike a blow for equity in personal identification.

In my dreams, it also carries a magnetic strip that will trigger traffic lights green, since the vehicle detector can’t see my bike.


To Barb,

I just thought you should know:  it’s not true that only drivers can get that essential form of ID.  The state DMV issues ID cards which are exactly identical and equivalent in every aspect to a driver’s license, except that it is not a driver’s license (and I think they cost less too!).  These cards are every bit as legally valid a form of ID as a DL, and they can be used for everything that a DL is used for (except driving of course).  I have had one of these cards myself for years!

This is not a putdown, but it baffles me why most people don’t seem to know about that.  I’ll bet the people behind this bicycle-licensing proposition never mentioned that either?  That tells you something about THEIR motives:  The easy availability of DMV-issued ID cards makes bicycle licenses unnecessary.  And since a bicycle is not a licensed vehicle, you would actually be GIVING UP A RIGHT by getting a bicycle license.  Besides, cyclists already pay road taxes, and according to one reliable source (see article above), we actually pay more than our fair share, and some of that tax money actually subsidizes the automobile industry!  And now we are expected to pay MORE?  These people are trying to screw us, big time!

It is also worth noting that DMV-issued non-driver ID cards do not in any way lower one’s status or compromise one’s rights.  A driver’s license is not required by law.  In spite of this, people without driver’s licenses (a small minority) are often treated like second-class citizens.  I don’t think most people are socially aware of the problem, but it is a big problem.  I get harassed by customs agents every time I go to Canada, just for that and no other reason—and they know better.  They know what an ID card is.  I don’t know where the stereotype comes from, but they refuse to believe that any law-abiding citizen would choose not to have a driver’s license.  Even when they run a routine background check on me and find nothing (not even a traffic violation), they still don’t give up—they demand an explanation.  They don’t seem to get that I don’t need a driver’s license to drive a BICYCLE!

Anyway, I’ll get off of my soapbox now…  I also wanted to mention that (even though I’m obviously against licensing) I think your idea of having a magnetized strip to change traffic lights is brilliant! :)  Hmm, I wonder if there IS a way to do that…

—Otter (from across the mountains)

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