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.