The Epidemic of Uniformed Opinions and Demands for Bicycle Licenses

Last week the City of Sacramento’s Law and Legislation Committee heard a proposed ordinance from Hilary Abramson and her attorney to prohibit anyone over the age of 13 from riding a bicycle on sidewalks anywhere in the City. The proposed ordinance would also require everyone in the City to register their bicycles and it would also prohibit anyone over the age of 13 from riding a bicycle without an operating license and without proper education. The proposal includes fees for bicycle registration and operating licenses and fines for riding an unregistered bike and for riding a bike without an operating license.

Several months ago, Ms. Abramson stepped out of her downtown office and onto the sidewalk when, suddenly, a person riding a bicycle struck her from behind and severely injured her. She filed a $3.5 million claim against the City. Also, as a retired journalist who covered City Hall for the Sacramento Bee for many years, Ms. Abramson knows a lot of people and, as a skilled communicator, she is extremely effective and making her case to the public. The international cycling press, which has rarely, if ever, said anything about Sacramento outside of the Tour of California, covered her claim, as Dan Walters (a commentator for the Sacramento Bee), Capitol Public Radio, and others. It’s incredible how passionate, emotional, and vitriolic people get about bikes versus cars and scofflaw bike riding, which was clearly evident at the Law and Legislation Committee Meeting (you can watch video of the meeting here). The Committee decided to refer the matter to the Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Sacramento’s ordinance currently only allows sidewalk riding in a “residence district” unless the sidewalk is a designated bike route (such as around the Capitol). Pedestrians still have the right of way and exceptions are made for law enforcement. The ordinance imposes a $5 fine for violations. Everyone agrees the ordinance is outdated and confusing, especially because the term “residence district” is not defined. Everyone also agreed that many of Sacramento’s are unsafe for bicycling and need improvement. The City is definitely making progress and it has some pretty major projects in the pipeline.

What people disagree on is what to do in the short-term. Compulsory registration, education, operator licensing, and fines, like proposed by Ms. Abramson’s attorney, have been proposed by others as a means of dealing with scofflaw cyclists, but they are all ignorant of the poor history and effectiveness of these laws and that local governments in California don’t even have the authority to implement them.

What can local governments do?

The California Vehicle Code applies with uniformity throughout the state, including all of its counties and municipalities, and prohibits local governments from enacting or enforcing any ordinance or resolution on anything in the Vehicle Code. Local governments can asses no fine, fee, or penalty on any matter covered by the Vehicle Code unless specifically authorized by the Vehicle Code. (Cal. Vehicle Code §21.) Charter cities like Sacramento have more latitude in “municipal” matters, but courts have nonetheless only recognized a local government’s authority to adopt traffic control ordinances if that authority is expressly granted by the Vehicle Code. (Barajas v. City of Anaheim (1993) 15 Cal.App.4th 1808, 181.)

“Licensing” a bicycle is synonymous with “registering” a bicycle. When I talk about licensing bicycle riding or a cyclist, I am referring to an operator license similar to a driver’s license.

Bicycle Licensing/Registration

The Vehicle Code allows local governments to prohibit their residents from operating an unlicensed bicycle within their jurisdiction. (Cal. Vehicle Code §39002.)  Licensed bikes have a sticker affixed to the front of the seat tube (the Vehicle Code was apparently not written with beam bikes in mind). (Cal. Vehicle Code §39001.) A local government may charge up to $4 per year for a bicycle license and registration and up to $2 for a renewal. (Cal. Vehicle Code §39004.) A local government may impose a fine of up to $10 for riding an unlicensed bicycle in its jurisdiction. There is no authority to charge a high fine or require a big metal license plate of the sort required for a car or motorcycle (which are different, because they need to be identifiable from a distance while moving at high speed). Authority to require licensing is also limited to “residents,” which means that any one traveling into a local government’s jurisdiction (such as a commuter) would not be required to license and register a bike. For a city like Sacramento, where a significant number of people commute in from West Sacramento, Davis, Carmichael, and other nearby areas, this could severely limit the number of people subject to regulation.

Los Angeles required bicycle licensing and registration until 2009. The purpose of the program was to assist with recovering stolen bicycles.  However, Los Angeles suspended the program in 2009 upon recommendation from the police department. The program was understaffed in order to allocated resources to crime-related law enforcement programs. Also, at $3 for a three-year license, it lacked sufficient funding. In 2013, members of the Los Angeles City Council suggested resuming the program, but adequately funding the program with registration fees still would have been difficult even by charging the full $4 per year permitting by state law. The program also did little to prevent crime or improve public safety other than to give law enforcement probably cause to detain people suspected of riding unlicensed bicycles.

Licensing Bicycle Riding

No state or local government in the United States has ever required operator licenses for bicycles. In California, the Vehicle Code does not authorize local governments to require a person to have a license to ride a bicycle and it does not authorize local governments to impose a fine for an unlicensed person to ride a bicycle. As a result, local governments in California do not have the authority to require a person to have a license to ride a bicycle.

Toronto required people to have a license to ride a bicycle for many years, from 1935 to 1957. The program was expensive and difficult to administer. Children were difficult to license and their behavior was difficult to regulate. Licensing, on its own, also accomplished nothing to change the behavior of people riding bikes who disobeyed traffic laws. Toronto has found that blitz enforcement, public awareness campaigns, and bicycle friendly facilities are more effective at improving bicycle and pedestrian safety than licensing bicycle riding. In general, for Toronto, the harm and damage caused by negligent bicycle riding comes nowhere near the kind of harm and damaged caused by dangerous and negligent driving.

Takeaways

With the Three Feet For Safety Act (AB 1371) taking effect and the controversy over sidewalk riding in Sacramento, people are talking about bicycling like never before. While the discussion too often gets sidetracked by talk about bicyclists running stop signs and riding on sidewalks and demands for mandatory bicycle registration and bicyclist licensing, there nonetheless seems to be acknowledgement that safety needs to be better for everyone. As far as Hilary Abramson is concerned, her proposal (or demand) comes across as poorly researched and largely irrelevant to the issues of bicycle and pedestrian safety. Sidewalk riding is already illegal in most of the downtown area, so that really just leads to issues of stronger enforcement and fines. However, if faced with the choice of riding on the sidewalk versus riding in the street and possibly getting killed, those who still choose to ride will probably risk the ticket and ride on the sidewalk. Hopefully, acknowledging that mandatory registration and bicycling licenses are ineffective and unworkable means of improving safety, or at least immediately responding with these facts once demands for licenses come up, will move discussions to more productive solutions.

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