A Very Dumb History of the Bicycle License
Fueled by fearmongering and phony rhetoric, plans to force cyclists to obtain licenses are not new—but they are ridiculous
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Everybody has a dream–something that motivates them, gets them out of bed in the morning, compels them to pick themselves up again even after they fall down face-first in the mud. For an athlete, it’s clinching a championship. For an actor it’s winning an Academy Award and haranguing everyone about your political beliefs. And for the bike-hater, it’s implementing some sort of scheme whereby people must obtain a license and registration in order to ride a bicycle.
Here in New York City, the latest attempt comes from State Senator Simcha Felder, who, in the wake of a recent bike-on-bike fender-bender in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, made the following boast on twitter:
Speeding lawless bikers & E bikers cause accidents, injuries & fatalities with others using them to flee crimes. I proposed a package of bills to force all bikes & e scooters be registered, plated and insured. Right now, with no regulation, victims have no recourse! 1 Road-1 Rule
There is a time I’d have flown into a rage over such a proposal—as a cyclist, I recognize this plan as an obvious attempt to subvert the act of bicycling. As a human being, I also know that the best way to advance a moronic agenda that preempts critical thinking is to hide it under a thin veneer of fearmongering and concern for public safety. Cars are big, powerful, and potentially dangerous to everyone around them, so It makes sense that people operating them should have to not only to demonstrate a minimum level of proficiency, but also carry insurance in the event that a lapse in that proficiency results in their piloting one into your house. Meanwhile, most people can—and should!—attain proficiency on a bicycle before they’re even tall enough to see over the dashboard of a car, so adding a layer of bureaucracy to all of that can only serve to discourage them from doing so and ultimately undermine the very accessibility that makes the bicycle the universal conveyance that it is.
Think about it: riding a bike is a fundamental part of growing up, as essential as learning to tie your shoe. So if you applied bicycle licensing logic to other basic life skills, you’d have a country full of 30 year olds who can’t make toast or do their own laundry because they couldn’t be bothered to get their government-mandated kitchen-use certification. (Sure, there are plenty of people like this already, but they’re mostly confined to colleges and universities.)
I still feel the same way about bicycle licenses—which is that they’re stupid, in case that wasn’t clear)—but do I feel differently about politicians who attempt to legislate them. This is because I find reassurance in history. See, bicycle licenses aren’t new; in fact they’re nearly as old as the bicycle itself. For example, back in 1896, an article in the New York Times noted how far the bicycle had come. “They were restricted to the use of pedestrian paths in the parks during certain hours, and for even this poor privilege a license was necessary in some cities.” But eventually bicycles became ubiquitous, acceptance followed, and cycling ultimately enjoyed “patronage by both sexes, among all classes.”
Meanwhile, in 1897, Chicago introduced an annual $1 bicycle licence fee–which was declared unconstitutional and nullified shortly thereafter. One significant reason the bicycle licence wasn’t viable was that it was impractical to enforce: for example, what if someone rides into the city from someplace else where licenses aren’t required? A modern-day bicycle licensing scheme in New York City would be similarly stupid, especially when you consider that large swaths of the greater metropolitan area alone extend well into New Jersey and Connecticut, with thousands of riders a day crossing the George Washington Bridge to get to Manhattan.
Nevertheless, bicycle licensing schemes continued, though as the automobile rose to prominence they became less about raising revenue and more about shifting blame from drivers to bicyclists. See, at first cars were merely the playthings of the rich, and in New York City enforcement came from the “Scorcher Squad”—cops on bicycles who chased reckless drivers. A 1907 newspaper article reports that a New York City bicycle policeman named O’Brien busted banker A.F. Kountze for speeding in an automobile and driving without a license. (He was doing 18mph.) Reading an article from 1950, however, we can see that the cars have won, drivers don’t want to be inconvenienced by other road users, and it’s children who have to pay the price—not just in danger, but in personal freedom. “Highway hazards created for motorists by the 18,000,000 bicycles in service in this country, mostly piloted by teen-agers, are an increasing problem in the campaign to reduce accident rates,” says a story that year calling for bike licensing. “As a remedy to this evil, Mr. Harvey (of the Association of Casualty and Surety Companies, dontcha know), urged that city and town officials adopt programs that call for registration and licensing of bicycles and the power to suspend and revoke these credentials and impound the vehicles.”
Municipalities listened, with predictable results. In 1957, half the kids who took one such test in the Long Island hamlet of Manhasset flunked. And that’s how you get children to stop riding to school—take away their mobility until they’re old enough to drive
Today, bicycle licensing and registration has mostly disappeared from the American landscape, probably because the automobile’s victory has been so complete and total there’s no real need for the gratuitous subjugation measures in a post-automotive world. Honolulu bizarrely requires bicycles to be registered, but that’s about it. Nevertheless, every so often, when someone somewhere gets annoyed by a bicyclist, some pandering legislator raises the specter of bike licenses yet again, and Senator Felder is one of the more recent examples.
So what to do about it? Well I say bring it on. Go ahead, make New Yorkers get bicycle licenses. Whatever, we’ve seen it all before. No doubt the city and state will be be just as successful enforcing them as they are with fraudulent and obscured automobile license plates, which are everywhere now, despite much-publicized crackdowns. And if drivers are freaking out about congestion pricing, just wait until they find out they’ll also be underwriting a Department of Bicycle Registration, and an Office of Bicycle Enforcement, and a Bicycle Czar to run it all. It’s easy to complain about bicyclists until you actually have to pay for it. And if Felder actually does manage to get this thing passed, I’ll just pull some kind of residency scam—you know, like the drivers do. Having to dodge a bike license is a short-term inconvenience which would be worth it when the sheer ridiculous of it ultimately bites him in the ass.
So yeah, good luck with your lousy bicycle license.