Licensed to Ride
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Licensed to Ride

With rights come responsibilities. That was the refrain, over and over and over again, from councillors who spoke at the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee yesterday in favour of a motion by Michael Walker (Ward 22) to develop a cyclist licensing program. According to Walker, “licensing would provide for more effective enforcement of the applicable laws and clarify collision situations” [PDF]. Though the debate was largely framed as stemming from concern about cyclists’ well-being (given that cycling does come with dangers, said several, it is incumbent upon the City to do its level best to mitigate those risks through a programme of education and regulation), underlying it was palpable anger and frustration on the part of at least some councillors with regards to how cyclists comport themselves on our city’s streets. “Licensing is a barrier to entry,” protested Yvonne Bambrick, executive director of the Toronto Cyclists Union, and we got the impression that that was exactly the point.

There is a significant and seemingly growing contingent of Torontonians who want to make it harder for cyclists to get on the road. This is born, depending on whose point of view you adopt, from legitimate frustration with consistent and often unpunished violations of the rules of the road or from a selfish desire to preserve those roads for automobiles rather than shifting to a multi-modal understanding of their proper use.
There is some truth in both perspectives. Cyclists, it is true, sometimes make improper turns, or enter traffic abruptly, ride on sidewalks where they oughtn’t, and fail to signal where they ought. In this, they are no different than drivers, who make right turns when they shouldn’t, go over the speed limit as a matter of course, park in bike lanes with regular impunity, and open doors as cyclists ride past with dangerous frequency. The question is whether licensing cyclists will do anything at all to alleviate the problems currently on our roadways.

Photo by Martinho from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

According to the City’s own staff, who investigated this question in 2005, it will not. [PDF] Bicycles are vehicles under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act and subject to the rules of the road as outlined therein. A cyclist is subject to fines for improperly operating his or her vehicle under the HTA already—no licensing system must be introduced in order to make these regulations applicable or enforceable when that vehicle is a bicycle rather than anything else. What’s more, even if licensing led to a reduction in these infractions, our roads wouldn’t be in much better shape. Here is where the argument that cyclists are road users like all others and need to be regulated like all others breaks down: though cycling infractions are stressful, annoying, and illegal, they are rarely dangerous. According to a recent study, cyclists cause less than 10% of cyclist-automobile collisions. Cyclists, in short, have a perception problem. They are viewed as being far more damaging than they actually are. This is not to excuse infractions where they occur. As a recent case of a cyclist hitting and killing a pedestrian showed, cycling can be dangerous. It needs to be regulated and those regulations need to be enforced—all of which is already possible. But such cases are outliers, and focusing on them skews our sense of perspective and prevents us from recognizing that the biggest problem on our streets is not that we have too many cyclists disobeying the rules but too few cyclists at all. (The PWIC ended up voting unanimously to refer licensing to staff for further study.)
Fundamentally, those who seek to (over)regulate cycling, who look to the cyclists as the cause of the problems that exist in our current traffic patterns, congestion, and road use, are ones who view cycling as optional—a choice, perhaps largely recreational, and certainly expendable, that gratifies an individual’s desire to ride but has no bearing on or benefit to the well-being of our city at large. This is the falsehood at the heart of the debate. Adding cycling into our city planning is not a matter of ceding (literal, moral, political) ground to a special-interest group that is imposing its mere taste for two wheels on the rest of us. We all, every single one of us, do better as the rate of cycling increases. Our air quality improves, our collective health improves (which means our health care burdens diminish), our roads last longer (saving us more money in street repairs), traffic eases, and our cities, simply, become more livable. We need to make it safer to cycle, and we need to make it easier. The way to accomplish that is assuredly not to put bikes on par with two-tonne motorized vehicles but to think of cycling as a legitimate form of transportation as important as—and we really, really mean equal to—driving and build the infrastructure so that no cyclist is tempted to ride the sidewalk again.