Should Toronto License its Cyclists and their Bikes?
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Should Toronto License its Cyclists and their Bikes?

Probably not.

Photo by Andrew from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by Andrew from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

On May 20, 1935, the City of Toronto passed a bylaw requiring bike-owning residents to have a licence in order to bike along the city’s highways. The idea was to hold cyclists accountable in equal measure with other vehicles, and to develop a citywide database of registered bikes. Like any vehicle-owner using the city’s roads, licences were subject to renewal, and any cyclist using the highways without their licence would receive a fine of $5. At the time, this was thought to be a good idea.

It really wasn’t.

The City encountered numerous problems in the licensing of cyclists that, in retrospect, seem obvious. Primarily, the City had trouble maintaining a complete and updated database. Since it was the bicycles that required licences, and not those who ride them, the City had to update their database whenever anyone bought a new bike—a task that proved especially difficult considering how often this happened.

Then there was the problem of children’s bikes. In a statement regarding the repeal of the bylaw in 1957, the City noted that the bylaw often resulted “in an unconscious contravention of the law at a very tender age,” referring, probably, to the toddlers that had forgotten to have their tricycles registered.

So the bylaw was repealed—but the debate never stopped.

In 1984, 1992, and 2009, the City discussed licensing cyclists for myriad reasons, from bike theft to riding on sidewalks. The Public Works and Infrastructure Committee debated it again in 2009, citing the need “to put in place a system to adequately regulate cyclists in a manner commensurate with their increased rights and responsibilities.”

Most recently, the question has arisen in the form of a petition. While the petition has received a mere 199 signatures, councillors, too, have voiced their support for similar suggestions. Councilor Jim Karygiannis (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt), a member of the Licensing and Standards Committee, supports the licensing of cyclists as a means to hold them accountable for reckless riding. And in 2009, former councillor Michael Walker’s motion to Council to license cyclists for reasons of safety was then supported by current councillors, such as David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale) and Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre).

Councillor Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport), the chair of the Licensing and Standards Committee, although not taking a direct stance on the matter, told the Toronto Sun last December that there should at least be a “conversation” about holding cyclists accountable.

That this idea has been brought up numerous times in Council only to be swiftly rejected is proof that another conversation probably isn’t necessary. Licensing cyclists simply isn’t worth the complications and expenditures that accompany it.

The administrative costs of developing a database to hold the information of every bike in Toronto is considerable, and the Ministry of Transportation has previously rejected the idea.

Moreover, many of those that have contemplated the process of licensing bicycles, such as environmental lawyer and founder of Bells on Bloor Albert Koehl, have noted that the only sensible jurisdiction for licensing is provincial, considering that cycling routes aren’t limited to municipal boundaries. So, if licensing all of the bicycles in Toronto isn’t enough of a headache in itself, imagine licensing all of the bicycles in Ontario.

Even apart from the hardships of compiling a database for bicycles, licensing bikes is still impractical. Say, for argument’s sake, that we live in a parallel universe where Ontario doesn’t have the world’s largest sub-sovereign debt and can reasonably afford a licensing system for all the bikes in the province. Even without this system, cyclists are already subject to traffic laws, and police already have the necessary tools and abilities to enforce them. Unsavoury biking tendencies (careless riding, running red lights, and so on) won’t change simply because the bike has a licence; under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, cyclists are just as liable and just as likely to be punished for such illegalities either way.

But none of these arguments are new. In fact, most of them were realized around the same time that the bylaw was repealed nearly 60 years ago. Each time the matter is revisited, the same arguments come up on either side, and each time the bylaw is presented at City Council, it is eventually rejected. Perhaps it’s time to drop the idea altogether.

This article was made possible by Urbane Cyclist.