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Cyclist licenses: Great crankbait, bad policy

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Licensing bikes and their riders could raise new obstacles for one of the most affordable and sustainable methods of transportation. (Cindy Chew/2006 S.F. Examiner)

Joel Engardio, a candidate for the Board of Supervisors in District 7, recently called for mandatory licensing, registration and liability insurance for San Francisco bicycle riders and their bikes — “the same requirements for driving a car.” Maybe that sounds reasonable to you, but as a guy who has spent his life nurturing safe, healthy streets and equitable transportation options, I’ll tell you straight: It’s actually a really bad idea.

Licensing bicycles and their riders won’t help make our streets safer or healthier. It won’t help pay for badly needed infrastructure and programs. In fact, it would probably make things worse for everyone.

As other cities have learned, it would be far more costly to run a bike-licensing program than any potential benefit we’d realize, and it would raise new obstacles to extending access to one of the most equitable, affordable and sustainable modes of transportation.

Let me be very clear: I am adamantly opposed to selfish jerks, whatever the context or setting. I’m against selfish jerks who cut in line at the supermarket, selfish jerks who bully and threaten people with their cars, and selfish jerks who pedal at high speeds down sidewalks and push their bikes through crowded crosswalks.

Licensing bikes and bike riders may feel like a way to strike back at selfish jerks on bikes, but it’s really an empty, awkward gesture. We’ve already got the rules we need to address safety and courtesy on our streets. We need to prioritize enforcement resources on the most dangerous behaviors in the most dangerous locations, cracking down on excessive speed and red-light running and “failure to yield” infractions that intimidate and hurt people.

Licensing bike riders as if they were drivers is plainly unworkable. What about kids? What about visitors from nearby and all across the world? What about out-of-town commuters? I think Engardio is hopeful that our bike sharing system will thrive and grow, but how in the world would “cyclist licensing” work with a bike-share system?

Licensing bike riders is inequitable. Two thirds of low-income San Francisco households are car-free, and those households are especially pressed for an affordable way to get around. Do we really want to put more barriers in the way of cheap and healthy transportation for our poorest neighbors? And for heaven’s sake, do we really need another handle for harassment of people of color and undocumented folks?

Engardio thinks bicycle license and registration fees would give cyclists “skin in the game,” as if bike riders aren’t already paying their fair share. That’s nonsense. We all pay for bicycle infrastructure through sales taxes and other indirect sources (Gas taxes and other driver-sourced funds pay for less than half of road costs these days, and that ratio continues to drop). I’m already paying my fair share when I ride a bike in San Francisco; in fact, I’m subsidizing drivers on their trips — automobility is subsidized by all of us to a spectacular degree, whether or not we drive.

Instead of spinning our wheels on a bike license plan, we need to dedicate more resources to the Safe Routes to School program, teaching kids about safe responsible bicycling as we repair our neighborhood streets to make them safer and more welcoming. And when we ticket someone on a bike for egregiously failing to yield, we need to provide the option to go to “bike traffic school” (Free classes are already offered; anyone is welcome. We just need to get the court to facilitate this commonsense citation diversion program).

Above all, we need to work to make bicycling more inviting to more people, for the health and future of San Francisco. Licensing bikes and bike riders would do the opposite, confounding the many benefits that everyday bicycle transportation brings to our city. Let’s stay smart about everyday bicycling, for everyone’s health and happiness.

Andy Thornley is a candidate for the District 1 seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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