Is it time for San Francisco to start licensing bicycles?

For decades, car owners have funded large portions of the bill for road construction, maintenance, and repair

Last week, over two miles of Market Street, San Francisco’s iconic main thoroughfare, became car-free. It is now illegal to drive a private car in either direction on Market from, roughly, Van Ness Avenue to the Ferry Building.

To be honest, I don’t think this will have much impact on San Francisco residents. I don’t know anyone, myself included, who has driven on that stretch of Market in decades. The traffic congestion and turning restrictions proved too confusing, frustrating and stressful to drive there. I suspect the majority of cars on Market in recent years have been Uber and Lyft drivers, and tourists going to or from their hotels.

Just hours before Market Street went car-free, SF Municipal Transportation Agency Board Chairman Malcolm Heinicke told a Board meeting that he wants to make other streets car-free, starting with Valencia.

This is all in keeping with San Francisco’s Transit First policy. City officials want people to give up their personal cars and get around The City using Muni. Or ride-hail companies. Or bikes. Or scooters. Or walking.

For decades, car owners have funded large portions of the bill for road construction, maintenance, and repair through license plate fees and gas taxes. It makes sense ­­— the people who benefit the most from a good road should contribute a large percentage of the money needed to keep it maintained. But, with fewer cars and less gas being bought, there’s also less money from these sources available for roads.

Cities, counties, and states have made up much of the shortfall from general, non-car-specific taxes like sales and income taxes. This too makes sense because everyone — including people on buses, bikes, and scooters — benefits when roads are well maintained, not just people in cars. Car owners also pay these taxes in addition to the vehicle-specific user fees.

As bicyclists demand more access on city streets — including more car-free streets — maybe it’s time to consider licensing bikes as well as cars.

Many communities, including San Jose, have passed legislation to license bicycles, only to repeal it later. Either few people registered their bikes, or the programs were too expensive to operate for the money they generated.

One city where bicycle licensing has worked is Honolulu. There, a one-time $15 registration fee is charged when you buy a bike. You pay the fee at the store. The dealer enters your information into the system, and the City mails you the license. There’s also a $5 fee if the bike changes hands after the original sale. Smaller, children’s bikes are exempt from the fee.

If you don’t license your bike in Honolulu, the city can seize it. You then have a few weeks to pay up (the $15 license fee plus a one-dollar fine) and get your bike back. If you don’t pay, they can sell the bike, although, if they do, you can get the money from the sale.

Bicycle licenses in Honolulu generated over $334,000 in revenue in 2018. The money goes into a Bikeway Fund that helps pay for projects that benefit cyclists, like lights along bike paths and road shoulder improvements. There are over 300,000 registered bicycles on Oahu, an island with just under one million residents.

Licensing requires buy-in from the community, something they have in Honolulu. It may be a harder sell in San Francisco. Here, it’s common to see bike riders routinely blow through stop signs. Almost every senior — and others — can tell you stories of nearly being run over by a bike speeding down the street or weaving around pedestrians on the sidewalk. In San Francisco, it’s the Wild West on two wheels.

To be effective, bike registration would likely have to be Bay Area wide, not city specific, since people often commute via bikes from one city to another.

License revenue could fund bike education programs to teach good road etiquette in addition to funding amenities for cyclists. But perhaps more importantly, it would reinforce to bike riders that, like car drivers, they have to take some responsibility for the common transportation good.

There’s no such thing as a free ride. That applies to bicycles too.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park, and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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