28 March 2010

The Folly of Bicycle Licences

Cycling in Copenhagen2
Once in a while the issue of "bikes should pay" rises to the surface like bubbles of methane in Lake Kivu. In the UK, they're tackling it quite well with the I Pay Road Tax project. Several readers have sent links to Jonathan's post over at BikePortland so I figured I'd do a post about it.

Regarding bike registration in Europe, there are half a billion citizens in the European Union alone. 100 million of them ride a bicycle for transport according to the European Cyclists' Federation. None of them are inconvenienced by bicycle licences, least of all the Netherlands or Denmark - the two countries with most bike usage.

I posted about this ages ago and since then I've heard that a number of cities have actually calculated what the administrative costs would be. None of them have found that licensing bicycles was cost-efficient. Lately there is talk 'over there' about a symbolic appeasement fee. Cyclists paying a fee to get the motorists et al to shut it.

Here are three counter-arguments to bike licensing from my ragged little bag of opinions:

1. Road Usage and Wear and Tear
Firstly, imagine the logistical nightmare of registering tens of millions of bicycles. You need to pay to develop or adapt a computer system to register them and you need to hire people to run the system to issue registrations and pay for producing licences.

Consider the aforementioned impact on the roads. Your average car in 2005 weighed 1650 kg [3582 lbs]. My best guess as to the average weight of a bicycle is about 13 kg [30 lbs].

Based on those numbers, a bicycle weighs 0.8% of a car.

You don't need a degree in rocket science to see that the weight impact on the roads made by bicycles is marginal. Let's say a car registration costs $100, based on various factors including wear and tear on the roads. Based on that figure, a bike registration should then cost 80 cents.

Then you'll have to subtract from those 80 cents. In Denmark we have road taxes and environment taxes built into our car registration, not to mention weight taxes, depending on the car's size. A car's environmental impact is considerable, but a bicycle has none. Let's say a 50% reduction in the 80 cents fee for zero environmental impact, just to pick a number.

40 cents per bike. That 40 cents would be reduced to almost nothing after you subtract adminstration fees. Indeed, you'd be well into a negative number.

I'm not an economist, but I can already see that the project would not be very profitable. The enforcement issue is another ball of wax. I, for one, would prefer my police force to take care of business more important to society that checking cyclists for registration papers. In short, developing a registration system for bikes would be a monumental waste of taxpayers money and that is in nobody's interest.

All that money gone to adminstration of bike licences could be spent on infrastructure and campaigns to promote cycling.

It is also worthwhile to consider the very simple fact that more bikes with a marginal impact on the roads means less wear and tear. This reduces the necessity for time-consuming and expensive road works to fix the potholes, etc. It will be cheaper for motorists, not to mention much more convenient, not having to suffer as many construction delays.

2. Health Impact
The cyclist, besides having a marginal impact on the roads, will also end up benefiting society on a whole by transporting him or herself by bike. The health benefits are many and they are well-documented. In direct relation to cars, it is interesting to point of some of the many studies regarding pollution.

The level of dangerous, polluting microparticles inside a car are much higher than outside - on a bike, for example. There are a couple of links to earlier posts below regarding this.

Cyclists Can Breathe Easy
Traffic Kills 10 Times More People Than Traffic Accidents

In addition to it being more dangerous to sit inside a car than outside one, consider this excerpt from the above link:

In Denmark almost 4000 people die each year from pollution from cars. That number is ten times higher than those who are killed IN the traffic. According to a recent study, breathing the pollution from the automotive traffic is more dangerous than merely being the traffic.

3400 people die each year from illnesses directly related to the particles released from the exhaust of cars. On top of that there are 200-500 people who die prematurely from heart disease and high blood pressure caused by the noise generated by traffic. Yes... just the NOISE!

I can't even begin to imagine how these numbers will mulitply when applied to any North American city.

So... cyclists are actually reducing health care costs and, in effect, freeing up hospital beds for those who need them. They are also increasing their health levels - which will give them fewer sick days and a more effective working life, thereby contributing more positively to the economy.

In Denmark we've determined that cycling is much more cost-efficient than cars. Indeed, for every kilometre cycled the nation enjoys a net profit of 25 cents. For every kilometre driven by car, the nation suffers a net loss of 16 cents. Due to a host of health factors, wear and tear/road maintenance factors, etc.

In Copenhagen a study has determined that for every kilometre cycled, the city earns $1.10. Pure profit. Based on the value of our cycling citizens living longer - 7 years - and being less ill whilst alive (subsidizing those poor motorists and their illnesses as we slog away at work with fewer sick days) as well as the value of health care costs saved.

So far there the 'should cyclists pay' debate is frightfully unbalanced. Which is why there is every reason that cyclists should:

3. Get Paid To Ride
All of the common sense above should somehow lead to rewards for cyclists. A city council that builds segregated bike lanes, thereby encouraging citizens to ride, will be spending less on road works and public health.

Tax cuts for cyclists. Tax rebates when you buy a new bike. You name it. There's a wealth of creative options out there.

Instead of demanding that cyclists pay, motorists should be buying us beer and thanking us on behalf of themselves, their children [present or future], the nation and society in general. (insert operatic climax with full orchestra here...)

So. Bicycle registration and 'licences'? Doesn't make sense. Common or otherwise. Or let's start a shoe tax for those pedestrians sponging off our public funds.


Bristol Traffic said...

We've covered this, and are pleased to see we come in the top searches for "oregon bicycle tax" with our article on it.

While wear and tear doesn't come into it, you do have to think of the congestion cost of a bicycle: the space they use and the vehicles they hold up. But congestion charging is even trickier, it depends on location and time of day. The solution is obvious: official helmets with integrated GPS tracking. Colour the helmets to show they are up to date for that year and region. Pedestrians would be able to wear them too. Well, when we say "Be able to", we mean, "should", though perhaps you'd need some special exemption for walking between your car and your destination, something like less than say 20 metres.

Carlton said...

Too true, Mikael.

And certainly one of the reasons I created iPayRoadTax.com, and have linked to your earlier postings on this theme, and will link to this one.

I like the idea of motorists buying us some beer, but shan't be holding my breath waiting for such deserved largesse.

John said...

Can you please elaborate how you calculated "net profit/net loss."

Does that actually mean the government is making money every time someone rides a bike or is it merely that bikes produce far less wear and tear, health costs etc. so it is money saved rather than actually making money or are there other factors in this?

Eneko Astigarraga said...

Have you red this shit? http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/do-bicycles-actually-have-a-lower-co2-footprint-than-cars/2/

WestfieldWanderer said...

Well reasoned argument there Mikael. It's an indictment of the lack of reasoning power in some quarters that necessitates you having to make the argument at all!
I hope some of our Australian cousins get to read your post.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Mikael.

Everything in our world comes down to money; in this case, it might be a good thing. There is no way that registering bicycles would be viable...

...unless of course they make the registration disproportionately expensive - which will remove bicycles from the road; an option which I'm sure would appease the cyclist-haters; a thinly veiled method to rid the streets of bicycles - like they did with helmets here in Australia... didn't that work well?

Bring on expensive oil I say!

We pay far to little for transport fuels here in Australia and as a result have built a future on cheap oil (trucks, cars and aircraft) - a future that isn't very 'future-proof' sadly... we may well find out the hard way.

Paul Martin
Brisbane, Australia

kfg said...

I want to see shoes registered. People who congest the city in the pedestrian persuasion and abuse the pavements by pounding on them with their feet shouldn't be allowed to get away with a free walk.

Erik Sandblom said...

Adults who ride a bike to work have a 39% lower death rate, according to a Danish study of 30 000 adults.
Mortality associated with physical activity in leisure time, at work, in sports, and cycling to work

Is there a similar study for North American conditions?

Niall said...

They is a serious flaw in you calculation, damage to roads is approximately equal to the fourth power of the load on the road, so a vehicle 100 times heavier than a bicycle would create 100,000,000 more damage than the bicycle.
So the tax should not be €0.80 per year, but €0.000001 per year, or one cent every ten thousand years. I'd pay that!

Mark said...


I live in Portland, Oregon and have endured the nearly nonstop demands that we "pay our fair share." There are, naturally, very different tax structures in the US compared to Denmark and other EU countries. One glaring difference is that we have a woefully inadequate gasoline tax. In Europe, your rightly high fuel taxes help fund effective, efficient and ubiquitous mass transit. Here, we fritter what little we collect on building and maintaining roads for automobiles.
Although I agree with your conclusions that bicycle registration taxes would be wasteful and inefficient, the demands by some for these taxes have nothing to do with efficiency or with effective road funding. These calls are merely political and little more than wanting a peculiarly American impulse: fee for service provided. Most folks calling for these taxes mistakenly believe that our current road taxes, mostly in the form of gasoline taxes, pay for roads. Hardly. They contribute, but so do taxes on property, income and the like. And, of course, it varies by state. So, their argument goes that if you choose to drive a car, you pay your way by paying taxes at the fuel pump. If you choose to ride a bike, you don't pay anything for the roads. Those who make this assertion are simply wrong. But, some who are willing to capitulate to this noise wish to do so, as you noted, to get the other side to stop carping.
These demands usually arise, and certainly have become much louder in Portland, when the discussion turns to building real infrastructure for bicycle use. Regardless of the benefits you cite, many folks, or at least the vocal ones, want bicycle users to pay for the cycle tracks, lane stripes, etc. that are contemplated for the future. So, any argument about the weight of the bicycle is beside the point. Never mind that most bicycle users also pay fuel taxes. Finally, taxes for road use, at least here, are not related to vehicle weight, except for over-the-road trucks in some states, including Oregon.

Mikael said...

John: there are a variety of factors in that study cited. Including health care costs, production manhours gained/lost, time gained/lost in traffic, longer lives lived, wear and tear on the roads and money saved on maintenance/road works.

Mark: We have weight taxes here. If you drive an SUV you pay much more than if you drive a Fiat Punto.

Kevin Love said...

The official City of Toronto website has a good explanation of the history of bicycle taxes in Toronto and why there have been none since 1958. See:


Carlton said...

Thanks for that link, Kevin.

Toronto info now added to http://ipayroadtax.com/?p=85

Wanderlust said...

Licensing aside, some motorists are shifting the arguement towards insurance. They claim that motorists need insurance before being allowed to drive on the roads whereas bicycles dont.
Should an accident happen, motorists can claim from their insurance but cyclists cant.

We're getting more and more suggestions for anything to make the world "fairer" for them.

Frits B said...

Re financial incentive: the Dutch government has a so-called fietsplan which allows employers to offer their employees a new bike free of charge every three years, up to a maximum of 749 euro, provided that the employee uses this bike for the commute to his/her work. The employee pays for the bike himself and gets the full price reimbursed from his employer. The employee then through his tax return claims back half of the purchase price of the bike.
Another incentive: mileage on behalf of the boss is reimbursed for cars and bicycles alike, at the same tariff.

Branko Collin said...

Dutch bicycle tax tags: http://www.rijwielplaatje.nl/

ZA said...

You may well be right on all counts, but a fundamental cultural difference is that mainstream US culture doesn't know how to value anything it can't monetize.

It may take paying a token fee to finally communicate the argument that private car users are still not paying for their proportional impact on the public.

Every bad idea needs to be exhausted to finally reach a good idea in the general American experience.

Anonymous said...

While living in Chesapeake, VA 30 years ago, all bikes had to be registered. I still have an old bike from then with the Chesapeake registration sticker just above the bottom bracket. As I recall, it was no big deal then. Cars and bikes were both registered. And that was before computers made it easy.

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zrazzle said...

Could be happening in Barcelona soon. http://www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20120119/54245115274/barcelona-creara-plan-integral-bicicleta.html

brit said...

In the UK "road Tax" or vehicle excise duty is payable based on CO2 output. Therefore some vehicles are actually exempt from paying "road tax". In fact it must actually cost the "government" because exempt vehicles are still required to display a tax disc that says amount paid £0, (This is linked to checks on vehicle testing and insurance)