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Bicycle Licensing

Let’s Get Ready to License, Council Members Want to Re-Examine City’s Bike License Program

KIDD 240/Flickr via marino at Midnight Ridazz

Back in 2009, a discussion of the city's bicycle licensing program was at the core of any Livable Streets discussion. Two members of the Los Angeles City Council have introduced a motion to bring that discussion, if not the licenses themselves, back.

At the time, the LAPD had two police stations in the entire city that offered licensing, which is really more of a registration for the bicycle than any sort of license that requires skill or knowledge of traffic laws, but was still citing bicycle riders for not having license stickers on their bicycles. The fines were outrageous, sometimes higher than the cost of the bicycle being cited, and were in violation of a state law that allows cities to run bicycle licensing programs.

After a series of public hearings held by the City Council Transportation Committee, initially chaired by Wendy Greuel but later by Bill Rosendahl, the LAPD recommended the suspension of the program. The City Council complied, although there were still the occasional ticket issued by clueless officers.

The motion, presented by Council Member Tom LaBonge and co-sponsored seconded (see comment by Tony Arranaga for clarification of the difference between "c0-sponsor" and "second") by Mitch O'Farrell, talks about licensing as a needed way for the city to support cycling. Licensing will allow the city to better track the number of bicycles owned by residents, provide a way for the LAPD to track stolen bicycles, and identify the rider after the most serious of crashes.

California caps both the fine that cities can collect for unlicensed bicycles in a mandatory program and the amount that a city can charge for a license. The latter charge is $4, which means that it would be nigh impossible for a city to make money on such a program.

Despite the supportive language in the proposal, and that it only calls for a discussion on how to best bring a licensing program back, most bicycling advocates are not supporters. The proposal is similar to one made by Ed Reyes in 2009 which was tabled indefinitely. The state also only allows cities to license and enforce the licensing of bicycles of residents. This means that even if I wanted to, I couldn't get my bicycle licensed in Santa Monica, nor could LAPD ticket a Santa Monica resident riding an unlicensed bicycle.

"We're honestly just puzzled by this proposal, which was resurrected with zero input from bicyclists," writes Eric Bruins from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. "All of the supposed aims of the program can be accomplished more efficiently and effectively by other means.  The internet has enabled national registries to fight bike theft and personal identification is more reliable than a tag on a bicycle that may or may not belong to the rider."

The most puzzling part of the proposal is that a licensing program would allow the city to track how many bicycles are owned by city residents. Given the dismal state of the program in the years preceding 2009, and the four years since where the program was completely dead, it's hard to imagine how such a program would register the literally millions of unlicensed bicycles in the city. Bruins has a different idea for how the city could spend its resources.

"It would be a far more effective use of resources for the City to invest in bike and pedestrian counts rather than relying on the volunteer labor of nonprofit groups," he continues, referencing the LACBC's bicycle and pedestrian counts that were completed last month.

The biggest problem with the licensing program was that it was mandatory, meaning that it became a weapon for officers to harass cyclists with whom they had another issue. In Los Angeles, the target was often participants in groups rides, especially C.R.A.N.K. Mob or Critical Mass. In other cities, the license program was used as an excuse to profile minority cyclists.

Last May, Angie Schmitt wrote about the history of bicycle licensing leading to a de-facto profiling of minority and youth cyclists, even in a voluntary system.

"Requiring bicycle licenses could potentially lead to even more racial profiling and police harassment of immigrants and low-income folks. It unfairly penalizes those with the least resources, who might be buying their bikes used," said Allison Mannos, MCM Board President. "It also fails to address larger, more important safety concerns that cyclists face in Los Angeles, such as uneducated and fast speeding motorists or a need for infrastructure."

Another puzzling part of the resolution notes the importance of a licensing program in how cities show their support for bicycling. This is puzzling because the most bicycle friendly cities in America (Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, New York, Long Beach) don't have licensing programs. Locally, bike-friendly Santa Monica does have a program, but it's voluntary for people who want their information stored in a state registry.

Most tellingly, when I reached out to a bicycle advocate in Portland about whether or not their city had a licensing program, she responded that no city has ever had a successful mandatory program and recommended mocking instead of analyzation.

If the city does study licensing but discovers that it isn't cost-effective, then it could try to pass the buck to bicycle shop owners by requiring licensing at the point of sale. This proposal would not sit well with bike shop owners, according to Josef Bray-Ali, owner of the Flying Pigeon Bicycle Shop.

"If this were a totally voluntary program that allowed people to retrieve stolen property or file insurance claims and be reimbursed for their loss then this would be a great idea," writes Bray-Ali. "A similar system functions in Denmark and the Netherlands to make the epidemic of bike theft in those countries less bothersome. If this is mandatory, expect me and others in the industry to raise hell."

While advocates are split on the value of a licensing program, there is universal agreement that it should be an optional way for the city to help cyclists in a case of emergency. Requiring millions of bicycles to be registered will create a new bureaucracy, and another barrier to bicycling in a city that is still struggling to shake its reputation as the Car-Culture Capital of America.

Neither the offices of O'Farrell or LaBonge replied to many requests for comment for this story.

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