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Jun 11, 2013

Is it time bicycles were registered?

A Parliamentary Committee in Qld is investigating the idea of registering bicycles. That's worrying because registration is bad for cycling and wouldn't significantly benefit other road users


Cyclists can occupy a lot of road space

Following public outrage over the court’s decision last month on the death of cyclist Richard Pollett, the Transport, Housing and Local Government Committee of the Qld Parliament agreed last Friday to inquire into a number of issues that might “improve the interaction of cyclists with other road users”.

The Committee is looking at a range of potential policy responses, including the one metre overtaking rule advocated by a number of cycling organisations. However its terms of reference also require it to examine “the potential benefits and impacts of bicycle registration”.

Bicycle registration comes up whenever the place of bicycles on the nation’s roads is discussed publicly. This time though it’s being seriously considered by state legislators as a potential policy response. It accordingly needs to be evaluated very carefully by all parties with an interest in cycling.

There are two main arguments in support of registration of bicycles. The first is the charge that cyclists don’t pay for their use of roads – until they do they can’t expect to be on the same footing as drivers. The second is the claim that cyclists need to be publicly identifiable to deter them from wilfully disobeying the rules of the road.

Cyclists are told registration will make them better off because, the theory goes, motorists will acknowledge they have a legitimate right to the road and take greater care around them.

The customary counter from cyclists to the first argument is that revenue from registration fees and the fuel excise tax isn’t hypothecated to road expenditure. Roads are funded from general revenue so everyone pays for them.

Moreover, registration fees are based on vehicle weight and it follows that cyclist’s contribution to road damage is therefore trivial. Cyclists of course don’t use petrol or diesel so the fuel excise is irrelevant to them.

As usual, there’s some truth and some hyperbole on both sides of the argument.

I don’t think the claim that motorists pay for roads can be dismissed out of hand. The fuel excise is $0.38 per litre. That’s about $627 p.a. for the average car. While that’s general revenue, drivers are clearly taxed in their role as motorists and there’s no doubt the fuel excise moderates the demand for driving. It’s verging on sophistry to argue motorists don’t “pay their way” financially, at least in part; and politically it’s an unwinnable proposition.

It’s also unreasonable to claim cyclists should get a free run on the roads. Bicycles are too light to damage roads but weather also causes deterioration. More importantly, bicycles occupy road space. That tends to be overlooked when the number of cyclists is small but is more obvious when numbers are large (see exhibit).

Cyclists need smooth pavement and that has to be constructed and maintained. Indeed, there’s an argument that the movement for good road surfaces from circa 1880 was primarily in response to pressure from cyclists. (fn 1)

While there’s substance in the claim that motorists pay and cyclists don’t, it nevertheless doesn’t provide an adequate rationale for registration. A couple of other factors have to be taken into account.

First, cyclists impose low social costs. They don’t contribute much to traffic congestion, road accidents, noise and pollution, and they don’t degrade the amenity of nearby land uses. The investment in infrastructure required to support cycling is very low compared to other mechanised modes.

The social benefits of cycling very likely exceed their financial cost. It makes little sense to tax cyclists if it deters them from using a form of transport that is exceptionally sustainable and requires limited infrastructure investment.

Second, the income from any plausible level of charges would likely be wholly or largely consumed by the cost of administering a registration system. If a hypothecated revenue stream for cycling infrastructure were to be established it would be better to do it some other way, e.g. a tax on new bicycles.

The other main rationale for registration – that cyclists ought to be identifiable – is reasonable in principle. After all, this obligation applies to other road users and is intended to promote cooperative behaviour. (fn 2)

There’s a practical problem though – a legible licence plate would be too large to be practical on a bike (although in due course transponders might overcome this problem). But the main weakness with the identification rationale is that it simply wouldn’t achieve much.

Cyclists don’t usually exceed the speed limit and very rarely cause personal harm to motorists. It’s not that they’re morally superior; it’s just that they’re too slow to speed and they’re too light to seriously injure motorists (they can certainly hurt themselves though). Sure, they ‘negotiate’ red lights, but the harm that causes to others is minimal.

Some cyclists can be a nuisance on footpaths and this behaviour might well be the source of most political pressure for registration. However unless sidewalks and shared paths are subject to constant surveillance (a very expensive exercise), it wouldn’t do much to improve the welfare of pedestrians.

Possibly the most serious objection to registration is primarily political. Many households at all income and wealth levels have multiple bicycles. Many of them are children’s bicycles and a lot aren’t worth much. Charging even $40 p.a. registration (which is around what my council charges for each spayed dog) would be a very hard sell.

Overall then, registration sounds like poor policy. It would very likely deter cycling and thereby increase economic costs. Cycling doesn’t cost the community much financially and registration would be costly to administer.

There would be little practical advantage in it for motorists. Nor would there be any benefit for cyclists – it wouldn’t significantly improve the way motorists behave toward them. As I explained here, drivers don’t see cyclists as legitimate road users. Registration isn’t going to change that fundamental.

There are other relevant issues thrown up by this topic but I’ll have to leave them for another time. They include the warrant for licensing of cyclists (sometimes confused with registration of bicycles) and the case for (or against) a hypothecated tax/levy on bicycles to pay for infrastructure.


(fn 1) A surprisingly common argument is that since most cyclists are also car owners, they already pay registration fees. That’s always struck me as an invalid argument because registration applies to the vehicle not the person. If you own multiple vehicles you pay multiple registrations.

(fn 2) Some object that pedestrians aren’t registered so cyclists shouldn’t be either. That’s another invalid argument. For one thing, vehicles are registered, not people (licensing is a separate issue). Also, while pedestrians cross roads they’re no more road users than cars are sidewalk users (cars cross sidewalks too). When they’re used on roads bicycles are a form of mechanised transport, not some variation on jogging.


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32 thoughts on “Is it time bicycles were registered?

  1. Jack Lo

    A wheelchair is clearly a mechanised form of transport, so it should be registered. Even a walking stick is a form of mechanisation.”Mechanisation” is utterly irrelevant in this discussion.

  2. hans civic

    It makes little sense to tax cyclists if it deters them from using a form of transport that is exceptionally sustainable and requires limited infrastructure investment. http://www.vimaxsuppliersite.com

  3. BassCoastBikeCurious

    Those humans who choose to drive a motor vehicle when a bicycle would suit their need admirably contribute to the misinformation about registration and helmet debates…. if only they would actually learn about these topics before giving their uninformed opinion. Drivers are navigating a lethal weapon in public places and are missing the real benefits of the bicycle, benefits known for ages to the medical profession and economists and those who ride, benefits that flow into protecting the public purse from costs of health, resource and environmental protection and the well being benefits to the participants to name a few.
    The benefits to society and the economy from a population that uses the bicycle for short to medium transport and commuting massively overwhelm the miniscule fees a registration scheme would ever hope to recover and such fees wouldn’t cover the costs of collection as was proven by Switzerland and WA when they abandoned such folly.
    Road Safety is a simple equation….Drivers should be patient, slow down, share the road and ride a bicycle more often than not…Riders need to be legal, visible and predictable…If drivers drove as if they were riding (knowing they were vulnerable and would always come off second best) and riders rode as if they are driving (vehicular cycling)there would be few incidents requiring any police or emergency services on our roadways responding to injuries or deaths when drivers and riders come into conflict, there would be no conflict…Its up to you, all of you… not legislators!…Road Safety is NO Accident!!!!

  4. Last name First name

    Parker Alan OAM,
    Hi WTF 13. I agree Australian petrol heads you need to get rid of their dangerous driving attitudes, which are a serious risk to cyclists, pedestrians and especially the elderly. and last not least other motorists. Pity we cant lock them up in 747’s and then drive Dump them In France around to see the respect French drivers show to cyclists on busy roads in French cities.

    The French have a much more courteous approach to cyclists, they gave the highest honours to Sir Hubert Opperman and Darrel Evans. Who may win the TOUR DE FRANCE again has the good sense to do his training riding on main roads in France, Switszerland and the other EU Countries with much lowest death rates for all road users than Australia.

    Australia’s problem is having too many potential killers on our roads road building engineers and lobbyists who since for the end of world war 2 have been building more unsafe roads with the help of town planners and urban developers.

  5. Last name First name

    Parker Alan OAM,
    I agree with HK 14.

    Firstly, owners of bikes should engrave their bikes with their medicare or driving license number. It would contribute to reducing the level of stealing. However that is not the only option at point of sale the mechanics in bike shops could engrave engrave a plate supplied by the big distributers or from the Bicycle Industry Australia to the bike shops. The SAA Bicycle standards committee should revise the standard so as stipulate that Identification plates with medicare or driving license number should be on all new bicycles sold. Brakes are compulsory to make the bicycle road worthy and that numberplate are needed to prevent thousands of bicycle thefts

  6. Tom the first and best


    The American term for footpath is symptomatic of road culture as it describes walking as a side note.

    Walking is also a form of transport and it receives less policy attention and money than cycling, even though it has a higher mode share.

  7. Alan Davies

    Crikey Melbourne #25:

    The carriageway is made up of the road surface (‘macadam’) and the footpath (sidewalk). They’re functionally different and accordingly subject to different regulatory regimes. It’s invalid to conflate them.

    The bigger point though is to ask if seeing cyclists as another version of pedestrians is a smart strategy for the future development of cycling. I think that attitude is a big part of why cyclists struggle for legitimacy on roads and is a poor strategy. Cycling is more than a recreation – it’s also a form of transport.

  8. Crikey Melbourne

    Alan #22 – I am not advocating registration for either shoes or cycles – my point was to use the silliness of shoe registration to argue against cycle registration. I disagree with your footnote #2 – you regard as invalid the argument that as pedestrians aren’t registered then neither should cyclists. I think this is a valid argument. Pedestrians, cyclists and cars all use public land (the carriageway), thus all modes can be compared with each other. Shoe users do not pay for their use of public land, so neither should cycle users.

  9. Alan Davies

    Richard McKellar #23:

    You can take out your own personal injury insurance or get it through membership of a bicycle organisation.

    The notion of “negotiating” red lights is explained here.

  10. Richard McKellar

    There are ‘jerk’ drivers, cyclists and pedestrians; a jerk is a jerk whatever mode (s)he is using. I mostly cycle, often walk, and frequently use public transport and sometimes I drive – not quite horses for courses so much as modes for purposes.
    I do support registration for bicycles, not for regulation so much as for insurance – if I strike a pedestrian due to my or her mistake, there is no insurance for either of us, by contrast with an accident involving a motor vehicle.
    Finally, what on earth does the writer of this article mean by ‘negotiating red lights’? Do our rights as individuals run to the extent of a right to choose to obey some laws and negotiate our way around others? And watching many aggressive cyclists on footpaths, more than a nuissance to the point of dangerous, especially to fragile elderly users and to children, I can’t support the suggestion that when this group disobeys laws it is to (the suggested) minimal harm to others.

  11. Alan Davies

    Glen #20:

    Interesting point, but here’s what I actually said:

    I don’t think the claim that motorists pay for roads can be dismissed out of hand. The fuel excise is $0.38 per litre. That’s about $627 p.a. for the average car. While that’s general revenue, drivers are clearly taxed in their role as motorists and there’s no doubt the fuel excise moderates the demand for driving. It’s verging on sophistry to argue motorists don’t “pay their way” financially, at least in part; and politically it’s an unwinnable proposition.

    Crikey Melbourne #21:

    The difference between you and I is I’m not advocating registration for either bicycles or shoes.

  12. Crikey Melbourne

    Let’s register shoes! Pedestrians on footpaths use up valuable space on the carriageway (the space between property boundaries) just like cyclists do, so they should pay their way. According to Alan, registration applies to the vehicle, not the person, so we can simply ask everyone to pay an annual registration fee for each pair of shoes.

  13. Glen

    “While there’s substance in the claim that motorists pay and cyclists don’t…”

    Cr-p Alan. Most urban cycling happens on local roads maintained by local councils funded by property rates. Cyclists pay those. The original capital cost of the local road network was largely met by property developers and funded by people who bought the lots. That included cyclists.

    The popular notion that fuel excise and vehicle registration charges somehow fund our vast local road network is bizarre.

  14. zac48

    Surely the main consideration concerning bikes on public roads is ‘space’. Given that the already accepted safety margin/distance between bikes and other vehicles is 1 metre, that means a safety area around each bike is the same as the average car. 1 metre in front, 1 metre behind, one metre on each side. The argument has never ever been about red herrings like wear and tear on roads etc….It’s about space used and needed for safety and how that required space effects other road users, particularly during peak hour.

  15. Gavin Moodie

    I think people borrow and share bikes more than they drive other peoples’ cars, so it would be more difficult to trace the bike rider from the bike owner. Presumably kids’ bikes would be registered by their parents, but how many parents know who is riding their kids’ bikes and when?

  16. Peazle

    Can anyone here please suggest how we make sure cyclists (of whom I am one) can be made to learn and follow the road rules (which I do)?
    You comment in your article “Cyclists don’t usually exceed the speed limit and very rarely cause personal harm to motorists. It’s not that they’re morally superior; it’s just that they’re too slow to speed and they’re too light to seriously injure motorists (they can certainly hurt themselves though). Sure, they ‘negotiate’ red lights, but the harm that causes to others is minimal.”
    Last time I had to take evasive action to not hit a cyclist “negotiating” a red light I very nearly had an accident and the cyclist flipped me the bird when I had the audacity to toot. As I had just saved his life, I was pretty angry.
    As a pedestrian I have been knocked over by a cyclist whilst crossing the road with a green walk signal, he was going through a red light, I was hurt, others have been killed.
    I am a pedestrian, cyclist, motor cycle rider and car driver and I follow the road rules. I learned them whilest going for my drivers’ licence, which bicyclists don’t have to do. How do we make sure cyclists know, and follow, the road rules? And please don’t tell me that car drivers don’t always follow the road rules, I know that, but at least there is a mechanism in place to try to stop them.

  17. iOz

    It isn’t just about “…The second is the claim that cyclists need to be publicly identifiable to deter them from wilfully disobeying the rules of the road” they need to be publicly identifiable to deter them from wilful stupidity. I don’t know how many times I have seen black-clad cyclists riding at night with no lights.

    Mind you, this may reduce the numbers of hipsters on the streets…

  18. Bronwyn Hopkins

    Stop sidestepping the real issue with this ridiculous negative focus on cyclists, who are actually the good guys here; reducing congestion and making the roads safer. Put your kids on the bus and get on your bikes! Motorists who complain about cyclists are merely looking for someone to blame for the problems that they themselves are causing: cyclists are the scapegoats. Most car trips in the city are unnecessary and irresponsible – as congestion is a problem for our communities, in terms of pollution, and it hinders those who actually have no option but to drive (tradies, etc). School drop-offs are a large problem, causing traffic to come to a standstill daily. Irresponsible usage of motor vehicles is causing a serious problem for our communities and petrol tax should be significantly increased in order to deter people from making unnecessary trips and causing congestion, with tax breaks for tradies of course. Motorists cause traffic congestion, not cyclists.

  19. hk

    Firstly, owners of bikes should engrave their bikes with their medicare or driving license number. It would contribute to reducing the level of stealing.
    Secondly, bikes that have traceable ownership engraved, would reduce the cost of managing and tracing orphan or abandoned bikes. There are municipalities in Holland that budget more than $100,000 pa to fairly re-cycle abandoned “orphan” bikes.

  20. WTF

    Over 99% of deaths, trauma and road rage on Australian roads are inflicted on drivers by other drivers.
    Any driver who wastes time and space worrying about cyclists need their head examined. It is fellow drivers that are killing each other out there, not cyclists and registering bikes isn’t going to improve any of that.

  21. Tom the first and best


    Sweden`s roads are about to get safer because the EU is introducing registration detail sharing for fines for certain traffic offenses like speeding and running a red light. This will be somewhat reduced by the fact that Denmark (like Ireland and the UK) is not part of the agreement.

  22. Michael Fink

    Following on from James Steward’s comment #8 – appreciating that it is a bit off-topic – as somebody who used to work in advertising I find the current focus on ‘a metre matters’ perplexing, and as a bike rider I find it downright scary.

    We all know that enforcing ‘a metre matters’ isn’t going to be high on the list of Police priorities (see the comments of Victoria Police’s apparent cycling spokesperson in this Cycling Tips article ‘How far from the curb should you ride?’ – there are laws that already exist banning dangerous overtaking that the Police don’t even seem to know or care about).

    So if new laws are going to make cycling safer it’s going to primarily happen because of the accompanying public eduction campaign. In which case I think the message should be much more akin to “Don’t drive any closer to a bicycle than you would to a truck”.

    Car drivers understand what it’s like when a big truck ‘invades’ their ‘personal space’, and recognise that the amount of space you want a truck to leave you is highly dependent upon speed, weather conditions, road conditions, etc.

    It’s the same for a cyclist. If a car edges up next within 50cm to me at the lights that is much less scary or dangerous than if it passes within 150cm on a major arterial road.

    Inviting people to walk (or pedal) a mile in another’s shoes would be much more effective in improving motorists’ behaviour than some alliterative reference to a fairly arbitrary length.

  23. Dominic Flynn

    Weather doesn’t damage well made roads and even lesser roads aren’t usually damaged in adverse weather ’till a motor vehicle drives over it. Road damage is roughly proportional to the fourth power of axle weight. So if you take a 15 kg two axle bicycle with a 65 kg rider you get a damage value of (40x40x40x40)+(40x40x40x40) = 5.12 Million units.
    By comparison a small 1600 kg car (800x800x800x800)+(800x800x800x800) = 819,200 Million units. So with regard to road damage and maintenance, one small car is equivalent to approximately 160,000 bicycles for any given distance traveled. What is the rego component (not CTP) of a small car? $300? So if you want to charge cyclists a fair amount for rego it should be in the order of $0.001875 per year.
    If you do the math you’ll soon find that motorists are indeed being ripped off, not by cyclists but by heavy vehicles. Trucks and other heavy vehicles are heavily subsidized by regular motorists even though their rego bills can be several thousand dollars.

  24. Stephen Waters

    I like the transponder idea for identification. Fit them to all vehicles with automatic fines for speeding, red lights, etc. Only a matter of time till Big Brother takes over anyway.

  25. James Steward

    I think the QLD MP put in a bit about considering registration simply to keep the motoring masses happy that a balanced (from a motorists POV) approach was being taken.

    I would also like to add that Safe Cycling Australia has been pivotal in the fight for a safe miniumum passing distance. They’re advocating #survive1point5 (1.5m), and it is a valid argument.

    1 metre when a truck or bus passes a bicyclist at 100km/h is not enough. At least QLD should consider a variable minimum passing distance based on the speed of the overtaking vehicle.
    A metre is the minimum passing distance I’d feel comfortable with at up to 70 km/h. At 80 and above, 1.5m would be fine.
    There also should be relaxation of the “No crossing a solid white line” rule when a motorist can safely pass a bicyclist. This exception is law in some states in the US, to allow motor vehicle operators to pass any slow moving vehicles – including horse and cart, tractors, etc.

    You’d think it was common sense, yet I hear that QLD police went out and fined a whole heap of motorists on a popular cycling route just out of Brisbane for crossing a solid white line, then the next thing the bicyclists have to contend with motorists trying to squeeze by and share a narrow lane to pass. Ridiculous.

  26. Alan Davies

    Michael O’Reilly wrote a piece in the SMH in April that addresses the question of personal liability cover for cyclists, Make sure you’re covered before you ride.

  27. Krammer56

    Alan, maybe I’d be happy to pay for registration if I got smooth pavements to ride on – and if they were free of all the rubbish that collects on the roadside.

    I have a bit of sympathy for the identification argument, but as you note the costs would be high (although could be one-off, when a bike was purchased for instance). It does then raise the issue of enforcement though – we have enough unregistered cars on the road already and I’d rather the cops spent their time worrying about them!

  28. Michael Fanning

    Well done, Alan, for pointing out the invalidity of the old argument that cyclists pay rego on their cars so blah blah.
    I think it’s also worth pointing out that the local roads on which most cyclists ride are not funded by any state or federal revenue streams. They’re paid for by the ratepayers.

  29. Last name First name

    Parker Alan OAM
    The comments are typical of some drivers dangerous attitudes on this list states that.

    Bikes & any other unregistered item should be banned from all roads.

    Consider the road safety facts about Copenhagen and Sweden which are far safer for cyclists and pedestrians. But more importantly for all road users when measured by road safety experts Sweden and Australia in 2012 for all road deaths per 100,000 population In Sweden of 2.9 and 6.1 in Australia.

    Which means that Sweden’s roads are twice as safe as Australia’s and that in 2012 there would have been 625 less roads in Australia. We can do that without registering cyclists. The name of the road safety game is reducing the death rate for all road users
    while encouraging the more sustainable forms of transport.

  30. Cyclesnail

    I know at least one country that had bicycle registration, and a few years ago dropped it. In that case (Switzerland) the registration included third party liability insurance, the rego sticker were available over the counter at post offices, and it was cheap.

    Administration for such small ticket items is too expensive. Let them investigate – just another red herring. Better to focus on the legalised one meter passing distance.

  31. Doug W

    It is interesting to investigate how the amount motorists contribute to general taxation compares to the costs associated with motor vehicles. This is the most comprehensive summary I could find: http://www.ptua.org.au/myths/petroltax.shtml.

    The revenue from petrol excise, GST on petrol and vehicles, and vehicle registration, is in the same ball-park as the road infrastructure expenditure plus the tax concessions relating to vehicle usage.

    This does not include costs associated with pollution, trauma, congestion, climate change, and land use.

    So yes, motorists do pay a substantial amount toward road infrastructure. However, roads are very expensive and this falls well short of the total cost to the community. True user pays would result in some unhappy motorists!

    As Strewth said, vehicle registration “was never intended to pay for roads or to provide a stamp of legitimacy for someone’s presence on a public road.” Legitimacy is provided by the right to use the road enshrined in Australian law and the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic.

  32. Strewth

    Alan, registration of motor vehicles was introduced because a motor vehicle is an inherently dangerous piece of machinery and there is a public interest in regulating its operation for that reason. It was never intended to pay for roads or to provide a stamp of legitimacy for someone’s presence on a public road.

    So you can’t dismiss the analogy between cyclists and pedestrians so easily. Compared with motor vehicles, both are relatively low-impact modes of transport that have little material effect on other road users or on the road environment. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any impact, just that the impact is not substantially greater than that of people going about their day to day business in any other way. The public funding that pays for roads also pays for footpaths, so you can’t logically avoid talking about pedestrians as road users when discussing ‘user pays’ approaches to infrastructure funding.

    We all pay for roads and footpaths when we pay council rates, income tax and GST – that goes for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike. The “cyclists don’t pay rego” line comes from motorists who resent having to give something back in return for the privilege of propelling a two-tonne machine at 100kph within a stone’s throw of people’s homes; it doesn’t spring from equity considerations.

    But ultimately you’re correct that bike registration is just too impractical to be worth the effort. They did have it in WA some time ago, but got rid of it because it was costing the government money for no tangible benefit. I would expect Queensland will come to the same conclusion.

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