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.

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(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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