San Francisco candidates spar over bike licensing

Bicycle LicensingFive days ago I ran across an article in the San Francisco examiner titled “Time to mandate bicycle licenses.” I did my obligatory eye-roll and read the article. It was the same arguments we hear over and over again:

  • Don’t get mad at me, I’m a cyclist myself
  • Cyclists need to be held accountable
  • Cyclists need to be treated the same as (those poor) motorists

Funny the article was titled “Time to mandate bicycle licenses.” As if the idea hadn’t ever been suggested before, but now is different. Now is the time.

Yesterday, the plot thickened…

What I didn’t realize at the time is the author of the op-ed piece, Joel Engardio, is also running for the San Francisco board of Supervisors (District 7). And as often happens in politics, there is someone with a different view. This differing view was also expressed on the pages of the San Francisco Examiner by a man running for a District 1 board seat. His response? Cyclist licenses: Great crankbait, bad policy.

Mandatory registration, license and insurance could ease ongoing resentments between cyclists and motorists. Cyclists will get more protection while motorists will be glad they aren’t alone in being held accountable on the road.

Joel Engardio, arguing in favor of bicycle licensing


Licensing bicycles and their riders won’t help make our streets safer or healthier. It won’t help pay for badly needed infrastructure and programs. In fact, it would probably make things worse for everyone.

Andy Thornley, arguing against bicycle licensing

However, Engardio also brings in the topic of bicycle insurance, which Thornley does not specifically respond to. I also am going to set this topic aside for now, as I plan to write a piece about insurance for cyclists shortly. I also think it is wise to separate the two issues, because the are in fact very very different.

Licensing for bicycles is something that has actually been actively tried and extensively discussed. We have real data to show that it simply does not provided the benefits that those advocating for it hope.

For one thing, the idea of accountability is simply laughable. Putting a little tag on the back of my bike with a number in no way makes me more accountable to the laws than I currently am. The fact that you can easily see my face as I’m on my bike probably makes me more accountable than were my sneering mug hidden behind the reflections on a windshield. A license plate on a vehicle adds traceability to the vehicle itself, not to the person driving. Moving violations are given to drivers, not cars. There are obvious exceptions to this (parking tickets for example) but the point is it is no easier, or more likely, for me to be stopped and ticketed should I break the laws simply because of a license on the back of my bike.

Bicycle licensing is a great campaign statement. It is one of those things that just seem “so obvious” to the folks out there that don’t ride bikes. It is a very subtle us against them inducing statement that has become all too common in politics today. Engardio’s statements imply that he wants bicycle licensing to increase the safety of the roads. He is relying on this common sense gut feeling to make people falsely assume that it will makes our roads safer. He provides absolutely no reasons why it would make things actually safer.

Instead, he peppers in a bunch of anecdotal stories

Currently, bicyclists experience a lot more risk than well-insured car drivers. Seaman recently hit a car door that had opened into a bike lane he was riding in. His injury required 34 sessions of physical therapy. His bike had substantial damage. Yet his auto and home insurance didn’t cover his bike accident (not all policies do). He was on the hook for thousands of dollars in expenses.

But the glaring fact here is that this story has absolutely nothing to do with his argument. The type of accident described above wouldn’t even be covered by the type of insurance mandated for motorists by the state of California. In fact, in the above example it is arguable the the liability insurance mandated for the driver that opened his/her door into the bike lane should have been paying for poor Seaman’s injuries.

Bodily Injury Liability — Pays for medical expenses, legal expenses, and judgments against you when you or your car are involved in an accident that causes the injury or death of another person.

Collision — Covers the damage to your vehicle resulting from a collision, regardless of who is responsible. Collision coverage requires the payment of a deductible by the insured.,-Collision,-Comprehensive.c383.htm

Based on the above story, it seems Engardio actually wants cyclists to have more mandated coverage than motorists do. He seems to want cyclists to be on the hook for liabilities caused by the negligent actions of other drivers.

Or maybe he just wanted to stir up people’s emotions about the perceived dangers of riding a bike and related the only bike crash story he knew. You know, because no one reads things critically any more anyhow, right? The plot thickens indeed…