Bicycle registration is not the answer for bad behaviour

Chris Rissel, Professor of Public Health at University of Sydney
20 January 2012, 12.49pm AEST

Source: The Conversation

Legislation would have less real effect than better manners. – Looking Glass

There’s nothing like a “bikes vs drivers” story to whip commentators into a frenzy, and this week’s stoush between Shane Warne and a Melbourne cyclist is no exception. Whenever this issue comes up, there are calls for cyclists to be registered – either to “pay their way” or so their behaviour can be monitored. But what difference would registration make?

Resorting to legislation is rarely the best solution to any social problem. It’s easy for Warne to call for “cyclists to be registered” or the Lord Mayor of Melbourne to want to “crack down on hoon cyclists” in pedestrian areas whenever someone on a bicycle breaks a rule. But a legislative response is out of proportion to the size of the problem and creates more problems than it tries to solve.

Who knows what happened with that one cyclist and the spin-master Warne? Did the cyclist break some road rules? Did Warne run over the bike? It’s easy to blame a cyclist: let’s face it, they get lots of bad press, they’re a minority, an “out” group rather than an in-group.

However, we need to look at the underlying issues here. Do cyclists need to be monitored more closely? Do most cyclists break the road rules? The Amy Gillett Foundation, with Monash academic Marilyn Johnson, used a covert video camera to record cyclists at ten sites across metropolitan Melbourne from October 2008 to April 2009. They found that of 4,225 cyclists facing a red light, only 6.9% didn’t stop. The vast majority of those who broke the rules were just turning left.

Cycling is taking off in Australia: what would registration do to its success? – AAP

Would registration reduce this rate? Registering bicycles would create more problems than it fixes. It would cost the state far more than it would collect in revenue. The police resources required to enforce a bicycle registration scheme are simply not worth the ability to able to fine a handful of people behaving badly on bicycles.

When a pedestrian or cyclist breaks safety road rules they are most likely to hurt themselves, not others. The cost to society of pedestrians jaywalking, or cyclists riding too fast on a shared path, are miniscule compared to the damage a two tonne mass of metal, rubber and plastic speeding through a red light or stop sign can do.

Riding too fast on a shared path with lots of pedestrians is a social problem more than a legal problem. It is bad manners, like someone running through a crowded mall. Collectively we need to remind each other that that sort of behaviour is inappropriate and re-establish norms around respect and basic etiquette.

Bicycle registration would be a powerful disincentive to cycling. All levels of government in Australia have plans and targets to increase levels of cycling, because of the significant health, environmental and congestion-reduction benefits. When people shift trips from driving a car to riding a bike, everyone benefits. But bike registration would likely deter even more riders than mandatory helmet legislation (30-40% of riders stopped cycling when that was introduced).

Then there are the myriad problems of establishing a bicycle registration scheme. Do you register the rider (who may own multiple bicycles) or the bicycle? What about children’s bikes, or off-road mountain bikes not used on the road?

Shane Warne’s statements have bowled some cyclists over. – Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer

If bicycle registration fees were based on the same principal as car registration fees, they would cost almost zero dollars. Vehicle registration used to be based on the weight of a vehicle, and therefore the damage the vehicle did to the road. Trucks pay more than cars, which pay more than motorcycles. Bicycles weigh very little and cause no damage to a road.

At any rate, most bicycle riders (80%) have driver’s licences or pay taxes that in part contribute to road funding (it’s not widely known that registration fees don’t go directly to road funding: like nearly all taxes they go into central revenue and are distributed as needed).

Some argue that bicycle registration would provide insurance for the rider or third party insurance in the case of a crash. In Victoria, at least, state insurance already covers cyclists for any accident with a motor vehicle. Insurance is also available to members of bicycle organisations in Australia, and could easily be incorporated into other types of insurance schemes.

If bicycle registration changed driver behaviour in a way that legitimised cycling then I’d be all for it. However, I can’t see a small metal plate with some numbers on it slowing impatient drivers down, or helping drivers “see” bicycles on the road, or affecting drivers in any meaningful way that made it safer for bicycles.

Rather than pursuing registration, politicians and cycling groups need to do more to promote existing cycling etiquette guides which emphasise respect for all road users. Bike shops should give these out whenever someone buys a bike, to reinforce good behaviour. Campaigns like “Do the right thing” can help support social norms about how all road users need to slow down and be respectful of each other.

Making more laws is rarely the answer to social problems like the interaction between different road users. This is not a question of legality: it’s a matter of manners, awareness, and of mutual respect.

Promoting Cycling Etiquette

Where is the value in adopting Cycling Etiquette for bicycle owners? Here in the US we have had entire volume written and published about Effective Cycling. But that approach to cycling has become relegated to the “trash heap” as Cycling Advocacy groups have climbed on the Physically Separated Bike Lanes approach to traffic control.

In Europe such lanes are far more separated than they would be here. There what we call trails are actually running alongside the highways leading into center cities and have their own traffic flow controls. This is a rather expensive approach and could require the same kind of Imminent Domain issues that have surrounded highway planning for decades.

Our Chicago protected bike lanes will be a hybrid approach at best. They will still have all of the problems we already see in Portland and New York City. And in both these locales bicycle behavior is clearly unchanged despite the presence of improved infrastructure.

We already know that “Doing the Right Thing” is sometimes pointless in the face of clearly defined campaigns

  1. texting while driving, walking or cycling
  2. cell phone use while driving, walking or cycling
  3. people still drink and drive and bicycle
  4. speed through work zones while driving
  5. despite intersection cameras cars block cross sections
  6. and both cars and bicycles make right turns without a full stop
  7. cyclists seem the most prone to simply ignoring stop signs
  8. motorists often refuse to buckle up despite the fact that a ticket is possible

It usually takes a horrific accident to bring awareness to a situation that has grown out of control. But given the fact that we already know what the scientific studies say about distracted driving and cycling we still do it. And lawmakers are always going to err on the side of common sense and punishment at the very least. They will be emboldened in this course of action as the number of bicyclists increases and the injury statistics mount.

Better Infrastructure Will Have Unintended Consequences

I believe it is true that cyclists may see an increase in their numbers with the creation of better infrastructure. But the increase in numbers will probably result in increases in accidents between cyclists who are contending for the very stop sign intersections through which they now pass freely.

I got a firsthand understanding of this problem during the Four Star Bike Tour 2012. We had missed a turn when a ground marker was not present. We went one block over and turned south to reach the other side of the overhead train tracks that run through the town of Oak Park. In returning to the street where we would continue the ride, we stopped at the stop sign and waited for an automobile to advance.

When it was our turn to enter the intersection we were suddenly faced with a near collision from cyclists who were advancing from under the overhead train tracks and blowing through the stop sign. Because they were a peloton of roadies it meant that they were moving faster than usual and simply could not be ignored by two lone cyclists. We had the right of way but they had the numbers and physics on their side.

This sort of situation will be increasingly common with greater numbers of cyclists traveling at right angles to one another through intersections where none of them feels the need to stop and it will most certainly be a problem in protected bike lanes where the width of that lane does not allow faster cyclists to pass slower ones easily. And if those protected lanes are being used by families with children things could get quite ugly if the peloton riders are not careful.

Cyclists have to make up their minds at the outset to either obey laws or to retest the laws of physics in painful ways on the streets. Perhaps it will become necessary to dust off those now discarded copies of Effective Cycling and spruce up the illustrations for a new generation.