Bike riders should buy $25 annual license, alderman proposes

BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter October 23, 2013 10:11PM Source: Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd)

Chicago Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd)

The more bike lanes and Divvy bike rental stations Chicago installs, the more cyclists there are and the bolder some of them become.

That has at least one Chicago alderman seeing dollar signs.

South Side Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) proposed Wednesday that Chicago bike riders be required to purchase $25-a-year licenses and take a one-hour safety course.

If 400,000 bike riders purchase licenses, that would generate $10 million. That would duplicate the take from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial proposal to increase Chicago’s cigarette tax by 75 cents per pack.

For Dowell, the motive is twofold. Chicago needs money and needs to be creative about getting it. And if the number of traffic lanes available to motor vehicles is shrinking to make way for cyclists, there should be some responsibility that accompanies those benefits.

Chicago Ald. Anthony Beale

Chicago Ald. Anthony Beale

“I ride a bike, and I wouldn’t have a problem registering it. It’s important. For me, it is both safety and also a revenue-generator,” Dowell told the Sun-Times early in the day Wednesday.

“You register the bike and you also take a one-hour safety education training course. Rules of the road — like you do when you get your driver’s license. There’s been some accidents in the city. We’ve read about that. Some people just get on a bike. They don’t really realize what the rules of the road are or what the signal is for a left-hand turn, a right-hand turn. There’s some usefulness in having them take a short course.”

Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, a bike advocacy group, doesn’t agree with Dowell’s plan.

“A bike license fee, we believe, would discourage cycling and would really cost more money than it would raise.”

The manpower associated with enforcement, and the cost to set up a licensing system, would outweigh potential gains, he said.

“Police, or someone, has to be responsible for essentially investigating bikes to make sure they have a license.”

Burke said other cities have looked into bike licensing and found it too expensive to implement.

“We’re not aware of any American city that ultimately does this,” he said.

Later Wednesday, Dowell said she hoped to substitute the $10 million in revenues generated by bike licenses for Emanuel’s plan for a 50 percent increase in the amusement tax tacked on to cable television bills.

“A lot of low income people who cannot afford to go to fancy restaurants and movies and spend money out on the town use TV as their form of entertainment. I need to see what the impact of that is,” Dowell said.

Emanuel was taken aback and non-committal about Dowell’s bike licensing proposal.

But, during a meeting Wednesday with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, the mayor rejected the notion that cyclists should pay for the privileges he has given them with new and protected bike lanes that have eliminated lanes previously available for motor vehicles.

“Privileges? I mean — bikes were here before I got here and bikes will be here when I leave,” he said.

“One of the ways we’re actually doing revenue for the bike lanes is actually from the advertising associated with the Divvy bike. That will pay for the additional expansions on the protected bike lanes.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, said he’s all for the idea of licensing bikes.

“That’s thinking outside the box. That’s something we need to look at because a lot of our streets are now being dedicated to people who are riding bikes every single day. If that’s something we need to look at, I’m always open,” Beale said.

The chairman said he would start by getting police statistics on the number of accidents involving bikes. He suspects there’s been a dramatic increase.

Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein has argued that bike riders are “no different than pedestrians and drivers in that there are those who abide by the law and those who don’t.”

In 2011, the City Council agreed to “level the playing field” between cyclists and motorists — by banning texting and talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device while riding.

The crackdown was preceded by the delayed launch of a bike rental program that, Emanuel claimed Wednesday, is already “nationally renowned.”

In his budget address, the mayor also claimed to have delivered on his campaign promise to make Chicago the most “bike-friendly” city in the nation by installing bike lanes “that represent 20 percent of the national’s total urban network.”

Email: fspielman@suntimes.com

Twitter: @fspielman


Takeways

The argument that Ron Burke is using is often used by those who do not wish to entertain a tax on bicycles. But such an argument while it might be true is likely to have an unexpected consequence.

Suppose for instance you were buying a home to flip and were told by the prospective seller that your bid was too high to turn a profit in 60 days. Your response would likely be the one I would have and that would be to lower my offer. The seller has made a strategic blunder in letting me know what he thinks of my offer. Likewise if you tell a politician that the tax rate you are considering levying is too low to make that income stream sustainable he is likely to raise the amount. And that is precisely what you do not wish to see happen.

Far better to remain quiet about the tax rate itself and develop strategies that do not make you seem indolent and suffering from an inflated sense of entitlement. After all the city has been reeling with strikes by teachers who have seen their schools closed, jobs lost all while watching a series of miles of bicycle infrastructure for a percentage of the population likely to amount to no more than 1%-2% of the population of the city steadily increase.

Imagine how a community feels when it learns that nearly a $0.5 Million was lavished on less than a mile of Dearborn Street when there was no crying need for it from the general public. Instead a group of cyclists from most the northwest  side of the city saw any real benefit to this newly minted infrastructure.

Understand that at the very least cyclists are going to have to be prepared to pay a tax. But even more important is the fact that at this moment and given its numbers it has few if any “natural allies“. Rather than using their forum to encourage a broader participation in the Urban Cycling Movement there might have been a miscalculation made when it openly showed disdain for motorists and pedestrians.

And make no mistake about both these groups can read internet comments as easily as they can the sports page.