Voluntary Commuter Bicycle License

Hi Will,
Here is the idea I told you about, I have never done this before, all input is appreciated:

Accidents occur because motorists and cyclists are unaware of existing rule of the road. Commuters feel insecure about choosing bicycle commuting. Motorists do not know what actions to expect from cyclists. Many people do not know what new on-street cycle lane graphics mean.

City of Boston Voluntary Commuter Bicycle license.
People who are serious about commuting in the city by bicycle ask for and receive a bicyclist license. This license involves a written test administered through the DMV and a signed agreement that the cyclist agrees to obey traffic laws, and follow basic safety procedures. The licensed cyclist would be given identifying paraphernalia, (TBD, for instance a distinctive reflective helmet badge and bicycle license plate)

Advantage to Cyclist:
Public relation campaign announces that Boston takes commuter cyclists seriously and encourages them.
PR Campaign also publicized exactly what the traffic laws are concerning cycling so that everyone knows.
Registration numbers etched onto bicycles and other make/model information is used by law enforcement to to track stolen or lost bikes.
Licensed cyclists will likely be taken more seriously in civil and criminal court cases against motorists.
Reserved public parking for licensed commuter cyclists.
Tax deductions/incentives.
Increased coordination with existing MBTA bicycle policies.
A cyclist’s 911 line for reporting hazards.
Bicyclist/Bicycle insurance?
Partner-sponsored Commuter Cyclist rescue vehicles?
A web-based community of cycling commuters.

Many local businesses will likely provide additional perks.

Advantage to Motorist:
Can reasonably predict the actions of the licensed cyclist viz stop signs, turning, …etc.
Licensed commuter cyclists agree to appropriate safety and visibility gear, including lights, helmets, reflective vests, bells,…etc. making it easier for motorists to coexist.
Some motorists may choose to commute by bicycle.

Advantage to City:
A more bicycle-friendly city
Healthier workforce
Less traffic
Less pollution
Energy savings
Better quality of life.
Organize and regulate commuter cycling community.

Licensure through existing DMV, minimal cost after development. A minimal license fee is reasonable ($25/year?)
Public Relations campaign and kickoff. Partner with industry, media, and similar related public programs to minimize expenses.
City staffing of bicycle hotline, cyclists 911 line, and general commuter info line. Web site. Printed rules/suggestions for cyclists.

14 replies on “Voluntary Commuter Bicycle License”

  1. This proposal has some good components. However, I’d suggest lowering the fee to $5 or $10 to make it affordable for a wider range of citizens.

  2. I agree with Lisa – a lower fee makes sense to me. I think it’s a great idea. Any MassBike response?

  3. I don’t like it, though I’m having a hard time thinking of how to explain exactly why. It seems to be a bit paternalistic, a bit of a double standard, a bit redundant, and assumes what I’d call an idealized approach to both traffic laws and their relation to safety.

    So, first, paternalistic and double standard — it presumes that the cyclists are the main problem. That doesn’t appear to be the case in general; bad driving is a large risk, it seems to me the main risk. If you look at pedestrian mortality stats, it’s clear that we would obtain much more benefit from tiny improvements in car safety, than we would from absolute perfection in cycling safety (4000+ deaths per year, versus 1 or 2).

    Redundant, because most cycling adults not only already have drivers licenses, they also drive, many times quite a lot. If we need this, it suggests that our driver licensing is flawed.

    Idealized, because it assumes that without both rules and obedience of rules, things would be both unpredictable and unsafe. It’s predictable that many cyclists and many drivers will roll through stop signs without coming to a full stop. It’s predictable that a good fraction of cyclists and drivers will turn right on red without coming to a full stop. It’s predictable that drivers will speed, especially on the freeway. So, not only do we get predictable behavior without perfect rule-following, we also see plenty of rule-breaking by everyone on the road. Again, a double standard to focus on the problems of the slow, light, minority vehicle, rather than effectively addressing the problems of the fast, heavy, majority vehicle.

    As far as “unsafe” is concerned, it’s interesting to study the history of our traffic controls — stop signs are not quite 100 years old, for example. Somehow, before cars, we didn’t need them. I realize that it is the law of Massachusetts that bicycles are vehicles and are supposed to obey the traffic laws, but these traffic controls were not originally installed because of bicycle safety problems; they were installed because of car safety problems. We could have different rules for bicycles. I might be more enthusiastic about this proposal if we did have different rules, and if it didn’t seem to double down on insisting that bicycle carefully follow safety rules designed for cars that drivers don’t even follow that well. The “Idaho stop” works well in Idaho, and in Paris, too.

    In addition, and I return to idealized, the problem with an emphasis on following the law is that it is neither necessary nor sufficient to safety. There are all sorts of peculiar safety rules that are not laws (daytime running lights, fat tires for road slots and potholes, careful in the rain about slippery wet markings and metal fixtures, don’t ever pass a truck on the right if it has the chance to turn right), and laws that if broken carefully are not unsafe (e.g., Idaho stop outside Idaho).

    (History on this — I’ve been biking for over 40 years, and for the first 30 of them I was a dedicated, perfect-rule-following, Effective Cyclist. A few years ago I decided that was the wrong approach, and the more I read and the more I learn, the more I think that the problem is cars, and to the extent that bicycles need rules, they are different rules. I do still drive plenty much, but around people I drive more slowly and far more carefully than I used to. I think a whole lot about safety, and also read about it.)

  4. Overall I think I like this — especially some of the “advantages to the city” and a few of the “advantages to the cyclists” but I have several problems with the idea, which I think need more thought.

    1) Won’t it discourage new cyclists on the road?

    2) though there is plenty of stupid, careless and dangerous bike riding (almost always by those w/o helmets, and in the spring and Sept. in student areas) — the fact is that the serious violations are those of the drivers. Don’t want them to feel entitled if cyclists aren’t perfect. And let’s remember, cyclists often come up from behind, and you don’t know if they have licenses or not. And is it to be seen as ok to hit them if they lack the special reflective equipment?

    3) Which reminds me (this is off-topic), it would help if cyclists used strobe lights during the day!

    4) What about the cost of the initial licensing itself? Personally, if this is a helpful idea, I think it should be covered publically.

    5) Can’t cyclists use 911 now? Or are they just ignored? And if so, wouldn’t those w/o licenses be still more ignored?

    6) MOST IMPORTANTLY, the rules of the road (which are different for drivers and cyclists in only minor ways (hand signals), SHOULD BE KNOWN BY ALL, and required as part of driver licensing. THESE RULES SHOULD BE ENFORCED — and that means for cyclists as well as motorists. It would actually be dangerous if motorists assumed that having registered cyclists meant that cyclists in general would obey the rules. And very dangerous for registered cyclist who didn’t. And as it stands, many good (and professional, such as messengers) cyclists do not reliably follow the rules.

  5. Martha – yes, lights during the day, strobe or otherwise, seem to help a lot.
    The OECD recently published a large overview of recent bicycling health and safety studies (you pay for the PDF, or view online for free): http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/transport/cycling-health-and-safety_9789282105955-en and pages 168-169 (numbered, not PDF count) mention a study that showed surprisingly good results. Strobes are annoying at night, though, and harder to track the motion.

  6. This sounds poorly thought out to me. Is this off the top of your head or based on some kind of real analysis or on what’s worked elsewhere? I’m skeptical that the cited advantages follow at all.

    First, I posit anyone voluntarily licensing themselves is as likely to sign up for a mass bike safety class now, or at least to know traffic laws and follow them to some fairly reasonable degree.

    Second, we’re talking mostly frivolous stuff here. I doubt the attitude of the more problematic Boston drivers towards cyclists is going to change because because they have some scout badge type thing. What bothers me most about this proposal is how it introduces the issue sharing blame equally between drivers and cyclists (fine, I won’t claim cyclists are blameless) and then attacks the issue entirely on the cyclist side. Hmmm, if drivers, who are licensed now, are at least half to blame for the accidents then how would licensing solve anything, even if the licensing were mandatory instead of voluntary? And there’s all this focus on things like lights, reflectors, helmets. Important enough, but as important as street design? So, I see bicyclists reacting to these “perks” much the same way they react to certain bicycle lanes in name only (bicycle lanes in paint only?) e.g. mass ave. in parts of cambridge. More window dressing.

    Public education in the form of pamphlets like massbike’s “Go by Bike” with tv or radio ads with similar content, along with (what’s already been done somewhat?) getting them into schools probably helps. The rest of this sounds pretty useless to me.

    What’s this about signing an agreement saying I’ll follow the laws? The laws are the laws whether I agree to them or not. I agree to the laws implicitly by living in the society, do I not? Again, the tone of this gives the lie to your earlier statement about drivers being half to blame. Clearly you don’t believe that unless you have something else in mind to direct towards drivers (and city planners and engineers, not to mention tax payers and people who make budgets).

    Personally, I’ve taken Massbike’s safety course twice (probably it’s time for a refresher soon), but I can’t see myself participating in this. It just sounds too familiar, too much like the sorts of things I heard in the audience from the anti-bikelane people who showed up at a public meeting for the east-arlington mass ave improvements meeting I happened to attend a couple years ago. I’d not participate as a way of showing my disapproval for licensing and the whole attitude I feel it represents. Licensing is necessary for drivers since they endanger the public to a significant degree. That’s not really true of bicyclists. Public education should be enough to protect them from themselves. Roads that are safe without much knowledge, separating cars and bikes where feasible, that would be far better (but expensive I suppose).

  7. I read this proposal this morning and almost fell out of bed. This proposal is wrong on so many levels:
    Let’s start with the most obvious: The program may be voluntary. Then, why not simply setup some websites where cyclists (would be good for motorists, too) read about the rules. One can even think up a test. That’s it. No government involved. But, I can already envision the day where an overzealous politician thinks that this program needs to become mandatory.
    Then, $25/year for renewal? I just renewed my drivers license, and that cost me $50 in ten years. There seems to be a disconnect with math. And: A court may take a cyclist more serious if he/she was licensed? Excuse me? If a car drives over me, I would like to think that the court is taking me serious, even if I was deaf, dumb, or blind (and indeed they do), and it should have nothing to do with whether I have a license or not.
    Personally, I don’t think a license makes anyone a better driver or cyclist. Proof are the many car drivers who all have licenses, and still drive erratically.
    As Martha explained, the rules for cars and bicycles are actually not that different, and I would venture a guess that most cyclists have drivers licenses anyway. So, what would be gained?
    Boston (and its surrounding cities) would become a better bicycle place? I ride over 1000 miles a year in an around Boston. In the metropolitan area bicycle friendliness is a lip service. Many things have been done, but apparently thought up by people who never sat on a bicycle:
    A cyclist that rides in a reasonable straight line, assertive but not aggressive, with reasonable speed (not too slow either) generally is at his/her safest. The only additional safety comes from many other cyclists around, because they increase awareness. Boston (and again, I am putting the surrounding cities together) installed many bicycle tracks. Some are painted green with a color that is dangerously slippery when wet. The generally quick abrasion of the color shows you how much impressed car drivers are with that solution. Cambridge has installed concrete pillars in the middle of bike lanes (they have now been taken down). It still baffels me to figure out what they were good for. Roads have wonderful bike lanes, except they end exactly at the intersections, which is the place where bicycles need the most protection (because they are not riding in a straight line with reasonable speed). Roads in Boston are in a dismal state, and that is not only since this winter. I have more than once seriously considered to give up and by one huge SUV. The number of flats I get on these roads is uncountable. And guess what that does to riding with reasonable speed in a straight line.
    There are some wonderful bicycle corridors. The Charles River Bikepath comes to mind, the Emerald, the Minuteman Bikepath to name a few. Typically, at the end of them, you are spit out onto a busy road in dismal shape. Or take the new bike path in Watertown. You can’t even get on it at its starting point because some intelligent person put two signs, a traffic light and an electric switch cabinet right at its entry. (About the co-ordination between different infrastructure pieces in Boston you could write an entirely new post …). On some of the paths there are veritable death traps. The DCR is aware of them as they are circled in yellow – since three years and nothing has been done. When three years ago a car accident damaged a guard rail on the Charles River Bikepath near the Harvard Boat House, the DPW simply bent the guard rail over the bike path leaving only a very narrow passage. The situation was fixed more than one year later only after another car accident ripped that piece off as well. I could go on here …
    So, now about the bicycle rules themselves: As a bicyclist I have an incentive to stick by certain rules and not by others. Always remember: if I break the rules and hit a car I die. If a car breaks the rules and hits me, I still die. The most dangerous cars are the ones behind you. The majority of (lethal) car/bicycle accidents happen at intersections, but not because the bicycle ran a red light, but because the car passed and turned right. I jump red lights and stop signs because I need distance between me and the cars behind me, so that I have speed and ride in a straight line. All the other cars I can see, but not the ones behind me. As long as this is not understood there will never be true bike safety.
    Ok, now last: The bicycles could get a marking to make it easier to be recovered after theft. First, such a marking already exists. and there are various programs where you can register your bike. Fortunately, bike theft in Boston actually isn’t that bad (try Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen …) Unfortunately, the registration numbers on bikes don’t help because if you report a bicycle theft you will simply get a shrug. The police doesn’t have the resources to spot a bike that most likely will either be disassembled real quick, or sold whole but very far away. In this country we can’t even get a national gun registry together, do you seriously believe we can get a national bicycle registry?
    So, in summary, I don’t think that bicycle riding licensure is going to change bicycle safety one bit. We should focus our resources on improving road conditions, creating more bicycle corridors, and build better connectivity between such corridors.

  8. Voluntary licenses often turn into mandatory licenses.

    I don’t like the idea.

    I don’t fish in the ocean any more because now I need a license in Maine to fish in their part of the Atlantic and another license in Massachusetts to fish in their portion of the Atlantic. I assume if I fished in Rhode Island, they would want a license for their part of the Atlantic. I haven’t caught a fish in any part of the Atlantic in 5 years, so I leave my gear (and my son’s gear) at home, and that is a sad thing.

  9. I cycle about 2500 miles per year, though all of it nowhere near Boston. I also used to ride motorcycles. Given this experience, my take is that inattentive drivers are the problem and those drivers already have licenses. The licensing process has done little or nothing to make them safe drivers and the driver education system is, frankly, a joke.

    So, I don’t see how this sort of system is going to do anything to help the situation and, further, I don’t see how it could be applied to just one area of the state.

    That said, a lot of cyclists ride like complete idiots. It’s embarrassing.

  10. It’s a great idea but annual DMV fee should be reduced to a minimum. $25 is too high. Also perhaps consider a specialized teller/desk for bicycles so they don’t have to wait too long, or allow for registration online with a mail-in sticker.

    I’m not a biker but a motorist and commute everyday to and from work. I was panicked a few days ago when I was suddenly surrounded with a horde of bikers, some without helmets, some biking on my right, some on my left, in the middle of traffic, just about anywhere a bike could fit. They had no care for others on the road. I was at the level of Mt-Auburn Cemetery driving towards Belmont. Where are the cops when you need them? This was totally unacceptable behavior. A lot of bikers obey the rules of the road and I respect them for that and pay extra care to give them enough room but some others….a bit of licensing would go a long way to curb some of that wild behavior, I would hope.

  11. Thank you to all those who read this proposal and took it for what it is – a rough idea from a non-expert. Thanks for the feedback.

    To address some particulars:

    1. Lowering the licensing fee. I pulled $25/year out of a hat as an amount I thought a cycle commuter could afford. The fee serves several functions.
    a) It might help motorists take the program more seriously. Sharing the road = sharing the cost.
    b) It might offset some of the costs to the City and make it more palatable to lawmakers.
    c) It may encourage lawmakers to consider other perks for cyclists, such as bike parking and more bike lanes.

    2. Paternalistic, double standard. I really don’t see how one can infer that this proposal “presumes that cyclists are the main problem.” I perceive the exact opposite. It is motorists’ lack of respect for cyclists that poses the most danger. But respect can be earned. One respondent admits that for 10 years he has been following only the rules of the road that he considers reasonable. I’m sure the rules for cycling can benefit from reexamination and amendment, but if I, as a motorist, do not know what rules he is following, I have little chance of predicting his behavior on the road and avoiding mayhem.

    3. Discouraging new cyclists. I for one am terrified of cycling in the city as long as there is no common understanding with motorists. I would feel safer with any increase of awareness/enforcement. Also, this program is entirely optional, no cyclist needs to feel discouraged. But I would be interested in hearing more of your thought on this.

    4. Increased danger to unlicensed cyclists. I like to think that the majority of motorists are not inclined toward homicide.

    5. Bicycle 911. I would assume that the bicycle 911 line would be open to all callers but that the staff would be more familiar with the problems of cyclists and more responsive to their concerns.

    6. Road rules should be known and followed by all. I agree entirely that motorists should be made aware of the motorist/cyclist rules of the road as a precondition to their licensing. However in the meantime I would suggest that publicizing these rules could be an essential focus of the media roll-out of the program.

    7. Voluntary will turn to mandatory licensing. I am not a fan of the logical fallacy of “the slippery slope.” It makes exactly as much sense to suggest that this program will inevitably lead to all vehicle licenses becoming voluntary.

    8. I love the idea of a specialized teller/desk at the RMV for bicycles. If the City and our Lawmakers are serious about supporting commuter cycling, I think they should give that suggestion some serious thought.

  12. If this is really about #3, then realistically you’re going to remain terrified, or else you have to change your outlook. You won’t get common understanding any time soon. I won’t repeat the reasons why.

    For constructive advice to get you on a bicycle, I suggest the following: (1) learn about effective/vehicular cycling. The Boy Scout Cycling handbook is a great start (cheap, short, to the point, low dogma). You like rules, these are rules. (*) (2) daytime running lights, so you will be seen. More important than reflective gear. (3) fat tires, because potholes and cracks and slots are probably the greater danger, and you can more easily negotiate sand and off-road. (4) watch out for right-turning vehicles, they don’t always see you, stop, or signal, and trucks can kill you. (5) don’t hug the curb, touching a raised curb or dropping off a shoulder can cause you to lose control. (6) think about visibility, think about what you can’t see, think about what drivers can’t see. (7) Figure out the safer places to ride, and ride there. The crowd-sourced bike map http://www.cityofboston.gov/bikes/maps.asp is a great place to start. (8) Be polite to pedestrians, even jaywalking pedestrians, and slow down around dogs and children.

    (*) This 11-second video, is your reaction “that’s fantastic!” or “that’s appalling!”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mr5Gssaxl6g
    If you’re appalled, Effective Cycling is for you. Effective Cycling is not for everyone, please don’t proselytize their recommendations for infrastructure etc — the Dutch approach is proven to work better.

  13. “I perceive the exact opposite. It is motorists’ lack of respect for cyclists that poses the most danger. But respect can be earned. ”

    So this, repeated, is the fundamental flaw with your solution. You’re basing it on the extremely dubious, certainly unproved assumption that if bicyclists behave better or have some signs of training or knowledge drivers will respect them more making the cyclists safer. In fact, I recall a study out of the UK showing that drivers passed cyclists more quickly and with less room when the cyclists showed signs of knowing what they were doing (rode straight, wore reflective clothing, etc.). I know when I drive I’ll be extra careful around a cyclist without a helmet or one who erratically swoops in and out from behind parked cars. You could make the argument that cyclists should be trained for their own safety, but if it’s to be voluntary anyway, just direct them to the groups who already provide this kind of training for those who want it.

    For another counterexample consider the time David Watson, the executive director of Mass Bike (a group you can get such training from), was purposely bumped from behind by an angry driver while waiting at a traffic light on his bike. You’ll be hard pressed to find a cyclist more respectful of traffic law and careful about cycling safely.

    This is only speculation, but I bet the driver hit him out of frustration because he felt David should have been hugging the curb or on the sidewalk or some such thing. This is common. More than once riding down Mt. Auburn street towards Watertown Square (a stretch I now avoid in favour of Arsenal, though I have to take the lane on School St. to get there) I had drivers yell at me to get off the road or honk at me. I was riding towards the right side of the right lane, if anything too close to the curb given the poor quality of the road over there. For a Belmont example consider the downhill stretch from the intersection with Concord St. heading north. There’s nothing for it but to take the lane since it’s narrow. Some drivers are reasonable when you do it, but I’d say one day in ten someone does something really nasty or dangerous before I get out there or even while I’m already somewhere they can’t pass safely.

    I should probably leave this opinion out, but my view is that trying to improve the psyche and attitude of Boston natives (at all but particularly) concerning driving is completely hopeless. What can I say, people here are just too high strung. It’s one of the things I really dislike about this area and part of the reason I’ll be looking to leave when I retire. People are much nicer about it in other cities I’ve cycled.

  14. Dan,

    7. Voluntary will turn to mandatory licensing. I am not a fan of the logical fallacy of “the slippery slope.” It makes exactly as much sense to suggest that this program will inevitably lead to all vehicle licenses becoming voluntary.

    Can you cite any examples where a government program that voluntarily asks people to pay money has been successful?

    By the same token, voluntary changing to mandatory is certainly not without precedent in terms of government regulation: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/forced-vs-voluntary-compliance-35278.html

    So no, it’s not a logical fallacy.

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