Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lawfulness & Licensing (Survey)

Once again, the NY Times has a well-written screed about urban cycling. It's here. I have to say that the sentiments of the author, Robert Sullivan, pretty much mirror mine. Riding in an urban environment carries inescapable risks, and it's simply imperative to avoid the risks we can by obeying the rules of the road. As one of the article commenters (from Davis, CA) responds, "same roads, same rights, same rules".

Sullivan, in the concluding paragraphs of his article, makes four suggestions for "better Bike PR":
  • Stop at intersections;
  • Don't ride on sidewalks;
  • Don't ride against traffic (especially on one-way streets); and
  • Signal your turns;
This is all pretty basic stuff, and I agree that universally doing these things will improve the lives of all urban cyclists (practical and otherwise!) but lately, I've been thinking further afield, deeper about this problem, venturing into what I'm pretty sure will be unpopular territory.

Simply put, the question is this:
If bicycles are vehicles, prone to the rules of the road like cars, and fundamentally unlike pedestrians, should bicycle riders who use public rights-of-way be licensed to operate their vehicles?
With no small amount of trepidation, I'm coming round more and more to the conclusion that we should be licensed. I think this solves two fundamental problems that otherwise show no clear way of being solved. These problems are:
  • Lack of Skills Training: Many, many cyclists on the road are woefully unprepared, both physically and mentally, for dealing with traffic issues. They don't know how to recognize dangerous situations and how to avoid them. Any licensing program would have to have a concomitant skills development and testing program to justify the awarding of licenses.
  • Lack of Moral Hazard: If I'm a driver, and I behave irresponsibly, then my license can be revoked, and I have to cease driving (at least if I want to obey the law). This threat of "points" has a strong effect of keeping my more animal impulses in check.
I look at "outlaw" cyclists, the heedless or reckless ones, and see people who are behaving as though under the influence of a drug. (See this post over at the Momentum website for yet another essay / perspective on this by Deb Greco.) Certainly cycling as an experience can convey a sense of euphoria, and it is the dangerous aspects of this euphoria in a public sphere that vehicular laws are intended to regulate.

The question is, should bicyclists play offense or defense? There are those, uh, "colorful cyclist personalities" who insist on the right to play offense. They assert that in Europe cyclists are treated with far greater deference by motorists, and that's the way it should be here, dammit. I'm a pragmatist, and I believe in defense. Cars are big, hot, massive, dangerous. To assert that it "should be otherwise" is all very well, but it is what it is. Much as I like Europe, much as I've enjoyed cycling over there, the US is different. I say that for me, for here, defense is the game.

So, time for an informal, non-scientific survey. The Blogger system doesn't (at least as far as I have discovered) allow for a formalized survey system, so let's do an informal one. If you have read this far, please do me the favor of commenting on this blog post with a letter signifying one of the following survey preferences. Honor code, here; don't be casting multiple votes (I'm pretty sure I can delete multiple votes after the fact, anyway.) As I've implied above, this is primarily aimed as the US, so if you're voting from overseas, it would be helpful for you to say where you're located. Feel free to comment further, but start out your comment with one of the letters A through D:

Question: Should bicycle riders who use public rights-of-way be licensed to operate their vehicles?
  • A. Yes; time to get serious; Particularly as the number of cyclists grow, it will make the roads safer for all of us.
  • B. Partly; Require licensing for bicyclists using roads that have speed limits >= 30 mph. This will allow "family use" in suburban 25 mph zones.
  • C. No; If we provide bike lanes, the safety problem will go away, except for those idiots who want to take crazy risks with their own necks.
  • D. Hell, No; I demand the right to do as I please on a bike; I'm not a car and I shouldn't have to behave like one. We need the government out of our lives.


matt said...

i would have to say "C". even if cyclist take a test and get training on how to ride in the public right of way you still have an uneducated motorist population to contend with. In my town, Nashville TN (listed as one of the 10 least bicycle friendly cities) most drivers do not know there is 3-foot law (motorist must give cyclist 3 feet when passing) not only that, most police officers in my ares do not know the cycling laws of the state.

Anonymous said...

"C", I think. While there needs to be greater education for cyclists, particularly as more and more first timers beginning riding, there needs to greater education for drivers. I would also like to see a change in the laws where pedestrians and cyclists have the right of way. This would be similar to the laws in Paris where you are responsible for those lighter than yourself. Bikes look out for pedestrians, cars lookout for bikes and pedestrians, etc. The greater the mass of the vehicle the more responsibility you have for others.

Brent said...

As much as I prefer my freedom, I think "A" would bring better future for cycling. So, I'd say "A" with some carve outs (children, bike path users, others).

In addition to training cyclists to interact with traffic better, licensing riders should also create a legal and recognized class of citizens whose concerns will have a greater voice in community and national affairs.

I realize that most States give bicyclists a great deal of rights now. However, it's now difficult to find recognition as cyclists in many motorists minds, as our roles are confusingly variegated. A spandex-clad rider is sometimes seen as a hobbyist, while commuters are seen as oddballs or "committing the sin of being poor."

Rights and responsibilities so often go hand-in-hand. Licensing should bring both to the fore. I think motorist awareness of cyclists' rights would improve, especially as many (most?) motorists would eventually find themselves having to be licensed to bicycle.

WestfieldWanderers said...

It's "C" for me.

I would like to see every child leaving primary school having been on a basic cycling course on the lines of the "Bikeability" system that's being developed in the UK. Cycling is a "life skill" which everyone should possess, in the same way that all kids should (and certainly did, in my day) be taught how to cross the road.

I would then like to see an advanced cycling training course be part of driver training, that is, it should be a pre-requisite to the issue of a provisional driving licence.

If nothing else, it would eliminate at a stroke the tedious "us and them" mentality, because every driver would be a trained cyclist, too.

Ron said...

Rob :

This are not bad ideas. But I'm sure there's always that bunch of people who think helmets and licensing will "reduce/discourage cycling". I wont vote at the moment since I need to think a little more at this point.

ChipSeal said...

Put me in the "D" category.

The negative unintended consequences far out weigh any benefit.

From making a barrier to novice and child cyclists to the bureaucracy needed to administer and enforce.

The real problems cycling has is society's perception that cycling is childish behavior. Licensing won't change that and it will reduce the size of the next generation of cyclists.