Should cyclists be licensed?


ICBC Driver's LicenseInevitably in a discussion about cyclists obeying rules of the road, the issue of licensing and insurance comes up. One of Vancouver’s mayoral candidates is pushing this idea too. The reasoning goes: If only cyclists were required to be licensed, they would be educated on the rules of the road. And by requiring them to carry insurance, they could be held responsible for any damage they cause. I’ll write more about insurance in a later post.

Fundamentally, there are some problems with licensing anything in Vancouver. Did you know that if you have a dog that is more than 3 months old in Vancouver, you are supposed to get a dog license?

Estimates vary, but it seems between 20% and 30% of all dogs in Vancouver are licensed. It stands to reason that attempts to license cyclists will have similar problems. First people need to know about the bylaw. Then they have to decide to follow it. And then there has to be bylaw enforcement.

Putting the public disdain for city bylaws issue aside, one major reason cited for advocating licensing is education. It’s easy to live in Vancouver and not have a driver’s license. Is it reasonable to have people who may not know the rules of the road driving a bicycle on the road? Or, even if they have a driver’s license, are they aware of how those rules apply to bikes?

If the goal of licensing is education, it doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. To start, it seems to me that anyone who has a Class 5 driver’s license should know the rules of the road. Perhaps ICBC could put somewhat more emphasis on cycling, but a Class 5 license should cover cycling as well. That leaves two groups of people who do not have a driver’s license: adults and kids.

What if the City of Vancouver instituted a bicycle safety program through the school system? The VACC offers standalone courses, but consider courses more integrated into the schools. If the City of Vancouver provided funding, perhaps in conjunction with ICBC, CyclingBC, VACC, (an organization to run the programs) a course could be available to kids a few times throughout the year. After completing the program, kids would have a certificate (or license) showing they’ve taken the program. Victoria has a program like this, run by the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition: Bike Sense. If this were provided to kids at no cost, I’m certain it would prove popular. Licensing the under-16 crowd wouldn’t be mandatory.

That leaves unlicensed adults. There are currently programs in place (like the VACC StreetWise course) that serve these people. I suppose the city could enact a bylaw that requires unlicensed cyclists to have a bicycle safety certificate to ride on the roads, but I imagine participation rates and enforcement would be pretty dismal.

A Calgary Herald blog post discussed some other considerations for licensing cyclists. Licensing is both a revenue generator and a way to  make cyclists accountable. These are interesting points, but utterly impractical.

What are your thoughts? License everyone, just better education, or is cycling something that should have no restrictions whatsoever?

Last modified: November 4, 2011

14 Responses to " Should cyclists be licensed? "

  1. Ian says:

    A related issue for me is maintaining a coy bicycle registry (like auto registries) so we might have better luck recovering lost and stolen bikes.

  2. Sandy says:

    Cyclists with bikes on the road, should be required to be licensed. If for no other reason then they take up a lane, like a car. While there are many responsible riders, their number is dwarfed by the ‘cowboys’ who think they own the street. How are we to deal with cyclists that often run through traffic lights at blinding speeds when it suits them. Renegade cyclists cause congestion, like cars. If a cyclist choses to drive a bike because of their ‘green’ orientation, that’s their choice and all the power to them. But I will not place them on a pedestal for their belief system. They have a responsibility if they chose to ride wildly next to or behind a 2 ton vehicle. I chose to drive a car. It’s my right. I pay a considerable amount for that ‘right’: auto insurance, license fees, gas taxes, parking charges, auto tags, and so on. But, it’s my ‘choice’ and I pay heavily for that priveledge. When I see a biker run through lights, hop on and off the sidewalk whenever they choose for their own convenience to save time, drive into oncoming traffic, straddle in the middle of a lane at a red light, drive in pairs/groups taking up the width of the lane, rather then riding single file on the left, and darting through heavy congestion with no regard, I can’t believe they live with no rules. It’s nothing less then utter mayhem. For a city starved for revenue, licensing becomes another needed source of revenue. I don’t like paying annual fees for my dog, but I have to and boo-boo for me. When sharing the road with vehicles, licensing is an absolute source of accountability. I would encourage ICBC to require the driver of ‘any’ form of transportation on the public roads, to also carry a form of insurance. Not all car/bike accidents are the fault of auto drivers, yet the car driver gets penalised every time.

  3. Alex P says:

    I think they definitely should not be licensed. This has been studied time and time again by different cities, and the downsides outweigh the upsides. I’d rather save licensing for those things which impose risk (cars, firearms) rather than those that bear risk (cyclists, pedestrians, etc).

  4. Anthony says:


    It’s not clear to me how you expect licensing to solve the problems you’ve raised: speeding through traffic lights, congestion, running through lights, riding on the sidewalk, driving into oncoming traffic, being in the middle of lanes at red lights, taking the width of a lane. I think I got them all.

    I’ll note that congestion, speeding through traffic lights (maybe you meant something other than speed and green lights?), and being in the middle of a lane (red light or not) are not illegal.

    Running through lights (I assume you mean red lights) and driving into oncoming traffic are activities that I assure you every cyclist and motorist, licensed or not, knows is illegal. Licensing doesn’t keep motorists from running red lights.

    I humbly suggest reading this earlier post:

    The rest is a bit hard to follow: “…live with no rules…” “…utter mayhem…” and something about being green. Oh, by the way, cyclists pay for roads the same way motorists do: through property taxes.

    Also, it amuses me that you think that the city can use cyclist licensing for revenue generation. What makes you think that people who “live with no rules” will bother to get a bike license? The cost of the program would far outweigh any revenue.

  5. Sandy says:

    Property taxes are paid by property ‘owners’. I am also forced to pay all the additional expenses as listed on the posting, if I choose to drive a vehicle on a city street.

    The cost of a licensing program is long established. Pay for a license, and if you’re driving on city streets, pay for insurance.

    Regarding enforcement, the same police that check the validity of my driver’s license can easily check bike riders. Rather simple.

  6. Anonymous says:


    Huh? Police don’t need to see a licence to charge someone with an infraction. I fail to see how making cyclists who already disregard laws get a licence will turn them into law abiders. The point previously made about licencing being an opportunity to raise awarness about laws has some merit. However, there may be other more effective ways to raise awareness.

  7. Kilted Cylon says:

    Well, if we’re not going to license them and require that the license be visible so we can report the yahoos then please give me carte blanche to clothesline the next cyclist that flies through the intersection on a red light when I’m trying to cross as a pedestrian or his buddy who takes a flying right turn through the crosswalk just as everyone is stepping off. These are the idiots that are going to force the city to start a licensing program.

  8. Soundy says:

    @Anthony: Licensing itself doesn’t solve the problem, but it does (ideally) involve two benefits:

    One: education. In order to get a driver’s license, you must display a knowledge of traffic laws and “rules of the road”. MANY cyclists don’t appear to understand that those same laws apply to them. Some know this and simply don’t care, but I suspect at least as many don’t realize that when they’re on the public roads, they’re bound by the same laws as every other vehicle. So, by making a license mandatory, and requiring that education to obtain it, you do help to REDUCE the problem by at least ensuring everyone who’s legally on the road, understands the laws that apply to them.

    Two: accountability and REPORTABILITY. Like Cylon suggests, if cyclists are required to display their licenses visibly, then when they do commit infractions, they can be reported – no different than pedestrians and other drivers being able to get the license plate of a car and report them for infractions. If cyclists understand that they won’t be able to simply flaunt the law with impunity, but realize that people WILL be able to report them for infractions, then over time it will help to change their mindset.

    I nearly killed two cyclists within a few blocks driving downtown once… both of whom performed wholly illegal – and frankly, very stupid – moves in front of me. If they’d had plates visibly displayed, I could have had the option to report their actions (and believe me, I would have been more than happy to). Unfortunately, “a fat bald guy on a mountain bike” and “a brown blur with a courier bag” aren’t sufficient descriptions for the police to proceed on.

  9. S. Morris Rose says:

    Motorists in licensed vehicles commit infractions non-stop– stand next to a stop sign sometime and count the number of vehicles that come to a full stop– and reporting those infractions to the authorities will not, as you must know, lead to a citation. Where it potentially comes in handy to be able to identify a vehicle is in cases of felonies such as hit-and-run. Bicyclists injure and kill far fewer than motorists- it’s hard to commit a truly serious traffic crime on a bike, so it’s not real important to be able to identify them.

    But what’s being discussed here is licensing the individual, not the vehicle. Even if bicycles had a displayed license, it couldn’t be large enough to read from much of a distance. So accountability won’t be enhanced by this proposal.

    It’s true that the letter of the law here requires bicyclists to behave much like a motorist. Fact is, it’s not actually sensible to require a bicyclist to come to a full stop at a stop sign or wait for a light to go green when there are not other vehicles present– unlike motor vehicles, they don’t present a substantial risk to others. That’s recognized in law in Idaho and it should be elsewhere, too.

    We don’t need more bureaucracy. We need common sense, compassion, and understanding on the part of all road users.

  10. Matthew says:

    @Sandy – ignoring the other issues with what you are asking, if all you could see of one of the cyclists was “a brown blur with a courier bag”, how do you expect you would see a license sticker displayed on that same blur?

  11. Sandy says:

    @ Matthew
    Maybe that license will make them realise they are now accountable for their actions. If they continue driving out of control with no rules, inevitably that ‘brown blur’ will one day be identifiable after it’s peeled off the road, as a result of a tragic accident. I have no problem sharing the streets, and everyone in those lanes ‘owns’ the same responsibility: to drive like their life depends on it.

  12. Bill Barilko says:


    Once Again-there is no ‘right’ to drive a vehicle-it is a privilege granted by the Govt.

    Also look @ the back of your driver’s license-it says “this card remains the property of the issuing agency and must be surrendered upon request”.

    Lastly cyclists do not take up a whole lane.

  13. Consider the unlicensed uninsured cyclist killed or crippled by a hit and run driver. No coverage, no recourse. Just tough luck.