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Is now the time for bicycle registration?

The Athens Banner-Herald: Is now the time for bicycle registration?

Published Monday, October 17, 2011

A Saturday Banner-Herald story on the number of Athens-Clarke County residents who commute to work by bicycle precipitated another round in the long-standing local tussle between cycling advocates and motorists who have misgivings about sharing the road with bicycle riders.

In comments filed with the online version of the story on Census Bureau data regarding the number of local bike commuters, cycling opponents brought out their usual arguments ­— that cyclists are arrogant, traffic-impeding menaces whose relatively small numbers don’t merit the attention paid to, and the public money spent on, amenities like bike lanes.

In turn, cycling advocates countered that basic physics — the fact the they’re sharing the road with motorized vehicles weighing at least a couple of tons — precludes them from being arrogant in traffic, and also argued that their cycling, which takes cars of the road and helps reduce pollution, is serving public goods that justify some expenditure of tax dollars to facilitate cycling.

A subtext to these ongoing arguments ­— among opponents of cycling, anyway — has been the question of whether cyclists should be subject to some regulation, such as being required to register their bicycles.

Registration, including some requirement that cyclists display some identification on their bicycles, would, the argument goes, give motorists some recourse when they encounter a cyclist engaging in dangerous behavior on the road. Attaching a fee to such registration could also ensure that cyclists are contributing something, even if just a token amount, to the public coffers.

In fairness, it should be noted that none of the communities listed among the top 10 in census data regarding bicycle commuting have any sort of bicycle registration program beyond initiatives aimed at providing police with information in the event a bicycle is stolen.

However, it should also be noted that in those communities, the percentage of people who commute by bicycle is far higher than in Athens-Clarke County.

The top 10 bicycle commuting cities range from Corvallis, Ore., where 9.3 percent of commuters get to work on a bicycle, to Bellingham, Wash., where 3 percent of commuters are on bikes. Compare those percentages with Athens-Clarke County, where census data puts bicyclists at 0.9 percent of commuters.

These percentages show, just as the ongoing tension between some motorists and some cyclists, that bicycle commuting is not as integrated into the fabric of community life in Athens as in some other cities.

Thus, it might not be a bad idea to consider some sort of bicycle registration program in Athens-Clarke County. Such a program might include a brief test to ensure that local cyclists are familiar with the rules of the road, and it might even include a cursory inspection of the registered bicycle to ensure that it’s equipped with some minimum standard list of safety devices. There might also be a small fee attached to the registration, with money earmarked to improve local bike infrastructure such as bike racks and “share the road” signage.

While such a scheme would impose some burden on local cyclists, there would be some payoff for them, in that it could serve to blunt much of the criticism aimed their way.

Additionally, data gathered from the registration process would provide local officials with some indication of the number of bicycles on the road. Year-to-year trends regarding those numbers could provide cycling advocates with the information needed to make the case for additional public expenditures on bicycle infrastructure.