The City of Toronto required bicycles be licensed from 1935 to 1957. According to a City of Toronto web page on the topic of bicycle licensing part of the reason given at the time for repealing the by-law was "because it often results in an unconscious contravention of the law at a very tender age; they also emphasize the resulting poor public relations between police officers and children."
In the intervening years the idea of licensing bicycles again in Toronto has been investigated three times (in 1984, 1992, and 1996) and rejected each time. According to the city the major reasons why are:
- The difficulty in keeping a database complete and current
- The difficulty in licensing children, given that they ride bikes too
- Licensing in and of itself does not change the behaviour of cyclists who
are disobeying traffic laws
The web page goes on to give more detail on these and other issues:
The cost of obtaining a license to drive a motor vehicle is considerable. Much of that cost covers the administrative costs of maintaining an accurate database, and processing licenses. The costs of developing a system for cyclists would be similar. When asked to consider such a move in the past, the Ministry of Transportation has rejected it. If cyclists were asked to cover the cost of licensing, in many cases, the license would be more expensive than the bicycle itself.
Many children cycle, in fact most cyclists are young people. It would be difficult to create one standardized test that could be used by adults as well as children as young as five years old. There is an argument to be made that licensing would allow an opportunity for education, but again the bureaucracy of such a mandatory system has been seen as too cumbersome to develop.
The discussions about cyclists and the law have raised the question about how we want our police to spend their time and limited resources. Do we want them checking up on and enforcing licenses, or do we want them enforcing traffic laws? Most people would argue that enforcing traffic laws is more worthwhile. Police who have been involved in the studies of licensing have determined that the HTA already gives them the necessary tools, such as Section 218, to do the enforcement job.
In each of the above cases, major problems and difficulties arise in establishing a licensing system. The studies asked what is the goal that licensing cyclists is attempting to achieve? If the goal is to increase cyclists' compliance with traffic laws, and to reduce the number of conflicts with pedestrians and other road users, then licensing as an approach needs to be compared with other possible initiatives. Is the creation of the major bureaucracy that licensing would require worth it? The studies have concluded that licensing is not worth it. Other solutions: blitz enforcement of rules on riding on sidewalks, public awareness campaigns, skills training through CAN-BIKE, and the provision of bicycle-friendly facilities, such as bike lanes, while not perfect, are more effective in meeting the goals of cyclist compliance with traffic laws than the investment in licensing.
Public policy considerations
Concerns over cyclist compliance with traffic laws are real, and require ongoing attention. If, however, major investments are to be made by governments or by cyclists themselves, then the overall public policy goals behind that investment need to be addressed. For example, there is a strong public policy case to be made for licensing motor vehicle drivers. Hundreds of lives are lost each year because of motor vehicle crashes and collisions, and many thousands more are injured. Cyclists are involved in a smaller number of incidents, which must be addressed. However, given the benefits of cycling to health, the environment, and the community, on-going efforts to increase cycling compliance with traffic laws must be a part of an overall strategy to promote safe cycling.
So in Toronto at least, licence plates are no longer used because they basically cost too much for too small of a benefit. Indeed overall it would probably be harmful, as it could dramatically reduce the number of people riding bicycles.