Bicycle license plates were quite common in many countries before, during, and, depending on the region, also after WWII. In Poland, for instance, it was obligatory until the late 60s. I've found that in Switzerland some kind of license plates (Velovignette) were still in use until 2011.

I'm curious why countries retired such regulations, and what are the pros and cons of that situation. I'd like also ask if there are still some countries that require cyclists to register their bikes with some authority and/or are obliged to have insurance etc.

Example license plate below: enter image description here

  • 4
    While some areas in the US have claimed it is required, I've never seen licenses, even in those areas. The biggest question is why you'd want to license them. – Batman Nov 27 '16 at 23:12
  • 1
    Side note: Some places in Germany that use bikes for their employees to get from A to B within their premises use bike license plates so the guards know which bikes to allow inside the premises. – Sumyrda Nov 28 '16 at 6:59
  • 7
    License plates for bicycles are still a legal requirement in China (at least, in Shanghai). Each bicycle must pay approx US $10 annually to purchase a sticker display on the plate and the owner will be find if a bicycle does not have a plate or has an out of date sticker. – Mawg Nov 28 '16 at 8:41
  • 2
    Would you be prepared to pay toward the cost of administering this? especially given that we have some idea of the cost, based upon car registration systems. I suspect that a lot of taxpayers wouldn't. – PeteH Nov 28 '16 at 14:21
  • 2
    At the University of Colorado Boulder, bicycle registration is supposedly mandatory. The license is a fancy sticker which goes on the seat pole. – kundor Nov 29 '16 at 20:54

Cost versus benefits.

As you have pointed out, in some societies and at some times, there were perceived benefits. These ranged from every road user is treated the same to we control every aspect of our citizens' lives, and we create jobs for everyone, as well as we'll punish those who make the slightest transgression.

As you may be aware there are always some sections of society, somewhere in the world, calling for bicycles to be regulated. Cyclists are often seen to be anarchic by conservative people. If you read conservative to mean those in power or older, rather than right wing you get a more balanced view. And if you read anarchic as young it makes more sense: many older people forget how youth behaved in their day.

From time to time such regulation are imposed. To date they have always (and I predict in future) fallen into disuse, because the cost outweighs the benefits.

  • 1
    @gerrit Yes, the frequent reports in news services here (Australia), in Britain, and the US. As a 60 yo cyclist, I've been seeing it all my life, directed at others of course. So many older people seem to be just anti-fun. – andy256 Nov 28 '16 at 10:35
  • 1
    I've cycled in Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Canada, USA, and UK, and what I have seen is Facebook comments showing frustration at the consequences of mixing cyclists with cars or pedestrians, which some people thoughlessly blame on cyclists (I am driving and I am meeting a cyclist, boo!). My personal thought whenever I see this is: Huray, yet another ally for segregated cycling infrastructure! I've only seen this in Canada/USA/UK as the other countries I've cycled already have such cycling infrastructure, and consequentially less similar frustration with motorists as far as I've seen. – gerrit Nov 28 '16 at 10:50
  • 1
    @gerrit I observe also another trend (I'm not amongs supporters): New bike path/lane? "F*ck, they stole yet another chunk of the road that should be converted to car lane!" – krzyski Nov 28 '16 at 11:29
  • 6
    @gerrit I've cycled and walked in UK and what I've seen is that pedestrian and cyclists are the worst users of the road: they ignore most road rules, cross with red lights, jump from the pavement without looking back first. Before starting to cycle I heard a lot of complains about motorists but found they were the most careful. – algiogia Nov 28 '16 at 11:37
  • 1
    @algiogia I would be more respectful of red lights if they didn't force me to wait for crossing a single unidirectional car lane which also has a red light, in a situation continuing for minutes. I don't understand why the traffic lights in the UK are such a failure; I've never seen this anywhere else. – gerrit Nov 28 '16 at 11:41

In the Netherlands at least:

The license plates for bikes were tied to the taxation of bikes. You needed to get a new plate every year. The taxation lasted until WWII. The Germans abandoned the tax.

After the war the tax wasn't introduced again so the plates were no longer needed.

It was speculated that after the war the taxing of cars more then made up for the not taxing of bicycles.

  • Welcome to Bicycles @Pieter. You are an experienced SE member, so we don't need to suggest you take the tour or read How to Answer, do we? This is a nice chat post, but it doesn't answer the question. – andy256 Nov 28 '16 at 8:42
  • 23
    @andy256, I think it does answer the question. The question asks explicitly why countries that used to have license plates abandoned them. This answer shows what was the reason in one of those countries. – Emil Nov 28 '16 at 10:01
  • 2
    @Emil The question is Why license plates for bicycles are no longer used? This answer does not explain why. But it does use a circular argument to explain non-reintroduction. Why was the tax abandoned? Why wasn't it reintroduced? It's great that Pieter can point to a concrete example, but can we have some more details beyond it happened? – andy256 Nov 28 '16 at 10:23
  • 3
    @andy256: One reason to have license plates on bikes is to enforce a bicycle tax. If this was the only reason for the license plates, then they become obsolete when the tax is abandoned. "Why are bicycles no longer taxed in most countries?" could be a new question. – Emil Nov 28 '16 at 10:35
  • 6
    @andy256 I can only say something about facts. Facts are: the plates were used to prove that you paid your bicycle-tax. Fact is also the tax was abandoned during WWII. The answer you are looking for is why that tax wasn't re-introduced, but I can only speculate about that. – Pieter B Nov 28 '16 at 10:35

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:

Cost

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.

Age

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.

[...]

Enforcement

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.

Effectiveness

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.

  • You seem to be conflating licensing bicycles with licensing cyclists; these are two separate issues and the question is asking about the former. If we compare with cars, note that both cars and drivers must be licensed -- the car carries an identifying registration plate and the driver must pass a test to be allowed to drive on the public road. The question is asking about identifying registration plates for bicycles but most of your answer seems to be talking about, e.g., cyclists having to pass a test. – David Richerby Nov 29 '16 at 9:04
  • @DavidRicherby No, my post is entirely about licencing bicycles. – Ross Ridge Nov 29 '16 at 9:19
  • The section on "age" doesn't seem to discuss licensing bicycles at all, but rather bicyclists. – a CVn Nov 29 '16 at 9:47
  • 1
    By the way, I note that the City of Toronto page you link does indeed claim to talk about "Bicycle licensing" (that's even the title of the page) but it actually talks about cyclist licensing. – David Richerby Nov 29 '16 at 9:51
  • 1
    Its a good relevant answer about the whole licencing question, but the distinction is between "registering the bicycle" verses "licensing the rider" Still +1 for your evident research. – Criggie Nov 29 '16 at 10:40

Come election time its most likely vote loser: politicians are not prepared to take on cyclists for little benefit. Further, it has the potential to take on a life of it own and really blow up in their faces. If you were a politician (who are the law makers in most jurisdictions), would you risk it?

See this headline: Cycling laws: NSW to become 'laughing stock of the world' over push for bike riders to carry ID. And that is just making cyclists carry ID, not register bikes.

  • Well spotted Matt, I thought I'd seen sth like that. Nice point made by Bicycle NSW chief executive Ray Rice: ... in return cyclists needed to be "treated fairly in terms of road design". – andy256 Nov 28 '16 at 5:03
  • 4
    Dear New South Wales. I'm sorry to crush your ego but, for you to be the laughing stock of the world, the world's population would have to think and talk about you much more than it actually does. – David Richerby Nov 29 '16 at 9:01
  • @DavidRicherby I agree. Who doesn't carry an ID/credit card/money when out on ride? I think the wording in that article is way too strong. I don't know any road riders who don't already do this. What's an ID card on your person, a couple grams? Maybe the sentiment is different in NSW. If so, I'm interested in why. – ebrohman Nov 30 '16 at 15:28
  • 1
    @ebrohman Well, as a British citizen in the UK, I'm not required to carry any ID with me as I go about my daily life. Because of this, there's no national ID card. I don't drive a car, so I don't have a driving license. The only government-issued ID that I have is my passport. Requiring me to carry that around with me to ride my bike would be ludicrous. If NSW and Australia are similar, I can perfectly well understand why people would be angry. – David Richerby Nov 30 '16 at 16:10
  • @DavidRicherby thanks, I didn't really think about people without a driver's license or state ID. Carrying a passport is a different story and would be troublesome. Most people of age in the US do have a license or state ID. We go through drivers ed in high school and most elect to get a driver's license thereafter. – ebrohman Nov 30 '16 at 18:04

Since you asked about Switzerland (where I still remember sticking a Velovignette on my bike a few years back), here is how it worked there, based on the German-language Wikipedia entry:

The Velovignette was not a registration of the bike as such, like a car registration plate. Instead, you were required by law to hold liability insurance for damages you might cause while riding a bike, like scratching a car's paint. Your insurance would issue a small sticker that you would put on your bike to show that the bike was indeed insured. Riding a bike without such a sticker was liable to a fine of 40 CHF (roughly 40 USD). The sticker carried a unique number, so you could link it to the insured person, and you needed to get a new sticker (i.e., pay the modest insurance premium) every year.

As to why this was discontinued at the end of 2011: people nowadays typically carry general personal liability insurance, which also covers damages caused while riding a bike. Some insurers would directly issue a number of stickers to anyone holding their policy, whether or not the household had a bike. At some point, the Swiss legislature argued that administering the specifics of the Vignette scheme was not worth the hassle any more, and the Vignette was abandoned.

The introduction and abolition of bicycle licensing laws should also be seen in the context of wider attitudes towards the role of authorities, how much the state should regulate peoples' lifes. This has changed over the years.

There is a general trend for deregulation, for removing regulations where there is no clear benefit for society, making the state leaner.

A similar example is licensing and taxes for dogs, which also have been abolished in many countries, probably for similar reasons - a lot of expensive bureaucracy, very little benefit, bad compliance and very difficult to enforce. Collisions with the cyclist at fault kill about the same number of people as dogs (one or two people per year in UK), so irresponsible dog owners, like irresponsible cyclists, are generally more a nuisance than a real danger to society, and the authorities nowadays don't see a need for strict regulation.

I'd think you also find a lot of regulations in completely other fields (how to keep your front garden, for example) were once strict but have been relaxed.

It seems to me that in earlier decades people generally thought that the state should regulate individual behaviour much more, and attitudes have become more relaxed since the 1970s and 1980s.

  • The number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured by cyclists in the UK is remarkably similar (on a per passenger mile basis) as by cars. Just that in comparison the number of miles traveled by cyclists is tiny. Most forms of transport have become ever more regulated over the decades. – Kickstart Nov 29 '16 at 9:58
  • 2
    @Kickstart I'm not sure that passenger-miles is the right metric, there, since cars often carry multiple people and because cars are used for longer journeys. (And many of those long journeys are on roads where there are no pedestrians to kill.) Cycling UK says that 98% of serious injuries and fatalities to pedestrians in urban areas are caused by motor vehicles and that cyclists account for 2.3% of urban traffic but only 1% of urban pedestrian deaths. – David Richerby Nov 29 '16 at 11:05
  • Not sure traffic is the right metric either, as if 2 people want to travel they can take 1 car or 2 bicycles. While the figures are similar, for deaths cycles are slightly better but for serious injuries they are worse. That any particular pressure group choses the stats that favor their supporters is not a surprise. – Kickstart Nov 29 '16 at 11:12
  • @Kickstart I agree that it's unsurprising that Cycling UK quotes the stats that favour cyclists. However, they do seem to be reasonable statistics. For example, the majority of cycling, and almost all injuries to pedestrians (from any cause) are in urban environments, so the figures compare urban environments. Including huge amounts of car mileage in environments where there are no pedestrians heavily skews the figures. I'm not sure what metrics of urban bike and car use one should use, but restricting to urban use seems to be important. – David Richerby Nov 29 '16 at 15:22
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby - maybe, which makes it difficult to compare figures and leaves the result open to bias. The opposite is done when comparing road accident rates with trains to give a figure skewed in the opposite direction. – Kickstart Nov 29 '16 at 16:36

Because a state with a welfare system actually "makes" money from every kilometre cycled (and loses from every kilometre driven by a motorist), mainly because bike riding keeps people fit and causes less pollution than driving cars, so it keeps healthcare costs down.

The article mentions that politicians try to encourage bike riding by investing in bike infrastructure.

Now we can guess that license plates would add bureaucracy and costs to bike riding which might turn people away from it, so bike license plates are probably a net loss for society.

  • 2
    But why does that mean they don't register bicycles? In fact, surely that's a reason to register them, to keep track...? – Tim Nov 28 '16 at 21:57
  • 1
    Helo @Tom and welcome to Bicycle StackExchange. Ok, I can see above as a very indirect answer: taxes and regulations prevent people from cycle, but cyclists are good for us, so we ease the access to cycle. If you mean that, it would be nice idea to improve your answer and provide some links proving that this was the reason for liberalisation in any country. – krzyski Nov 28 '16 at 22:10
  • 1
    @Tim the Dutch don't register their bikes - there's more bikes in active use than there are citizens. – Criggie Nov 28 '16 at 22:32
  • @krzyski Do you know about the review queues? With your rep, you can start doing reviews. If interested then maybe this will be helpful. – andy256 Nov 29 '16 at 2:04
  • Except that licensing has been dropped in several states in the US, where there is nothing resembling "welfare state" healthcare (save for seniors who are generally too old to do much biking, and their care is covered by the federal government). – Daniel R Hicks Nov 30 '16 at 13:01

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.