BY GERSH KUNTZMAN | The other day, a top city journalist asked me, “Some people feel bikes should have license plates. What is the rationale for New York City not having bike licenses?” This question comes up a lot, especially as our roadways have become more frightening to some. So let’s go over some basics.
For one thing, people calling for bans or restrictions on bikes need to be more specific about what they’re talking about. Standard bicycles (with no motor of any kind) and electric bikes with pedals do not require licensing or registration under state law. Nonetheless, the users of these devices are subject to speed limit laws, red-light laws and can be summonsed for failing to yield to pedestrians.
Many cyclists are in fact given $190 tickets by police for passing through red lights — even after stopping and when no pedestrians are present — the same price that drivers of 4,000-pound cars pay when they endanger the public at high speed. Some of these tickets to cyclists are not about safety, because if they were, the N.Y.P.D. would be enforcing red light, failure-to-yield and speeding laws on the busiest avenues of the city, which the cops are not. Instead, red-light tickets to cyclists are being issued disproportionately versus those given to drivers — probably because cyclists are easier for police to catch.
The most recent change to the streetscape has, in fact, been illegal mopeds, which are proliferating partly because the city’s delivery workers are buying them because there is no place to recharge electric bike batteries during their long workdays. Plus, delivery workers (like all New Yorkers) are afraid of fires caused by the substandard lithium-ion batteries that they can afford. The Council’s recent battery buy-back program and efforts to create charging hubs for workers are definitely steps forward to help underpaid workers whose companies treat them as independent contractors.
Mopeds without Vehicle Identification Numbers are always illegal. They cannot legally be in bike lanes. They have been involved in high-profile crashes — but such crashes received disproportionate news coverage, probably because they are, in fact, so rare. All of us in the fight for safer streets share many of the concerns of new groups such as the E-Vehicle Safety Alliance (EVSA), which bills itself as “victims and potential victims of rogue e-vehicle riders.” But those of us who have been advocating for decades also wonder, where was this group for the last 30 years, when its members were victims (not just potential victims, but actual victims) of car and truck drivers, who have killed close to 3,000 pedestrians in the last 20 years?
These new groups would have far more credibility if they joined the rest of the safety groups in focusing not only on bikes but on all the threats to safety, starting with the main danger to pedestrians: car and truck drivers.
The number of people hit and killed or maimed by car and truck drivers is, frankly, horrifying. And cars and trucks are registered and plated — yet that has done nothing to reduce crashes. Where is the concern about those vehicles?
So far this year, according to the city’s own stats, car and truck drivers have caused 64,917 reported crashes, or more than 250 per day. Those crashes have injured 33,957 people, including 5,333 pedestrians, killing 62 people.
Now, to answer the question about whether bikes should have license plates: Bike ridership is something that it is in society’s best interest to encourage. Bike riding is great from a health perspective, and great from the perspective of the environment and basic road safety, given how few people are injured by cyclists. Mandatory registration would dramatically reduce cycling — especially among casual riders — and reduce the well-documented “strength in numbers” effect of cycling. (It is well known that when there are more cyclists, drivers tend to drive more safely.)
Registration would also arm the police with a new weapon to harass people of color, which has also been well documented. (Just search “Perth Amboy” and “registration” and you’ll see how widespread this practice is.)
I agree that pedestrians are afraid right now: They are afraid — I would argue, wrongly — of cyclists who rarely exceed 10 miles per hour. And they are afraid of illegal moped riders who go faster on heavier vehicles. But, in fact, the greatest danger to pedestrians, by far, is car and truck drivers.
No matter what is driving the fear, there are ways to address it beyond seeking to persecute people who choose to get around in an environmentally friendly way or are forced to do a job for wealthy people ordering food who want it fast. In short, we need to design our roads to be safer for the most vulnerable road users. In some parts of the city, pedestrians far outnumber car drivers and cyclists — yet pedestrians are given mere inches at corners to wait their permission to cross the road, whereas drivers are given almost every inch of space. Those areas need pedestrianization, a common practice in virtually every other city on the planet.
In areas where there are lots of cyclists, as on First and Second avenues in Manhattan, we need wider lanes for micro-mobility and fewer lanes for automobiles.
Clearly, we need a much larger solution than merely putting license plates on bikes.
Kuntzman is editor in chief of Streetsblog, the transportation news Web site. He has lived in multiple neighborhoods in New York City since 1989.