Opinion: Bike Licensing Fee Idea Poor Policy and Unsustainable

Ald. Pat Dowell (3) has proposed Chicago bike riders be required to purchase $25-a-year licenses

Now comes word that some aldermen want to charge $25 to ride a bike in this town.

The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that Ald. Pat Dowell (3) has proposed Chicago bike riders be required to purchase $25-a-year licenses and take a one-hour safety course if they want to ride a bike in this city.

She's not the only one. Ald. Anthony Beale (9) was quoted in the Sun-Times as being “all for the idea.”

Unfortunately, it’s an idea so nonsensical it doesn't hold up to even the most cursory of glances.

The more bike lanes and Divvy bike rental stations Chicago installs, the more cyclists there are and the bolder some of them have become.

That has at least one Chicago aldermen seeing dollar signs.

If 400,000 bike riders purchase licenses, it would generate $10 million. That would duplicate the take from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial proposal to increase Chicago’s cigarette tax by 75-cents-a-pack.

For Dowell, the motive is twofold. Chicago needs money and needs to be creative about getting it. And if the number of traffic lanes available to motor vehicles is shrinking to make way for cyclists, there should be some responsibility that accompanies those benefits.

Idea, how do I scorn thee? Let me count the ways.

First, there are not 400,000 even semi-regular bicycle riders in Chicago. Even if there were, there’s not 400,000 who would willingly pony up $25 and an hour of their time for the privilege.

Second, what constitutes bike riding? Will the 7-year-old down the street riding her new training wheels count? How about the grandmother cycling along the lakefront on a sunny morning? Or are we just talking about the young hipsters weaving in and out of traffic on downtown streets who will have to pay?

Third, Chicago is a city that has planted a serious stake in the ground about being bicycle friendly. In 1897, mayoral candidate Carter H. Harrison II successfully campaigned as "the cyclists' champion," while former mayor Richard M. Daley created 115 miles of bike lanes while he was in office. And Rahm Emanuel himself has worked hard to further the trend. Licensing would send a strong and contradictory message to that tradition.

Fourth, the city already gets benefits—measured in real dollars—from a thriving bicycle culture in the form of reduced pollution, less road repairs, healthier citizens and more tourists. Attempting to regulate that culture and collect fees for the activity is simply replacing one set of budget line items with another.

Finally, Divvy. Walk around the city and you’ll see hundreds of people riding as part of the city’s new bike share program, touted as a smashing success by the mayor as recently as today in his budget speech. The majority of those riders are tourists, attracted by the freedom that comes from paying a small fee and hopping on a bike for quick trip around town.

Exempt those riders and you’re sure to get an uproar from those who live here and regularly ride in the city they live in.

Certainly, the city needs new revenues, and I’m all for smart, sustainable licensing.

Unfortunately, Ald. Dowell’s suggestion hardly passes the test on either score.

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