Opinion: Why Don’t Bikes Have Registration Plates?

By Martin Atanasov

Cycling has recently become extremely popular in Europe, as frequent riders have increased significantly, especially during and after the Covid lockdowns, with countries like France, Poland, and the Netherlands measuring double-digit boosts in the percentage of the population that cycles in the first quarter of 2022 alone.

Needless to say, when there is a boom in a particular vehicle in an urban setting, the question of safety and accountability always comes up. Whether it’s about wearing helmets, putting on reflecting vests, or just making cycling difficult, the community always complains that such measures will only discourage new riders. However, what really makes their blood boil is a proposition that circulates from time to time and is always met with utmost hatred. Of course, we are talking about registration plates for bikes.

This proposition has been made in several countries across Europe, though it has never even got to a discussion with legislative authorities. On the contrary, the public response has been so negative that one could not imagine risking their political career over this issue.

Why do some people think cyclists should have registration plates?

The supporters of such measures towards cyclists have their reasons, of course. For example, former UK Transport minister Grant Shapps tried implementing such rules in the United Kingdom because he believed cyclists’ speed should be capped at 15.5 mph (25kph). “Somewhere where cyclists are actually not breaking the law is when they speed, and that cannot be right, so I absolutely propose extending speed limit restrictions to cyclists… Particularly where you’ve got 20mph limits on increasing numbers of roads, cyclists can easily exceed those, so I want to make speed limits apply to cyclists,” the former minister told the Mail. Naturally, for such accountability to have any application, the police have to be able to determine the perpetrator. The easiest way to do so is by adding number plates to each bike.

Others have voiced the opinion that cyclists should be accountable for accidents they cause. So naturally, if they want an insurance policy, they will have to register their bike. Moreover, cycling registration will make the riders a bit more considerate on the road, as they will no longer be anonymous. Therefore, such offenses as riding through red lights and flying through traffic will probably stop.

While those points are certainly valid, practice has shown that the solution is not to overregulate cyclists. There are dozens of reasons why bicycle registration plates will do more harm than good. Here are the top 5.

1. It would be a barrier many would prefer not to cross

Europe, at the moment, is trying to shrink its carbon footprint, and stimulating cycling has become a core EU agenda over the past several years. So naturally, introducing bureaucracy to the equation will be highly counterproductive.

Moreover, this would generally disrupt the bike’s appeal as a transportation alternative. Of course, hardcore riders will continue to cycle daily, but many would simply prefer to avoid the hassle. Naturally, this will lead to heavier traffic, more public transport spending, and more inconvenience for everyone involved.

However, the biggest problem with cycling registration is not that such an act would constitute a violation of the core belief that cycling equals freedom from administration, but the question of how underaged riders and children will register their bikes.

2. Won’t somebody think about the children?

Whenever someone starts talking about bike number plates, I always imagine Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons screaming, “Won’t someone think of the children?” in her overly dramatic voice.

When talking about cyclists, we can’t just turn a blind eye to the fact that a considerable number of bike users are underaged. This is mainly due to the fact that children can’t buy or operate cars. Still, any attempt to make cycling registration mandatory means that the authorities will practically snuff out cycling culture for the young, which will lead to many problems in the long term.

Group of kids cycling
Did someone think of the kids? © Profimedia, Alamy

3. Cycling is not that dangerous to begin with

The average speed of a cyclist is about 27 kph, which is two times lower than the speed limit in most European cities. Moreover, only 6.8% of all fatalities on the road are related to cycling. Although that’s not a negligible number, it’s the lowest among all transportation types. This shows that cycling on its own is not so dangerous. Instead of making cycling harder by introducing new administrative obligations, lawmakers should consider ways to accommodate all vehicles and help them safely share the road.

4. Cycling registration is way too expensive

When talking about registration, we should always consider how much it will cost. It’s impossible to predict the precise sum, but it will probably be in the tens of millions of euros. Furthermore, since cyclists don’t pay taxes, or pay to enter specific parts of the cities, to park, or to cover any other kind of taxation, the income of such administration will have to come from elsewhere.

A tariff on cyclists is also a terrible idea, as most adult cyclists already own and regularly use cars, meaning they will be submitted to double taxation. With the boom of bike sales in the past couple of years, this new administration’s workforce will be truly massive, which additionally begs the question of how the state will finance such an endeavour. Even if they propose to implement a tax on cyclists, this will simply end in many of them refusing to ride a bike, which will lead to a cut in personnel among the freshly hired administration. This whole circus will simply end poorly.

5. Putting on a visible plate will be impossible

All of these discussions assume that there is a way to put a readable metal plate somewhere on the bike. It would probably be something on the seat, as I simply can’t imagine it anywhere else. Such a plate will not only ruin the bike’s look, but it will single-handedly destroy the bicycle’s aerodynamics. Anyone who has tried peddling against strong winds knows how hard it is. Now imagine having two metal wings sticking out from your seat.

Moreover, sticking out from both sides of the bike, these plates will inevitably hit people, other cyclists, or other objects along the way. This will cause an increase in crashes and, even worse – in injuries. Simply put, there is no safe and secure way to place a number plate on a bike.

There are many more reasons

These were just a few reasons why cycling registration plates are absurd, despite some valid points to the contrary. While it’s true that cycling should be as safe as possible, especially for those who are not speeding down a mountain slope or descending a high peak at 100kph, adding some extra impediments to the rapidly growing cycling population is definitely not the way to do it.