Cycling and the Law

Bicycle Licensing


The City of Toronto has examined the idea of bicycle licensing on many occasions in response to concerns surrounding pedestrian safety, bike theft and compliance with the law.

Bicycle licensing has not been adopted as a solution to these issues. The studies asked what is purpose of licensing? 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. Learn about licensing issues in detail, as well as the history of licensing in Toronto.


On May 20, 1935 the City of Toronto passed a bylaw to license residents owning and using bicycles on the highways of the City.

The licensing process was quite complicated. Cyclists had to apply for a license through City Hall. Then the cyclist was required to go to a police station and have a police officer inspect the bicycle and fill out paperwork. That paper work was returned to City Hall and a license was granted. The cyclists then had to return a duplicate license to the same Police Inspector where the bicycle was examined. Then a metal plate was issued for the year and affixed to the mudguard of the bike.

Any time the cyclist moved or transferred or exchanged his bike, the new information had to be filed. The cost of the yearly license was 50 cents and the fine for not having a license on your bicycle was $5.00.

On February 4, 1957, City Council repealed the bicycle licensing by-law in the City. At that time, there was a communication from the Canada Cycle and Motor Company Limited suggesting the City use the services of the Bicycle Guild Incorporated to administer bicycle licensing.

At that time, the City opted out of bicycle licensing, stating amongst other issues that "licensing of bicycles be discontinued 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". Nathan Phillips was the Mayor at the time and it is his signature on the by-law amendment.

The City of Toronto has investigated licensing cyclists on at least three occasions in the recent past:

  • 1984: focus on bike theft
  • 1992: focus on riding on sidewalks, traffic law compliance and couriers
  • 1996: focus on riding on sidewalks, traffic law compliance and couriers

Licensing in the nineties has been most often discussed in response to concerns for pedestrian safety on sidewalks, where incidents of collisions, near misses, and a lack of courtesy have made many pedestrians, including seniors feel insecure.

Each time the City has rejected licensing as a solution to the problem under discussion.

The major reasons why licensing has been rejected 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.

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.

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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.

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Jurisdiction
Those who have looked into licensing cycling have determined that the only natural jurisdiction to license is the province, which has rejected licensing. Historically, municipalities have licensed bicycles in Ontario. Today, many cyclists cross municipal boundaries.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Theft

The police recover many stolen bikes, but are often frustrated at not being able to return the stolen property to the owner as the owner is unknown to them. A license might help ensure that the owner recovered his or her bike.

The Toronto Police Service still registers bicycles, using the factory identification numbers. A difficulty is that many manufacturers repeat serial numbers, making these numbers hard to use as a means of identification. A license might work better.

The difficulty, of course, is that license plates, stickers, or other means of identification can be stripped from the bike, making a license hard to use as a reliable means of identification.

Compliance with the law

The need to identify a cyclist who has broken a traffic law or been involved in a collision has been identified as a key concern by many.

The various studies that have looked at licensing for cyclists have determined that there are many problems with issuing licenses to cyclists.

Police believe they have adequate tools to address cyclists who break traffic laws. The most important was the 1989 addition of Section 218 to the Highway Traffic Act.

Section 218 of the Highway Traffic Act (HTA)

  1. A police officer who finds any person contravening any provision under this Act [HTA] or any municipal by-law regulating traffic while in charge of a bicycle may require that that person stop and to provide identification of himself or herself.
  2. Every person who is required to stop, by a police officer acting under Subsection (1), shall stop and identify himself or herself to the police officer.
  3. For the purposes of this Section, giving one's correct name and address is sufficient identification.
  4. A police officer may arrest without warrant any person who does not comply with Subsection (2).