Following public outrage over the court’s decision last month on the death of cyclist Richard Pollett, the Transport, Housing and Local Government Committee of the Queensland Parliament agreed last Friday to inquire into a number of possibilities that might “improve the interaction of cyclists with other road users”.

The committee is looking at a range of potential policy responses, including the one-metre overtaking rule advocated by a number of cycling organisations. However, its terms of reference also require it to examine “the potential benefits and impacts of bicycle registration”.

Bicycle registration comes up whenever the place of bicycles on the nation’s roads is discussed publicly. This time, though, it’s being seriously considered by state legislators as a potential policy response. It needs to be evaluated very carefully by all parties with an interest in cycling.

There are two main arguments in support of registration of bicycles. The first is the charge that cyclists don’t pay for their use of roads, and until they do they can’t expect to be on the same footing as drivers. The second is the claim that cyclists need to be publicly identifiable to deter them from wilfully disobeying the rules of the road.

Cyclists are told registration will make them better off because, the theory goes, motorists will acknowledge they have a legitimate right to the road and take greater care around them.

The customary counter from cyclists to the first argument is that revenue from registration fees and the fuel excise tax isn’t hypothecated to road expenditure. Roads are funded from general revenue, so everyone pays for them.

Moreover, registration fees are based on vehicle weight, and it follows that cyclist’s contribution to road damage is therefore trivial. Cyclists, of course, don’t use petrol or diesel, so the fuel excise is irrelevant to them. As usual, there’s some truth and some hyperbole on both sides of the argument.

I don’t think the claim that motorists pay for roads can be dismissed out of hand. The fuel excise is $0.38 per litre. That’s about $627 p.a. for the average car. While that’s general revenue, drivers are clearly taxed in their role as motorists, and there’s no doubt the fuel excise moderates the demand for driving. It’s verging on sophistry to argue motorists don’t “pay their way” financially, at least in part; and politically it’s an unwinnable proposition.

It’s also unreasonable to claim cyclists should get a free run on the roads. Bicycles are too light to damage roads, but weather also causes deterioration. More importantly, bicycles occupy road space. That tends to be overlooked when the number of cyclists is small but is more obvious when numbers are large.

Cyclists need smooth pavement and that has to be constructed and maintained. Indeed, there’s an argument that the movement for good road surfaces from circa 1880 was primarily in response to pressure from cyclists.

But a couple of other factors have to be taken into account.

But cyclists impose low social costs. They don’t contribute much to traffic congestion, road accidents, noise and pollution, and they don’t degrade the amenity of nearby land uses. The investment in infrastructure required to support cycling is very low compared with other mechanised modes.

The other main rationale for registration — that cyclists ought to be identifiable — is reasonable in principle. After all, this obligation applies to other road users and is intended to promote cooperative behaviour.

There’s a practical problem, though — a legible licence plate would be too large to be practical on a bike (although in due course transponders might overcome this problem). But the main weakness with the identification rationale is that it simply wouldn’t achieve much.

Cyclists don’t usually exceed the speed limit and very rarely cause personal harm to motorists. It’s not that they’re morally superior; it’s just that they’re too slow to speed and they’re too light to seriously injure motorists (they can certainly hurt themselves though). Sure, they “negotiate” red lights, but the harm that causes to others is minimal.

Peter Fray

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