Commercial Cyclist Registration Law as Failing to Achieve its Purposes


A law with enforcement power is passed for at least three reasons: to improve behavior; to generate income from violators; and to look good just by passing it.

People bicycling for a living, typically working for restaurants, delivery services, and other small employers, in one jurisdiction often biked in streets and on sidewalks with noticeable numbers of scares, collisions, injuries, and deaths. Some cyclists died. Some pedestrians and drivers suffered other problems. (I don’t know if any pedestrians or drivers died but maybe that happened, especially with a pedestrian who was not protected by a car body.) One concern was that it was difficult to sue cyclists for injuries caused, because the cyclists were unidentified.

Messenger services tended not to bike their deliveries because liability insurance was much more expensive if biking was to be covered. One service considered biking to be much more of an offense by a messenger, who was saving time, which customers and dispatchers liked, than stealing transit fare money, as some messengers did by walking and claiming to have paid for transit.

Public complaints about dangerous bicycles made their way into newspapers, particularly local community papers. If those papers cover local politics, and many do, their readers are more likely to vote.

A Mayor instituted registration of cyclists who biked commercially. People who cycle commercially may have tended to be people of color because other people could often fill the better jobs. Enforcement probably skewed against people of color, leading to sympathy for them as people just trying to make their livings against the difficulty of having to cope with cars and trucks sharing the roads.

The next Mayor was African-American and dropped the registration program. But the Mayor after that one had campaigned on a theme on and background in law enforcement and that Mayor did not reinstate the registration program, and, I think, neither did the next one, although requirements for helmets, clothing visible in low lighting, and business names being visible to nearby people were instituted.

Restaurants reportedly responded to learning that their cycling deliverers had been ticketed for violations by, usually, firing them. I think they would have done that because they’d want their delivery people to go as fast as possible and if one was ticketed that one would likely slow down, so it would be worthwhile to replace them immediately and get another one. Restaurants may also fire them so the restaurant would not have a bad reputation or more expensive insurance for keeping a worker who was caught violating the law and ticketed for it.

Recently, a high police official publicly said the registration law had not served its purpose.

The law had helped politicians look good and would still do so, so that purpose was served. That leaves two other purposes. Ticketing was not changing behavior, since the ticketed rider was usually fired (and probably had to find other work, which often takes time, during which personal spending and taxes go down, hurting the local macroeconomy), maybe getting a second ticket for the same kind of offense could lead to more legal trouble than that kind of job was worth (I don’t know if there was penalty escalation for this context), and maybe some companies could find out if applicants had been ticketed for this, reducing job availability and leading people who would likely now be better-behaved to leave biking behind, leaving vacancies to be filled by other bikers, bikers who usually would be motivated to keep their employers happy and unrestrained by having been ticketed or even warned by the police about violations, qualities desired by businesses using their services, as long as this is not publicized against the business owners. Thus, considering whoever is commercially bicycling currently in the city, ticketing would not improve behavior.

Revenue is the third purpose. Revenue would generally be important for any offense for which revenue is consistently higher than expense with enough of a return percentage-wise to justify incurring that expense rather than some other. It is important for motor vehicle traffic violations, because economics lead to high rates of payments of fines levied. Not paying risks loss of the vehicle, usually worth far more than the ticket.

Bicyclists, however, likely were often people with low incomes and little in assets. Messengers often prefer cheap bikes as some get stolen. They don’t invest much in upgrading or repairing them. So taking away a cyclist’s bike, if the police take it, does not usually lead the biker to pay to recover it, it likely costs the government money to take, transport, and store it, and it probably isn’t worth much at a municipal auction and even less for disassembled parts.

The cyclists themselves, having low incomes and few assets, are less likely than other people to carry government-issued photo identification. Police procedure, I think, is that if an officer is going to issue a ticket but the would-be recipient lacks that identification then, instead of checking a state database underlying one kind of that identification, the officer arrests the person and the government incarcerates that person for a couple of days or so, with associated processing (I think that includes judicial procedures but I’m not sure). That alone has to cost the government a few hundred dollars, maybe a thousand. Securing a lockup so prisoners can't escape is pricey. That may be more than the fine brings in; and, if so, already it’s a net loss.

The individual may not have the money to pay a fine on time or, if paying it on time, may continue being limited to a low income longer, leading to a longer time on a government financial transfer program, such as welfare or disability (if on it already). While some transfer programs are paid for by other governments, some benefits and substantial administrative costs are paid for by the government that enforced the law. One transfer program years ago cost four times as much to administer as was paid to recipients.

The net balance of money, therefore, may well have been a persistent loss from government coffers without a net behavioral change and with not much political benefit from just having done something. The law then becomes a target for repeal, for financial reasons.

Not all laws should be treated that way. Murder and rape law enforcement is a money-loser by this kind of analysis but keeping people basically safe is publicly and reasonably demanded everywhere and preserves and builds a cohesive society of people who generally are economic generators, all the more so to the extent murder and rape are suppressed. However, some laws can be avaluated for efficacy in ways like those above and questioned as to sufficiency of purpose.