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« The Story of a 1985 Criterium | Main | Creativity and Child’s Play »

Rights and Privileges

As cycling becomes more and more popular, more people choose to ride a bike to work each day rather than drive. We start to hear calls for cyclists to be licensed, or a tax imposed, in the same way automobile drivers are licensed and taxed.

The idea of licensing cyclists usually comes from city governments rather than on a state or national level. The argument is usually along the lines that bike lanes and other facilities cost money, and it only seems fair that cyclists should pay some of this cost.

However, in practical terms any attempt to tax or license cyclists in the past has always turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare. It always costs more to implement such a plan than the income generated. Plus law enforcement and the court system has to then impose fines on those not having a license.

Sidewalks have been in place in cities everywhere since before the beginning of the last century, and no one has ever suggested that pedestrians should pay for sidewalks. Sidewalks make it safer to walk, bike lanes make it safer to ride a bicycle. And anyway revenues from drivers’ licenses or even road taxes do not pay for roads. So really that should be the end of that argument.      

When automobiles first appeared there were no laws or regulations, you could simply buy a car, jump in and drive it. Pretty much in the same way as we can buy a bicycle today and ride it anywhere.

Later because of wholesale carnage on the roads, laws were passed and licenses issued to drivers. As a result, driving is a privilege, one that can be taken away, whereas cycling like walking is a right. Although cyclists and pedestrians are still subject to the laws of the road. It appears no one can be prevented from walking or riding a bike, even if they break the law.

So what is a right? There are so called God given rights, but as people have the right to choose whether they believe in God or not, how does that work? If you don't believe in God, do you not have any God given rights? Are you obliged to respect other people's God given rights? As it is, the only God given right I can think of is our right to live.

If you look at The Bill of Rights there are very few actual rights. I don’t see a right to ride a bicycle mentioned. There is the right to bear arms, the right to practice a religion of your choice, etc.

After that it appears the function of government (In theory anyway.) is to leave us alone, and we are free to do as we please as long as we follow certain laws wherever they apply. It appears to me that rights are rarely granted, they are simply taken for granted. Is riding a bicycle on the highway is a prime example this?

I know to even suggest such a thing will cause outrage among a great many cyclists, but before we all get our anti-bacterial padded shorts in a twist, let’s think about this. In recent years cell phones have become available and some assume it is their right to own one and talk and send text messages whenever they please, including while driving.

It turns out this is not such a good idea so in some places this practice is being outlawed. Have people lost a right, or was it just an assumed right in the first place? 

A few years ago, people had the right to smoke just about anywhere they pleased. However, that right infringed on everyone else’s right not to breathe secondhand smoke. So, now that right has gradually been taken away, and smokers are now privileged to smoke in fewer and fewer places.

Because riding a bicycle on public roads is for the most part not a danger to other road users, it is doubtful than anyone will stop us doing it. Cycling is a good idea. It cuts down on congestion in our cities, it is better for the environment, and it should be encouraged because it is good for the physical and mental well-being of the participant.

My question is, are there any true rights or privileges? Or is this just an ongoing daily debate among millions of people, on the streets, on the talk shows and in the courtrooms? We all have certain rights, and we get to keep them as long as they don't infringe on the rights of others. If they do we may lose those rights, it is happening all the time.

In which case there is little difference between rights and privileges; either can be taken away. We should all remember this and in particular those cyclists who blatantly and regularly flout the laws of the road.


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Reader Comments (17)

Actually, in my experience the call for bicycle registration almost always comes from the media. Usually on a slow news day.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterlemmiwinks

What you missing in your very interesting article Mr Moulton, is that roads are public space.Car drivers need licence and get taxed because they occupying it with their vehicles something that bicycles, cyclists and of course pedestrians can't and don't do.

Everyone has the right to use public space, but occupying it, IS a privilege by the time that someone has to pay for this, taking as granted of course, that not everyone has the money to do so.

And here we come to the main point of this case. That those privileged enough to pay for occupying the public space with their vehicles which are part of their personal assets, want to establish the same for the rest that if anything else have the Right to use it anyway. So any suggestion of taxing or licensing cyclists resembles as a suggestion of renting and privatise public space only for those who have the means to pay for using it, either they occupy it or not.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarlene d' Athenes

In my opinion there is a big dlifference between rights and privileges on the road. It is a basic human right to be able to travel from point A to point B. Using a 4000 pound piece of machinery to do so is a privilege. Using your feet is a basic human right. A bicycle falls much closer to feet than a car given weight and therefore potential for bodily harm to others. Not to mention pollution. The point I like to make when people talk about licensing bicycles is that it should be done by weight- because weight is largely what determines the environmental impact of the vehicle in terms of energy consumption, pollution, and potential for injury in collisions. So if it costs me 100 bucks a year to license my car, it should cost about 25 cents a year for my bicycle. That wouldn't pay for anything. So if you want to tax bicycles more than that.... we can expect roads that are designed for bicycles as well as cars, not just bicycles as an afterthought- right?

January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterConrad

Conrad has a good point. Taxing bicycles has been proposed several times here too and the government stance is that the revenue that could be collected would not cover the cost of collecting it.

Taxing bicycles would also mostly tax the lower income citizens. It would also encourage the richer people to put their kids in cars and buses instead of making them exercise.

January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTP

it appears the function of government (In theory anyway.) is to leave us alone...

That theory is far from unanimous. Many people (too many) seem to think the function of government is to help us out.

You note how in the old days, people could just jump into cars and drive anywhere, a couple interesting resources along that line:

First off, a fascinating historical film showing traffic (foot, bike, car, streetcar) in San Francisco in 1905 -- coincidentally just a few days before the great quake!

Second, here's a very interesting radio program how we got from there to here -- i.e. how the battle for ownership of roads was won by cars and lost by everybody else.

Hey Dave, did you ever get your persistent hiccups resolved? I hope your health is OK!

January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad

'Flout the laws of the road' ????? Who MADE the laws that you flout? Rights AND privileges? Who GIVES US THE RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES? The BLOODY people that WE vote in, The bill of rights? who signed this in? Government control, caused by the people that we vote in. Every day we read of NEW controls and restrictions, BIG BROTHER is in control 100% DON'T LIKE IT VOTE THEM OUT. Tax cyclist, we are taxed up to the hilt and it's going to get worse. WE already pay for the bike paths such as they are,.in real estate taxes and taxes on things we buy and money we spend.

January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Grump

The objective of the Bill of Rights appears to preserve individual freedom and set the boundaries of governmental control relative to the individual. They were intended to allow for individual freedom, the opportunity for development in thought (enlightenment of man), self-preservation, and protection against an oppressive government.
THE RIGHT that cannot be taken away in any situation where thought function exists is choice, as in the exercising “freedom of choice”. Exercising choice requires being responsible and accepting the results. Every law passed removes some level of freedom of choice of an individual and, guess what, their responsibility! Blame springs forth with a vengeance as the individual no longer has responsibility for the results or the need to exercise judgment! Choice is gone and the matrix of an oppressive, controlling government gains critical mass toward more individual government control and less about individual control.
Good points made in the blog and responses. I would just add that most bicyclists also have driver’s licenses and own vehicles, maybe more than one. They already pay “road space occupation” tax. The tax is not levied on use but on ownership of the property, used or not, with the exception of toll roads. One could and does argue that it is double taxation. The counter is that owning more than one vehicle is also multiple taxation as you can only drive one vehicle at a time, truck, SUV, car, motorcycle, bicycle. Guests are free
Shouldn’t the road use tax be based on the individual and not the amount of property? Could we come up with a flat tax rate for roads that would bypass all the road use taxes including those associated with gas and tires and vehicle ownership? How “fair” would that be?

January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSJX426

SJX that's a great point wrt driver's licenses and vehicle taxes. If you consider only bicyclists that do not own a car, surely that number is too small to get any significant revenue from.

January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad

Do I not have a right to clean air? I certainly now have the right to avoid second hand smoke from cigarettes (where enforced).

Anyone who has ridden a bike in traffic on hot-humid days realizes that carbon fumes from buses, SUVs, trucks, etc. is a miserable experience and unhealthy. Let's reduce this problem with carbon taxes.

In general if you're against "higher taxes" (who isn't?) than let's take those revenues and deliver them to low carbon users. It's time to reduce traffic, noise, pollution, accidents-injuries, and cycle on.

Our street-road designs should encourage low carbon outcomes instead of subsidizing the opposite. Or we have become so car-centric that clean air is a privilege for those who can afford it instead of a right?

January 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Rights and responsibilities are not mutually exclusive nor really strongly defined categories. I think too often people confusing having a "right"to do something as meaning that they have the right to do so without responsibility for consequences. The classic example being yelling "fire"in a crowded theater. We don't have a "right"to use roads as we see fit because we don't have a "right to have roads". When we collectively come together and decide to tax ourselves to build things, we generally understand that this will also include some measure of control over how everyone uses them.

The licensing and insurance requirements for car drivers were not put in to transform driving from a right to a responsibility. These rules were enacted because too many drivers were not meeting the responsibilities they ALREADY had when driving. I.e. Ï won't operate machinery in a reckless manner because I don't know how to use it,"I will pay for damage I cause due to my behavior and decisions." If car drivers did not routinely cause property damage and injuries far beyond their ability or willingness to pay for, there would not be a need for licenses, insurance, etc.

Too often, I think drivers feel that bikes should be licensed based on "fairness"(Why do I have to get one and they don't?) Cycling advocates retort that cycling should be encouraged because it's good for the environment, etc. etc. These both miss the point. If bicycles were causing large amounts of damage or injuries that they couldn't and wouldn't pay the price for, there would be a very reasonable case to require them to insure themselves, etc. This is a practical consideration, not one of fundamental rights, etc.

Case in point. In Los Angeles, there used to be a bicycle license requirement. Each license cost the city far more to manage than the fee paid. No one really bothered to get them, the city never encouraged people to do so. The only ones who liked the situation was the police who could use lack of a license as a tool to cite or harass a cyclist that they wan'ted to punish for real or (more often) perceived crimes. The licensing program quickly came to an end when cyclists mounted a campaign to get themselves licensed en masse. The city quickly admitted that the staffing and paperwork cost far too much and served no useful purpose, and quickly ended the program.

January 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMaxUtility

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

January 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTim

The point not being discussed is that our roadways are public right of ways. If someone wishes to drive livestock or ride an ostrich down them it is fine unless specifically prohibited similar to restrictions on the interstate highway system.
Public right of way is just that, a place for the public to move from point to point by whatever means. Pedestrians, cyclists, cars, horse drawn wagons all have the right to move by public right of way.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWayne F.

All I know is that if exercising my right to dissent requires travel, I'm riding my bike; leaving my GPS enabled car in the garage and my cell phone at home.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbystander

Clean air. Yes, of course we must have clean air. But how does the government bureaucrat define it? And since he's providing us with that clean air, does the bureaucrat not have the right to make us pay for it? It is, after all, for the common good, right? And while he's protecting us from dirty air, shouldn't he protect us from the dangers of riding a bike? We could get hurt! Oh, yes we must have exercise. Our trusty govt bureaucrat can help us by giving us specific exercise areas. Don't worry about commuting; he'll take care of that through public transportation. Paid for, of course, by us. My point is, speaking of rights and privileges, who is this govt bureaucrat and what gives HIM the right to decide what's safe, how to tax us, and to decide what rights we the people have? Hint: it's not the Constitution...

January 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohnD

What's the difference between 'Rights' and privileges anyway? Both are the whim of whoever has the power to determine such. North Korea: Rights bestowed to the elite are different than to the commoners. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, same.
UK, US: politicians are bought and controlled by the elite, the rich including Unions. Thus so too any argument about Rights revolves around what they want those to be. Require all citizens to buy health insurance? Make it a law.
Follow the money. Thats where the power will be. That's where rights will be determined and re-interpreted.
There are therefore no inherent or inalienable Rights for humans. That is a farce.
So too is any argument about same; doesn't get anywhere (like philosophy).
Instead all we can do is fight to get back what has and will be taken from us. Unless the fight is taken from us also.

January 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

15 comments including mine, It all comes down to VOTES We ARE controlled by the people we vote in. You do NOT agree the you know what to do.

January 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

What's the difference between 'Rights' and privileges anyway? - Steve

I'd argue that the distinction is located within:

Anything given can be taken away.

January 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbystander
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