116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Outdated bicycle licensing schemes lead to over-policing
In Iowa, bike registration ordinances are rarely enforced but some remain on the books
Americans are subjected daily to a stream of social media videos showing hostile and unnecessary police interactions. One viral outrage this past week brought up the seemingly innocuous issue of bicycle registration.
Police in New Jersey recently stopped a group of young cyclists, confiscated bikes and detained at least one of the riders in a scene disseminated on YouTube. Officers lectured the boys about traffic safety, but they kept coming back to bike licenses: A local ordinance requires bicycles to be registered with the city, and officers assumed the boys were outlaw riders.
Some viewers were shocked that a government would impose such a stupid requirement. They are naive to the stunning breadth of petty regulations enforced at every level of government in the United States.
Mandatory bicycle registration programs used to be somewhat common in Iowa. In some cases, cyclists were required to demonstrate safety skills to the police chief, providing an opportunity for cops to make nice with local children. Some jurisdictions elsewhere have used registration fees to fund trail projects.
Nowadays, bike registration programs in Iowa are overwhelmingly voluntary, usually for free or $5 or less. Numbered tags help authorities return lost or stolen bikes to their registered owners. In most cases, registration is limited to that perfectly legitimate purpose.
Unfortunately, most well-intentioned laws eventually will be used to harass and intimidate peaceful people. When the government makes a mandate, it invites conflict.
Cycling advocates caution against mandatory registration programs, which they see as a barrier to ridership. Mark Wyatt, director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, told me few cities in Iowa still enforce registration mandates, though many cities have outdated ordinances.
The Marion City Council recently voted to repeal the city’s bicycle registration ordinance, which required the police chief to inspect bikes. Chief Mike Kitsmiller recommended scratching the rule, saying it had been on the books for many years but not enforced recently, The Gazette’s Gage Miskimen reported.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Des Moines all have voluntary bicycle registration, aimed at theft recovery.
Davenport, the state’s third-largest city, still has an ordinance requiring all bikes operated in the city to be licensed. Police there have issued five citations since 2017. You can mail the $5 registration fee to City Hall or pay online, although as of this week you can’t because there is an “error processing payment” message on the website.
Commentators for CityLab, which studies municipal policy, say bicycle licensing is “pointless and expensive” and susceptible to racially biased enforcement.
In video from the recent New Jersey incident, one officer can be heard saying, “Guys, we don’t make the rules.”
That’s true. All of us make the rules. More specifically, the subset of people who vote and participate in state and local government make the rules that determine police priorities. Collectively, we’re doing a bad job.
We shouldn’t make a law we’re not willing to use guns to enforce.
Cycling permits are just one small example of overregulation of Americans’ everyday lives, which sometimes leads to violence. This recent situation, thank God, did not turn violent.
Here are a few other violations that have stemmed deadly encounters: Selling untaxed cigarettes. Dangling an air freshener from the rearview mirror or having expired tags. Carrying a firearm. Possessing illegal substances that are no more dangerous than tobacco and alcohol.
Our laws, down to the most minor municipal infraction, are statements about what we value. Any law enforceable by armed agents has the potential to be a capital offense. We shouldn’t make a law we’re not willing to use guns to enforce.
It doesn’t matter how well we recruit and train police officers as long as we send them out to enforce frivolous rules that are hostile to human freedom.
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