When we look at bicycles under the lens of traffic laws and regulations, many states consider bikes to be vehicles, with all the same rights and duties as any other vehicle.
Many people read that and don’t read the second half which usually states that there are things which do not apply to bikes and thus, even though they are vehicles, they can skip a few things that are completely impractical (Such as worries about speed limits since bikes can’t hit fifty miles per hour anyway!)
This means that most bikes occupy a weird grey space when it comes to laws and what’s happening ‘on the ground’.
One of those things is a license. Short answer to the question: No, you don’t need a license to ride a bicycle. Assuming that bicycle is not a dirt bike, that is. But should cyclists have to carry a license of some sort?
Though this topic seems open and shut, we’re going to break down a couple of things that are adding layers to what used to be a pretty black and white issue. Namely:
- Electric bikes and licenses
- Should cyclists have to go through some sort of licensing?
- What about bike registration?
Bottom line, you don’t need a license and it seems unlikely you ever will. However, it’s still worth knowing the back and forth that occurs between vehicle drivers and cyclists on the issues, as well as the legal issues around electric bikes since they are growing more popular.
Electric Bikes and Licenses
At the moment, electric bikes do not require a license to operate. In fact, electric bikes are often marketed to those who have lost their licenses as a way to get around faster than a bike or walking.
That being said, with such a range of electric bikes on the market, there are some electric bikes which can easily be mistaken as a dirt bike or a motorcycle and those type of bikes do require a license to operate.
While you obviously won’t get into trouble for riding one of the motorcycle-electric-bike-wannabes, it could cause a disruption in your day and may cause you to be pulled over if you’re doing something suspicious or disruptive such as riding too quickly or weaving.
Electric bikes in the US suffer from a whole different set of problems anyway. The main issue is that no one can quite decide how best to define an e-bike and the definition is different federally than in the states and often different from state to state.
Federally, an electric bike is defined as ‘consumer products that need to be manufactured as specified in certain rules… e-bikes that have 2 or 3 wheels, properly functioning pedals and an electric motor generating less than 750W and are able to travel only at a speed under 20 mph when driven by the motor alone are considered low-speed…. And cannot be classified as motor vehicles.’ (https://driver-start.com/blog/is-a-license-required-to-ride-an-electric-bike/).
However, if the e-bike has a higher power output and higher maximum speed, they don’t conform to that and so they fall under DOT and NHTSA, becoming motor vehicles.
But who cares? Since these things have no connection to using an e-bike outside your home or backyard, local vehicle codes take over in importance. Arg.
Even on the state level, there is confusion. Some states don’t define them at all, let alone mention them in any vehicle codes, and other states do (often using the consumer regulations as a guideline, but not always).
States often rely on things like how fast the bike can build up to (for example over twenty-five miles per hour or even over thirty) or motor wattage or whether it has an automatic transmission or not.
At that point, some states, such as California, classify it as a motor-driven cycle and now you need license and registration.
So how do you tell what you have? There are a few ways to narrow down between an e-bike where you don’t need a license and a bike of some other sort where you do:
- Know your labels and specifications. The laws go by the technical characteristics of your bike to determine licensing and registration needs
- Look at your local motorcycle operator handbook and see if your bike falls under those guidelines
- Contact the DMV, bring your specifications, and simply ask!
It’s better to be safe and slightly inconvenienced than to be ticketed for riding a bike that your local law considers a motorbike.
What About Bike Registration?
So, you probably don’t need a license to ride a bike, but you may need to be registered. Bike registration is a way to ensure that the bike you are riding is yours and it can be very beneficial to register it in case of it being stolen.
But many cities go beyond this and require your bike to be registered or else be fined. The fine isn’t much at all, and the money often goes into city funds, but it can still be a shock to the system when it happens to a cyclist for the first time.
For example, Berkeley in California requires bicycle registration and if you are found riding an unregistered bike, you could get a $10.00 ticket.
Should Cyclists Go Through Licensing?
There is an argument to be made for having cyclists be licensed like vehicles are and there are arguments against it. On the side of pro-licence:
- Cyclists must share the road with vehicles, and they are considered to be motor vehicles under most laws (With all the rights and responsibilities), so why should they get to bomb around the roads without a license?
- Money for licensing can go towards building more bicycle infrastructure
- Having cyclists go through a licensing process will hopefully make them safer riders because they’ll have a clearer idea of the rules of the road
On the other hand, opposition to the idea points out the following:
- It’s a bureaucratic nightmare trying to keep on top of all the cyclists and their licenses
- How do you license children? What about people who ride mountain bikes out in the wild and never ride in town? What about tricycles?
- It can be seen as a barrier for people of low income who use bikes as transportation because they cannot afford a car.
- It’s essentially having cyclists ‘double-dip’ because cyclists already pay for road taxes, insurance, and registration through their motor vehicle use and then to pay it again for their bike is insulting
One of the biggest issues with bike licensing though is that no one can quite define what a bike is used for, who is using it, what that looks like, and where they can use it (or not use it).
This makes it very difficult to do anything with licensing and more work than payoff since most police aren’t going to enforce licensing and registration much anyway because it’s such a nuisance.
In short, cyclists do not require a license to ride a bike, unless that bike can be considered a motorbike and depending on the city or area you are riding in.
Still, every so often there are calls to have cyclists licensed in some places because of the problems that a few cyclists cause on the road for drivers and for other cyclists and pedestrians.
The best way to prove to others that cyclists shouldn’t require licensing is to keep being a considerate and thoughtful user of the road. Take care!