Reactions and Response to My Bike Column

The author Joel Engardio with his husband Lionel Hsu on the AIDS/LifeCycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The author Joel Engardio with his husband Lionel Hsu on the AIDS/LifeCycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

By Joel P. Engardio

I believe bicycles are the future for transportation in urban areas, which is why I’m interested in how we can achieve a smooth transition while autos continue to dominate.

When I wrote my column with the headline “Time to Mandate Bicycle Licenses” I was hoping to start a conversation about how to bridge the generational and geographic divide between older westside motorists and younger bicyclists throughout San Francisco so our roads can be safely shared.

I used the example of a baby boomer and westside resident who drives and rides a bike, but was surprised to learn his home and auto insurance didn’t cover him when he was injured in a bike accident. Would bicyclists have more protection if they had insurance like motorists do? Would requiring licenses for bicycles generate fees to help pay for infrastructure improvements to our roads and make them safer?

Many readers emphatically said the answer to these questions is no. I got a lot of tough feedback -- but it is helpful when you can learn from it.

I received many thoughtful messages that expressed disappointment in my proposal while taking the time to explain why it would not work. One message from a woman on the westside who drives and rides a bike was especially convincing: “Forcing people on bicycles to pay for a license and have insurance does not make the streets safer, but dramatically discourages people from using alternative transportation such as bicycles.”

The woman, who is a mother of young children, made another important point: “I have more insurance than you can shake a stick at and I still find that truly what makes the streets of San Francisco unsafe for vulnerable users of the road…is vehicle speeding.”

Others wrote to say they are worried about enforcement since many cyclists ride to or through San Francisco from other cities. And there is of course the question of whether the costs of administering this program would be more than the fees it would generate. I’ve often written about out of control City Hall budgets and bureaucracy, so the point on cost is well taken.

As I mentioned in the column, bikes are the future. We can’t deny that. We should be doing more to plan for it. I’ve been a strong advocate in previous columns for more public transportation infrastructure and investing in the subway tunnels we regret not building decades ago.

My aim with this column was to acknowledge two realities: the number of bicyclists is only increasing and we still have lots of motorists (especially seniors) who rely on driving and parking. With one set of roads, this can cause tension. That’s why we need ideas about how to better protect bicyclists while cars and bikes can safely share the road. I put one forward in hopes that we could move towards this overall goal.

Of course, not every idea will be a good one. I will continue to listen to people and do more research. We should keep working on this problem. In retrospect, my aim would have been better achieved if I had framed the column as a question rather than taking a stand.

As an opinion columnist, a lot of what I do is to start public discussions. And this is an approach I want to take to City Hall as a public servant, where too few people are willing to engage in difficult and necessary conversations. Yet it’s also important to know when others make good points and prove mine wrong.

As for my latest contribution, one tweet perfectly summed it up: “Good motivation, bad solution.”