The inevitable future, in my opinion, will involve some form of pedaling. The bicycle was invented about 200 years ago, and their makers later made motorcycles and cars. But cars and motorbikes — those running on fossil fuel, at least — may soon be things of the past as economic, environmental, and social concerns push people toward electric and, well, back to pedal power.
A friend recently remarked that in his lifetime, he wanted to see more bicycles than cars on roads in densely populated and congested urban centers. I can understand where he is coming from, as he takes long rides on his mountain bike almost every weekend. He is well aware of the benefits of biking, on his health and his wallet, and on the environment.
Personally, I prefer to walk than bike. But I am convinced that there are more to bikes than just getting around. Going beyond being personal transport, one can pedal a “bike” to pump water, generate electricity, sharpen knives, among others. Any wheel attached to any mechanism to move it is a simple machine that has countless applications.
However, as I tackled the issue of biking on public roads in my previous column, I advocated for some new rules. I still believe that some form of government regulation should cover all motorized or mechanically propelled vehicles, even those pedaled by humans, regardless of the number of wheels, if they are to be used on public roads.
And this is based on the premise that anyone using the road is expected to be familiar with and to abide by the rules of the road, and anything used on the road is expected to be roadworthy. This is also given the need to keep order on roads and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all road users.
Yes, I have read many of the arguments against licensing bikers and registering bicycles, including how such a process is unwieldy and too costly, administratively. And that it can only work to the extent that registering cars and licensing their drivers have actually resulted in better driving, which has not. The licensing process is also highly prone to corruption. Moreover, it may just prompt people to abandon their bikes and stick to their cars.
But I still believe we should start discussing whether or not the government should regulate or “administer” bicycles and scooters et al. In my opinion, anything that runs on an electric motor or any other type of motor, or a combination of pedal and motor, whether slow or fast, and used on public roads should be registered. And its user should be licensed.
However, anything that is pedaled and runs only on human power, we should still consider some rules to apply, with corresponding penalties for violations. Registration can be compulsory, but licensing users or riders can be optional. Insurance rules should likewise be amended to allow for theft or damage insurance for bicycles and personal liability insurance for bicycle users.
Whether or not more of an anti-theft measure, or for purposes of securing liability and accident insurance, we should look into some rules or guidance regarding the use on public roads of all “modes of transport” other than cars or motorcycles, electric or otherwise, even those drawn by animals or pedaled by humans.
In Japan, for instance, bicycles are registered when purchased primarily as a protection against theft. The retailer puts a police registration sticker on the bicycle and gives the buyer the registration card. Cost is equivalent to about Php 250. Registration is compulsory, but there are no penalties for failing to register. However, one runs the risk of being stopped by police and accused of theft when using an unregistered bicycle. Cyclists are not licensed.
Switzerland used to have a similar bike sticker scheme, but this was reportedly discontinued starting 2012. Also, children under seven years old are allowed to cycle on roads only if accompanied or supervised by a person at least 16 years of age. Also, personal liability insurance can cover damage caused to third parties in an accident involving a bicycle. Bicycles can also be covered by household insurance.
But any pedal-assisted electric bicycle or e-bike, whether slow or fast, requires a motor-assisted bicycle registration plate and registration that is renewed yearly. Licenses are also issued to those who use motorized bicycles, which can use only specially designated cycle lanes. Safety helmets are also required for e-bike users.
And then there is Denmark. Available statistics indicate that nine out of 10 people in Denmark own a bicycle, and that Danes cycle an average of 1.6 kilometers a day. Moreover, cycling reportedly accounts for 25% of all personal transport in Denmark for distances shorter than five kilometers. Moreover, children learn in school about traffic rules, road safety, and the importance of wearing a helmet and other good cycling habits.
In Denmark, a bicycle is also required to have one white light in front and one red light at the back; reflectors on wheels, pedals, and on the frame; a functioning bike bell mounted on the handlebar; and, functioning brakes on both wheels. And bicycles are subject to the same traffic rules as cars. Cyclists cannot carry another person on a one-person bike, unless it’s a child in a child seat; cannot use a phone; and, must use hand signals. Violations are fined.
Denmark does not license cyclists, but a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) system has been in place there since 1942, and this provides all bicycles in Denmark with a unique code composed of a combination of letters and digits embedded into the bicycle frame and consisting of a manufacturer code, serial number, and construction year code. Since 1948, it has been illegal to sell bicycle frames in Denmark without an embedded VIN.
I am sure there are other examples of global best practices for and against licensing and or registration for electric as well as pedal bicycles. Philippine policy makers and law enforcers should start reviewing them so as to be guided which among these rules can apply locally. If cycling is the future, and I believe it is, we should already start looking into suitable and appropriate regulations.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council