Last week, Volkskrant columnist Peter de Waard pleaded in a column that the reintroduction of the old bicycle license plate—a burden from the distant past—could be the solution to problems on the cycle path. Departing Fietsersbond director Saskia Kluit and future director Esther van Garderen responded.
Although we, as current and future director of the Dutch Cyclists' Union, love to be on television every evening in "chatterboxes" to promote cycling, we sincerely hope that this will not be to refute Peter de Waard's incomplete calculation in the Volkskrant of September 3, 2020. Bicycle license plates (with accompanying taxes) have been abolished because it is a nonsensical measure that does not solve any problems.
According to Peter, there are two reasons for wanting bicycle license plates: enforcement and taxation. Let's peel it off, starting with the bicycle tax. It is striking that Peter omits quite a few things from the financial picture for the bicycle tax. The implementation costs of tagging the Netherlands' 23 million bicycles are not zero. Neither is the collection of taxes.
Peter does not count the health costs of people who stop cycling or start cycling less out of opposition to a bicycle license plate. These are not insignificant costs in a country in which more than half of the inhabitants already do not meet the exercise standard, and half of the adults are overweight. Cycling a few kilometers a day reduces the risk of a heart attack by more than 45 percent. We don't need to calculate in detail what the reverse—less cycling—would mean for the costs incurred by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. It makes no economic sense to include the costs of road safety, but not the costs of additional health damage, which is a factor many times greater.
Then there are the cost of investments for cyclists: could they not contribute to this themselves now that these costs are rising more and more? Funnily enough, cyclists are already making a huge financial and social contribution. After all, by cycling they avoid social costs on an enormous scale. They don't pollute the air, they don't cause noise pollution, they don't use fuel, they cause almost no accidents for others, etc., etc. We have a climate crisis, a housing crisis, the nitrogen crisis, an economic crisis, and major problems due to obesity. Riding a bicycle contributes to limiting and even solving all these problems. And all that for a price that any other mode of transport can only dream of, including the government that invests in it.
This is not only the opinion of the Cyclists' Union, many analyses of social benefits and costs of mobility investments show this time and again. For example, Utrecht's Gross Bicycle Product showed that every euro spent on cyclists returns the city almost two euros in social benefits. In addition, cycling helps the government to keep the Netherlands accessible and to realize the major inner-city challenges. Here, too, the opposite reasoning applies: if the habitants of these new residential areas do not start cycling en masse, the plans for inner-city housing will be unfeasible.
At present, all these cyclists generate many social benefits. Of course, if they have to pay taxes and therefore stop cycling, these people will not solve the problem. They will then go by car or public transport, causing a major increase in social costs compared to their previous bicycle use.
That's the second reason for a bicycle license plate: can't we tackle the anonymity of anti-social cyclists a little? Of course, it's easier to maintain it with license plates on every bicycle. However, the recognizability of bicycles is not the problem with enforcement. Municipal enforcers and community police officers are already overflowing with work pressure without fining cyclists. In Peter's picture, therefore, extra community police officers, municipal enforcers, towing trucks, and storage for incorrectly parked bicycles should also be included.
Incidentally, governments are only allowed to tow bicycles off the sidewalk under strict conditions. And that too is a problem, because without an alternative where people are allowed to park their bikes, the government cannot enforce it. Then the sidewalk is the legal and intended place to park bicycles. Of course we are not advocates of parking on the sidewalk, think of the inconvenience for children and the disabled, but as long as a few motorists can stop more space for the bike by converting parking spaces, this is what it is.
The current bicycle system needs improvement. In this Peter—whom we otherwise hold high and like to read—is absolutely right. Space is scarce, bicycle use is increasing rapidly, and different types of bicycles ride narrow paths at different speeds.
It doesn't take brave politicians to introduce a bicycle license plate to solve this problem. It does require brave politicians who dare to question the existing paradigms in mobility and seriously embrace the bicycle as a means of transport.