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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

OP-ED: The bicycle licence, again

A recent attempt to enable the city to licence food couriers is a reminder of why cyclist licences have been long abandoned, says Albert Koehl

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For almost as long as there have been bicycles in Toronto, there have been politicians who considered the bicycle licence as a solution to some cycling issue. The latest proposal, approved by the Infrastructure & Environment Committee, but with little debate, calls for the Provincial government to change its regulations in order to allow a municipal licencing power over food couriers.

Councillor Dianne Saxe’s motion, which was tacked on to a debate about the city’s Micro Mobility strategy, now goes to the full council on May 22. The motion doesn’t actually mention bicycles, though Saxe has made clear that her target is e-bike riding food couriers, specifically individuals riding on sidewalks. She wants Queen’s Park to grant the city a new licensing power under the City of Toronto Act. The motion also encompasses a requirement for food couriers on bicycles (or other micro mobility devices) to carry third-party liability insurance. There would be little impact on car-based food couriers, given that they are already licensed drivers who use registered cars.

Cyclists have no business riding on sidewalks, although on dangerous suburban arterials with no bike lanes, seeking refuge on sparsely-used sidewalks is understandable. A bicycle licensing regime has populist appeal as a solution, even though, as city staff have pointed out, it would likely be ineffective, inequitable, and cumbersome. The goal may at least be politically effective in giving the appearance of action, even if merely diverting attention from real solutions.

Ironically, about a century ago when Toronto started licensing bicycles, it was also after the city convinced the province to grant it such authority. The bicycle licensing regime introduced in 1929 lasted until 1956, its demise due to rising costs, a heavy administrative burden, and the awkwardness of cops chasing kids for failing to obtain the annual licence. A new regime focused on food couriers, many of them from racialized communities, new to Canada, and struggling to make ends meet (many can’t even afford to live in the city) will put police in a similarly awkward position.

The earliest calls to licence bicycles in Toronto date back even further to the Bicycle Craze of the 1890s. The potential revenues were seen as a way to fund better roads or bicycle paths. These calls were all defeated, largely because cycling groups were dominated by upper class residents with significant influence. When the city adopted a bicycle licence in 1929, it was when children, lower income groups, and messengers dominated the ranks of cyclists.

Saxe’s motion isn’t based on actual research. Do we even know why couriers ride on sidewalks: is it because they don’t know the law, don’t care, or are induced by work pressures. It’s also curious that Saxe targets poorly paid couriers who face dangerous road conditions — a courier was killed on Avenue Road in her ward on April 30 — while their corporate masters, including giants such as Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes, and Door Dash (Foodora abruptly left Canada after their workers won greater labour rights) are given a free ride. Why not ask the province for the power to license the app-based food delivery companies (or “digital platforms” as they prefer to be called)? What about the potential of pushing more food delivery into cars, despite the obvious absurdity of delivering 500-gram burgers and burritos in 1,500 kg cars. The result of her licence is likely to include more road congestion, more noise, more danger, and more air and climate pollution. And why be so quick to go after bicycle couriers so soon after the pandemic when we were happy to shelter at home, and hail food couriers as heroes for braving an uncertain outside world.

There is also an obvious issue about how to enforce a bike licence, even if the complexities and costs of creating the system in the first place could be overcome. It’s worth noting that licensed motorists in cars bearing licence plates currently park in bike lanes with virtual impunity. Does Saxe now expect police to respond, sirens blaring, to a complaint about a sidewalk rider – or believe that the police would follow up on a resident’s report of an offending courier bearing licence xyz? This is certainly not the case with cars illegally parked in bike lanes.

In any case, riding a bike on the sidewalk is already illegal. Under existing laws, if police spot a courier riding on the sidewalk, the courier can be charged, regardless of the existence of a bike licensing regime. (The law, by the way, has long been clear that a person observed by police committing an offence is legally obliged to identify themselves, under threat of arrest. The violator faces more serious consequences if they misidentify themselves, or try to flee.)

Saxe could have taken the opportunity to address an underlying problem with the current food delivery industry model – one that allows corporations to avoid accountability for the conduct of their workers, treating them as “independent contractors.” The councillor should be calling on the province to designate food couriers engaged by the delivery apps as dependent contractors (as their own leaders are demanding). If app companies were accountable for couriers who “work” for them, they would be obliged to put in place measures to ensure that their delivery staff were properly trained, properly equipped (with safe bikes and batteries), and obeyed the law.

The current system allows the food apps to offload the real costs of food delivery to the community. Saxe would do better to push the apps into a model that hikes pay, reduces pressure to speed, and moves more deliveries from cars to bikes. If the companies, for example, provided overnight parking for couriers’ e-bikes, GO trains wouldn’t be overwhelmed with them at the end of couriers’ work day.

There are important issues that arise from the surge in food delivery, but we can do better than turning back to failed bike licensing solutions.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, coordinator of Community Bikeways, and author of Wheeling Through Toronto, A History of the Bicycle and Its Riders (University of Toronto Press)

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2 comments

  1. Saxe represents an ugly, misanthropic instinct that is pervasive within the leafy neighborhoods of Toronto

  2. Cyclists on sidewalks is a huge problem and food delivery riders are a big, but not only part of it. In mid town you even see these riders on the busy sidewalks adjacent to bike lanes. There is simply no enforcement or even education from officers on the streets. If the police have time to harass riders in High Park, it’s time for the city to mandate they do this on public sidewalks as well.

    Also, note. E-bikes have largely evolved into motorcycles. We don’t allow them to ride on sidewalks, do we?

    Licensing is a silly response. Without enforcement, nothing will be accomplished. It will also penalize the marginalized who rely on delivery employment and even the privileged who may only occasionally ride and should be encouraged to. Those riders are not going to stay on top of keeping licenses current.

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