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Bike License Laws Have a Racial Profiling Problem

A New Jersey incident between police and teens on bicycles has rekindled the controversy over the discriminatory enforcement of bike registration policies. 

A group of teenagers biked through Perth Amboy, New Jersey, popping wheelies and weaving through traffic on suburban streets until their ride was cut short by several police cars and a swarm of officers. 

“You guys are supposed to have licenses,” one officer said. “If you guys continue to ride crazy on the streets, the police are going to take your bikes.”

That officer walked away, leaving the group of predominantly Black and Latino teens with a warning. But soon, according to a 17-minute video of the chaotic scene that was recorded by one of the riders and posted on YouTube on April 17, the group was approached by another officer, who confiscated four boys’ bikes and put handcuffs on another, before ushering him into a police car. 

The recording of the police arguing with teens, which circulated widely on social media this week, struck a tense chord as the country watched the trial of Derek Chauvin, and learned that police in Columbus had killed a 16-year-old girl, just weeks after police in Chicago had killed a 13-year-old boy. One viral post of the bike video bore the comment: “We can’t even ride bikes now… I’m not surprised. I’m just angry.”

What was surprising to many who saw the post, however, was the fact that kids needed licenses to ride their bikes. Bicycle registration and licensing laws linger on several cities’ municipal codes in the U.S.; most are little known and rarely enforced. But when they are, they can be colored by racial bias, many bike and transportation justice advocates say.

Across the country from Perth Amboy, in Emeryville, California, city councilmember John C. Bauters was inspired by the uproar to start the process of discussing eliminating the town’s bike licensing regulations. “Structural racism should not stay on the books,” he tweeted on April 21. “Even if we aren’t enforcing it, it’s bad policy.”

Bike registration and licensing laws act much like motor vehicle registration laws, directing bike owners to register their rides with the city and obtain a license, usually for a small fee. Perth Amboy is one of about seven towns in New Jersey that have such laws, according to Debra Kagan, executive director of the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition. Perth Amboy’s bike license costs 50 cents annually, and according to its municipal code, violations carry a fine up to $50, or a prison sentence of up to 10 days. Confiscated bicycles can be returned, the law says, after fines are paid. 

“If we enforced them against everybody, they wouldn’t be on the books, because people would be like, ‘You’re kidding me.’”

“Some of these have been on the books for a long time, they’re not enforced in general, but they can be used for aggressive enforcement and create an overcriminalization for young bike riders, especially Black and Latinx youth,” Kagan said. “There’s no documentation that licensing helps with safety. Clearly it creates a barrier for bike riding.”

Overall, the enforcement of bike riders in the U.S. is profoundly discriminatory: A Bicycling analysis of data from Oakland, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. found that Black riders were more likely to be stopped than white riders, and that most stops occurred in Black neighborhoods. According to a 2013 report by the Miami New Times, 86% of the 460 bike citations given in Fort Lauderdale between July 2010 and June 2013 had gone to African Americans, and almost no tickets had been given in white neighborhoods. 

“Where there’s discretion, there’s discrimination. We should know that by now,” said Barry Friedman, the founding director of NYU Law’s Policing Project. “I suspect with laws like these bicycle licensing laws, that if we enforced them against everybody, they wouldn’t be on the books, because people would be like, ‘You’re kidding me.’”

The uneven application of bike licensing laws — and other biking rules like helmet-wearing — mirrors the discretionary enforcement of other forms of stops for minor vehicle offenses. Called pretext stops, police officers often use them to investigate more serious crimes, like possessing drugs or weapons. These interactions erode already tenuous trust in law enforcement in communities of color, critics of the practice say, and can easily escalate, with deadly consequences: Police killed Philando Castile and most recently Daunte Wright after pulling their cars over for minor infractions. (One of Wright’s alleged violations: illegally hanging an air freshener.) In September, Dijon Kizzee, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot by police in Los Angeles after being pulled over for a bike violation. 

“The murder of Dijon reminds us that until we enact sweeping overhauls across city agencies and install a comprehensive plan for reparations that makes ‘outside’ an option for Black people, it’s all just a philosophical exercise,” Destiny Thomas, the CEO and founder of Thrivance Group, a planning firm that specializes in racial equity through design, told CityLab’s Laura Bliss after Kizzee’s death. “A cruel one.”

New Jersey police have a pattern of harassing people on bikes, Kagan says. Before its department’s overhaul, Camden police officers notoriously pulled over riders for not having bike bells. Last July, video emerged of Ridgewood police officers grabbing a 15-year-old boy and pinning him to the ground after seeing him biking with a group of friends, sparking outrage. After the incident in Perth Amboy, which also drew criticism from Governor Phil Murphy, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office announced it would be investigating the police officers’ conduct, but declined to comment on an ongoing review. The Perth Amboy police department did not respond to a request for comment. Newly elected mayor Helmin J. Caba spoke out in support of the officers’ actions, noting that the teens were riding in a reckless manner. “The videos depict the interaction as professional and cordial,” Caba said, NJ 101.5 reported. “The supervisor clearly stated he only wished to speak with the riders and police had no intentions of confiscating bikes from the riders.”

Another outcome of these enforcement patterns is that they can deter people, especially young people of color, from biking. In a survey of more than 2,000 people in diverse communities in New Jersey, “nearly 14% of all respondents stated that they had been unfairly stopped by a police officer while on a bicycle,” an experience shared by 23% of Black bicyclists and 28% of mixed-race bicyclists. The study, conducted by Charles Brown, CEO of urban planning firm Equitable Cities, concludes that members of the Black focus group “specifically cited harassment by police officers in certain municipalities as a reason to not bicycle.” 

Brown coined the term “arrested mobility” to describe the ways in which Black and Latino people face barriers to realizing their rights to move through public space, or simply exist within it. The Perth Amboy teenagers, he said, were “enjoying one of the most freeing moments ever as a child, and that is that moment you share with your friends on a bike. Very few New Jerseyans know these laws even exist. To place that burden on a child, I think, is just — I’m speechless.”

Like many bike advocates, Brown says that police enforcement of licensing regulations is the wrong way to encourage safer biking; instead, he encourages more infrastructure that prioritizes pedestrians and bikers, not cars. “We devote too much space in New Jersey to automobiles, and that’s at the detriment to cyclists, pedestrians, and other modes of transport,” he said.

Bike licensing laws have long been a source of controversy and disgruntlement in bike advocacy circles. They appear in places nationwide, including Honolulu, several Northern California cities, and Montgomery County, Maryland, and new ones are occasionally proposed. In North Carolina, state representative Jeffrey Elmore introduced a 2019 bill that would mandate a statewide bike registration, with a $10 annual fee. Lawmakers who defend the policies say they’re a useful way to keep track of lost or stolen bicycles; other cities have implemented them in a bid to raise revenue, improve safety or to ensure that bicyclists have some stakes in paying for the infrastructure they share with cars. “They utilize the road, just like the people who drive cars and trucks,” Chicago alderman Pat Dowell said in 2013, when she proposed a $25-a-year bike licensing fee.  “If we have to register our cars, bikes ought to be registered as well.”

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But other cities have eliminated their bike licensing laws, citing the high costs of administering them and the challenges in enforcing them equitably. Such concerns aren’t new: A 50-cent fee for an annual bicycle license plate on the books in Toronto from 1935 to 1957 was discontinued, for example, in part because the Canadian city feared that rampant dodging of the requirements “results in an unconscious contravention of the law at a very tender age,” which can lead to “poor public relations between police officers and children.”

New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition’s Kagan says it’s time for the Garden State to reach the same conclusion: The group is advocating for the statewide removal of bike license laws, and the prevention of new ones being written.

In place of Emeryville’s registration law, councilman Bauters will propose that the town use the free bike registry tool run by the nonprofit organization Bike Index, which allows police and individuals from cities across the country to search the database for missing bikes. He is also hoping to co-sponsor statewide legislation repealing the statute that allows localities to uphold bike licensing laws. Nine cities in the Bay Area’s Alameda County now have similar regulations.

“It doesn’t engender good relations between community and local government,” he said. “There are better things to do with police time.”

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