Number plates on bicycles, how practical is it really?

I saw a twitter exchange on this topic recently where someone that lives on a canal boat was complaining about people riding bikes recklessly on the tow path. Ignoring the anecdotal “this happens all the time” and “cyclists are a menace” tone of that particular exchange, it still sucks. Why shouldn’t someone be able to report a cyclist that has ridden irresponsibly?

It’s difficult to separate motor vehicles and bicycles in this argument as the impact of cars in an accident (and generally) is so much greater but arguing the “what about cars” point is fallacy, a bike can still be ridden irresponsibly regardless of what someone else does in a car.

So armed with a stack of assumptions (trying to favour the ‘Yes to registration’ argument) and literally 10 minutes of googling, allow me to cobble some half baked ‘analysis’ together as I can’t find any other made up stats anywhere.

Firstly, let’s give our new bike registering thingy a fighting chance and rule out registering all 25 million bikes that exist in the UK.

We can just assume that it’s going to cost too much (seriously, it would take forever). So we will apply this thingy to the sale of new bikes only.

It’s likely that registration of all new bikes will affect sales but for the sake of argument let’s ignore the cost of that to the industry and the effect on jobs and the economy and just assume that everyone in the country fully backs number plates on bikes as, this is important.

In 2016 there were 3.5 million bikes sold. Again, for the sake of argument let’s rule out kids bikes (30%) and mountain bikes (30% – yeah I know you can ride them on the road) and just say we are going to register road bikes/commuter bikes (we just want a practical number to get this thing going). This leaves us with 1.4 million bikes (40%) that will need to be registered per year.

Let’s not kick the bike industry in the goolies any more than necessary and just say that the customer will pay for the registration and let’s use the experts we already have by kindly asking the DVLA to manage the whole thing.

So how much should we charge for this registration?

The cost of registering a car is £55 which is approx 0.44% of the price of the average car (£12,715)

The average price of a bike is £439 so an equivalent cost is £1.90.

That’s not going to cover much so let’s say it costs 15 quid to register a bike, bit unfair compared to cars but, this is important.

Sales of bikes less than £100 will take a hit but we are going to ignore that and say that all 1.4 million bikes will be registered willingly and on time which gives us a revenue of 21 million quid p/a.

The DVLA handles vehicle registrations (in 2018, 2,367,147 vehicles were registered in the UK –, driving licences, and VED taxation. Accordingly (massive assumption klaxon), vehicle registrations are a third of what the DVLA does? This sounds like a lot, so let’s be more conservative and say something equivalent to a quarter of the current business would be required.

How much is this going to cost?

DVLA expenditure is £485 million – this is likely to reduce due to planned savings so let’s say it costs 400 million to run the DVLA, this makes our quarter estimate £100 million. Hang on, we need to handle 1.4 million registrations and we only have 21 million quid to do it. Using our new revenue we can only increase the DVLA as a business by 5% to handle these new registrations.  Given that *probably* 20% of the DVLA handles vehicle registrations it won’t be enough but, this is important.

OK, soooo all new bikes are getting registered, all old bikes have miraculously disappeared off the face of the earth, we are good to go.

How do we use these registrations?

A very important person has just had to run for their life from someone on a bike, riding like a dick. Luckily, this important person took down the reg number of the bike and phoned the police. The police track down the cyclist who (despite no evidence it was them riding) admits to the offence. The cyclist gets charged, goes to court and gets fined.

How much do we fine a cyclist for scaring an important person?

The fine for injuring or killing someone with a vehicle doesn’t appear to be consistent, it can be anything from 200 to 1000 pounds so let’s pick another fine to base this on. The average fine for speeding is about £150, you generally get let off for a first offence with some training but let’s not do that with bikes, this is important.

Given that endangering someone’s life speeding in your car costs £150, let’s assume the average ‘riding like a dick’ fine is £75.  What’s our revenue from fines likely to be?

A cross section of motorists is actually a cross section of cyclists (yes it is). Therefore the percentage of motorists that ‘drive like a dick’ should be the same for cyclists that ‘ride like a dick’ (yes it is).

Motoring offences (page 26)

Sticking to the speeding comparison, 168,000 motorists were convicted in 2015.

There are 31.7 million vehicles on the road (how mad is that?)

They can’t all be on the road regularly so let’s assume (klaxon) that a 3rd of these vehicles are active and reduce that number to 10 million vehicles. So from 10 million vehicles there where 168,000 convictions for speeding which is roughly 1.5% and about 25 million quid in fines.

For bikes, we won’t make the same assumption (we want this to work), let’s say ALL our registered bikes are active so we can expect 1.5% of our 1.4 million bikes to ‘cycle like a dick’ which will give us 21,000 convictions.

21,000 naughty cyclists (that are also honest and said, “yep, that was me” when contacted by police) is 13% of the 168,000 naughty motorists. So (assumption klaxon) we need to increase the machine that currently handles this for motorists (courts, police, camera’s) by 13%?

That’s way too much let’s be super conservative and say 2%.

Sounds good, we can expect £1.5 million from our ‘cycling like a dick’ fines to pay for this increase, that will easily cover it right?

Hmmm, just looking at policing, those 168,000 convictions are only a fraction of police budget and we want to increase that fraction by 2% but…that budget is completely knackered.

“Broadly speaking, most police force funding comes from direct Government funding. Around 30% of funding also comes from council tax through the policing precept”

“Police funding fell by 19% in real terms”

It doesn’t look good. Our half baked analysis has only examined two elements, the DVLA and the Police and the numbers don’t add up, not even when we try and favour the ‘Yes’ argument.

There is a great deal more to implementing this which is only going to make the whole thing cost more and it’s bonkers to think that the magic money tree is going to be uprooted from the bribe garden to cover any of it.

Alternatively, we could increase the council tax for every single household in the country so that we can pursue some cyclists that may or may not have been on a bicycle with a number plate, whilst allegedly committing an offence that is most likely testimonial.


To answer my original question why shouldn’t someone be able to report a cyclist that has ridden irresponsibly?

There’s nothing stopping this currently, if the offence is deemed serious then an investigation will take place and the police will attempt to track that person down regardless of a bicycle number plate, you know, kind of how they find criminals that don’t all conveniently drive vehicles that are registered to them. If it’s not serious then, what can we really expect? We have established that the policing cannot be increased, do we expect them to stop investigating crime elsewhere because someone rode a bicycle on the pavement?

Even with this extremely shallow look at expense, the numbers don’t stack up. This process won’t pay for itself so a big chunk of budget is needed from somewhere. Add to that the benefit vs cost and it works even less.

What are we going to gain from all this?

Less people on bikes, which is the real driver (pun intended).

Some random bullet points to make this bit more conclusiony

  • Registering existing bikes will be cost prohibitive – never going to happen
  • A fair price (£15) of registering a bike will not cover the actual cost of registration
    • the real cost (£55 as per motor vehicles) will be prohibitive to sales (and riding bikes)
  • Convictions for cycling offences that are linked to a cycle registration will not be effective without licensing and insurance therefore impractical. Yet more money will be needed for licensing.
  • Sales of bikes will suffer
    • Journey’s made by bike will be reduced.
    • Health care costs likely to increase due to the reduction in exercise.




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