Seattle launched a mandatory, fee-based bicycle registration program in the late 1970s and it quickly flopped. Here’s what officials have to say about instituting a similar system now.

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For decades, Seattleites have debated the pros and cons of requiring bike owners to pay a licensing fee like car owners do.

With licensing, police would have an easier time ticketing lawbreaking bicyclists, or finding the rightful owners of recovered stolen bikes, supporters say. But, opponents argue, bike owners already pay taxes that support the transportation system, so why should they have to fork over another fee?

Which takes us to Nathan Watson.

“I see so many downtown roads being consumed by dedicated bike lanes,” said Watson, 44, who believes a licensing fee could help pay for such projects. “Why don’t we have them (bicyclists) be licensed?”

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To answer, we dived into The Seattle Times archives to research the issue’s history — a mandatory fee-based program that was launched in the late 1970s and quickly flopped — and looked at systems in cities across the country.

Sentiments similar to Watson’s span generations.

A reader in 1977, for instance, wrote to The Seattle Times saying the point of bicycle registration, in part, “is to raise the status of the bicycle from a toy — a skateboard or a roller skate — to a legitimate vehicle whose rider is willing to pay for the privilege of using the city streets.”

Flash forward four decades and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) says there would be “a high financial cost” to enforcing mandatory bicycle licenses, considering how programs have played out elsewhere.

Cities including Los Angeles and Detroit have operated licensing programs in the recent past that have been shut down.

“Bicycle licensing has been tried in other cities with limited success,” SDOT said in a statement. “In other cities where licensing has been tried, the license revenues have not been enough to cover the costs of administering the program itself and the additional police enforcement.”

Also, mandatory licensing discourages a “mode of transportation that we should be working to encourage” since it helps relieve traffic congestion, among other benefits, Kelsey Mesher, Puget Sound policy manager for the Cascade Bicycle Club, said in an email.

And while bicyclists don’t pay gas taxes that fund a lion’s share of road budgets, many people who bike help pay for road improvements through other taxes and fees.

The city’s $930 million Move Seattle property-tax levy, approved by voters in 2015, has helped cover the cost of new bike lanes across the city, SDOT said. Money from other property and sales taxes, paid by many bicyclists, goes to roadway updates, too. And many people who bike also pay for driver’s licenses and car-tab fees.

On the other hand, the city and county of Honolulu requires all bicycle owners to register their wheels with a one-time $15 fee, paid either by visiting certain locations or by mail.

The payments go into what’s called a “bikeway fund” to help pay for such projects as storm drains or lights along paths, according to the city and county website.

“Bicycle registration provides the city with data to track the popularity of bicycle ridership and impact bikeway planning in addition to creating a way for police to track and return stolen bicycles,” the site says.

Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County require people to obtain bicycle licenses, which cost up to $2, with the goal of aiding recovery of stolen bicycles, according to the Salt Lake City Transportation Division.

That was also the goal of Seattle’s 1977 bicycle-licensing law, which briefly replaced the city’s voluntary registration program and required bike owners to pay a one-time $2 fee.

Supporters of the law aimed to return stolen bikes more often, as well as deter people from committing the crime in the first place. The measure’s sponsor also wanted to pay for bicycle-safety education with money from the fees.

Activists on the other side, however, opposed the program’s obligatory nature and said city leaders should instead prioritize spending by building new bike paths.

To show their disapproval, about 50 bicyclists rode from the University of Washington to Pioneer Square on April 17, 1977, for a “protest ride,” one of multiple demonstrations. One activist told The Seattle Times that the debate, in many ways, pitted “the little guy against the big guy. ”

Then, the Seattle police chief sent a memo to staff that called for “low-key” enforcement of the law, generating more controversy.

Ultimately, though, the program’s poor participation and cost led to its demise.

By mid-July, four months after its launch, 25,000 bicycles were registered — just 5,000 more than under the voluntary program. And the program’s original $15,000 budget had been exhausted.

“The city’s bicycle-registration law was passed by the council, then repealed by the council, then reinstated by the mayor, then upheld by the council — all in a few months,” a March 1978 newspaper story says.

Former Councilmember Michael Hildt, author of the final repeal measure, said to the City Council before its passage on March 13, 1978:

“This has a long and colorful history, and it’s my sincere hope that this will be the last time that the City Council has to deal with bicycle registration.”

Today, people can voluntarily register bikes to combat theft through services such as Bike Index and Project 529 Garage, and some employers and colleges require registration. The Seattle Police Department runs a Twitter account, @GetYourBikeBack, to advertise recovered bikes.

Got a question?

Last week, we tackled readers’ concerns over cheaters in HOV lanes.

If you have a question or idea for Traffic Lab, send it to trafficlab@seattletimes.com. We may feature it in an upcoming column.