John Baker

John Baker

I break the law. Several times a week, I’m afraid. And up until recently, I was blissfully unaware that I did so.

But then in mid-April, my law-breaking ways were made very clear to me when police in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, detained a group of Black and Latino teens, handcuffing one, and confiscating four bicycles — allegedly because these children did not have “bicycle licenses.” A viral video of the incident, tinged with accusations of racism, caused cyclists like me across the country to reflect on whether their towns also required bicycle licenses.

It turns out, South San Francisco, where I live, was one of many cities on the Peninsula that did indeed have such a requirement. Having never heard of the need for such a license, I never got one. And thus I became a scofflaw.

South City’s ordinance is typical: it requires bicycle sellers to give buyers paperwork to fill out, which should then be turned into the fire department, which would issue a license to the new bicycle owner. Police could impound any bicycle without such a license.

It seems many of these licensing ordinances were designed to set up a tracking mechanism to help reunite stolen bicycles with their owners and perhaps deter some theft. Alas, they seem to have had little effect because bicycle theft is still a huge problem on the Peninsula. In fact, I know a local city manager whose family was a victim of bike theft in recent years. Now, in the internet era, there are also private databases (such as where serial numbers can be entered or checked by both law enforcement and the general public.

Instead, licensing requirements these days seem mainly to be used as a pretext for law enforcement to contact Black and brown individuals. This was certainly the case for the incident in Perth Amboy, which was one more tick in an uncomfortable tally of law enforcement disproportionately enforcing laws against bicycle riders of color. For example, in Oakland between 2016 and 2018, nearly 60% of people who police stopped on bicycles were Black, despite Black people making up just about a quarter of Oakland’s population. Meanwhile, white cyclists were stopped at half their rate of representation in the city’s population.

Such disproportionality is vexing and needs to be addressed. To that effect, days after the incident in New Jersey and my discovery that South San Francisco has a licensing requirement, I wrote a letter to the City Council asking that South City’s licensing ordinance be repealed. My letter pointed out the potential racial overtones, the ability to relieve code enforcement and fire department resources, and the simple fact that the law serves no current purpose. Three weeks to the day later, which has to be some sort of record for nonemergency government response, the council took its first vote to repeal the section of South San Francisco’s municipal code dealing with bicycle licensing.

Even with South San Francisco starting its repeal process (the repeal must come back before the council for a second reading), six cities in San Mateo County still have mandatory bicycle licensing on the books: Atherton, Half Moon Bay, Menlo Park, Millbrae, Redwood City and San Bruno. Foster City and Hillsborough have voluntary bicycle licensing.

In these days when leaders are trying to encourage a more-sustainable society with fewer vehicle miles traveled, to ease impacts both on our climate and our roads, barriers to responsible bicycle ownership should be lifted. Moreover, as those same leaders try to promote a racially equitable society, laws that serve no real purpose these days other than to be a pretext to stop someone should be stricken from the books. So, I encourage leaders in those cities that still require bicycle licenses to follow South San Francisco’s lead and repeal obsolete ordinances that both are obstacles to encouraging alternative transportation and prone to abuse.

Twenty-seven years after he last did so regularly, John Baker took up bicycling in 2014 in an effort to save money and get into better shape. By eliminating the need for a second car for his family, he’s done the former but is still working on the latter. Baker is a member of the board of the South San Francisco Unified School District but is not writing on its behalf.

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(11) comments

Wilfred Fernandez Jr

I wish people made more of an effort to make their case more valid. Responsible citizenship demands it. Here is a different account about the incident.

Tommy Tee

Good piece, Mr. Baker.

Dirk van Ulden

Mr. Baker seems in a hurry to join the crowd of self-flagellation in his misguided belief that the Black and Brown demographics are anxiously awaiting his apologies for being White. Mr. Baker somehow cannot find a correlation between the number of Black and Brown bicycle owners and their interaction with the police. Instead he is dragging in their representative resident numbers in the respective cities, a classic apples and oranges comparison. And he is a member of the School Board? Just keep on stoking the racist fire, Mr. Baker!

Mike Harris

Require bicycle and bicycle rider licenses. Rational: Daily while driving a car, I observe bike riders failing to follow the DMV published bicycle rules/laws. When commenting to the riders, all I get is the finger.

It is incumbent on ALL bike riders to be knowledgeable of the rules - and follow them (for safety's sake). As part of licensing, just like getting a drivers license, passing a test should be required (I know, more for the overwhelmed DMV to do).

Getting licensed, knowing the rules and riding within those rules is being a responsible citizen. Be responsible bicycle riders, all the way down to the children.

John Baker

Hello Mike. I don't disagree with the need for cyclists to be cognizant of the rules of the road -- Police still are able to cite a moving violation on a bike as a moving violation, regardless of bicycle registration status. (I do, however, think some some small modifications to the rules for cyclists, such as the Idaho stop, make sense.) In this case, I'm not writing about moving violations: I'm concerned about registration rules ostensibly existing for one purpose being used for less-wholesome purposes, and as a side effect also causing obstacles for transportation mode shift.

Terence Y

So Mr. Baker, you’re implying that cops, just for the heck of it, decided to stop a few kids for the sole reason of checking whether they had bicycle licenses? I find that hard to believe. In NJ, I’m sure cops have plenty of more important things to do than to hassle kids riding their bikes. I’m betting the kids were breaking some law and that was the reason they were stopped. I’m sure if you decided to start riding against traffic, you’d probably be stopped, regardless of what color you are. Assuming you didn’t end up being stopped by some other vehicle. As for licensing, if people are ok with their bikes being stolen and never being returned, or being sold at auction, then do away with the licensing program, otherwise keep the program and make it voluntary.

John Baker

Good morning Terence. I'm saying Pretextual Stops in general are subject to racial bias, so if the pretext for a stop serves no purpose except to serve as a pretext, then why not eliminate it? Surely that's a libertarian point of view. Regarding your comment about registration and theft, if your bicycle is stolen and you provide the serial number to the police, it gets entered into the automated property system, same as if your stereo or computer would be, no need to be compelled by the state to do so ahead of time and be forced to pay a fee to do so. (In addition, there are the non-governmental options mentioned in the op-ed).

Terence Y

Thanks for the info, Mr. Baker. My understanding is that a pretextual stop would be to stop someone for a minor violation, such as to check for a license, and then looking for more serious violations. In your example, it was a stop due to more serious moving violations and not the lack of licensing. More of just a stop, not a pretextual stop.


Thank you John for raising visibility on this matter. Black adults in California are up to 9.7 times more likely to receive a citation for minor local infractions than white adults according to a report by Lawyers’ Committee of Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. San Mateo leads the state in arresting Black folks at a rate of over 7 times the white arrest rate according to the Public Policy Institute of California. BIPOC are disproportionally killed by police in the Bay Area according to a study by the San Jose Merc. I can go on, but you get my point.

Dirk van Ulden

Hello David, would it help in your equity zone if we requested that white folks start committing more crimes? Then you would have nothing to complain about, would you?

Terence Y

DavidP – if your point is that black adults are committing much more infractions than their represented demographic in CA (as CA DOJ statistics would verify), then yes, I get your point. As such, there would be a direct correlation to black adults being disproportionately arrested and unfortunately, being killed by police at rates higher than average.

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