Find of the Month

July 2018 - Regulating bicycles


Questions regarding licensing and regulating bicycles in Seattle have resurfaced periodically since the late 1800s. One relevant piece of legislation, Ordinance 68990, was passed on February 6, 1939, amending the license code to require registration and license plates for bikes. Related clerk files contain letters sent in both protest and support of the legislation, giving a glimpse into a debate of the time that still resonates today.

In addition to licensing and registration requirements, the ordinance declared certain bicycling acts unlawful, such as riding without a bell or lights, and carrying riders on handlebars. Penalties for not complying ranged from fines to time in jail.

Also considered for the ordinance was a clause stipulating cyclists be permitted to ride on sidewalks. It was this topic in particular that inspired most of the letters. “I feel that legal sanction of this practice will bring about a condition highly dangerous to small children who might be using sidewalks in front of their homes, particularly where there are hedges or shrubs limiting visibility,” wrote one resident. A letter in support of allowing the practice reads: “We have never heard of a pedestrian...being hurt or killed by a bicycle on the sidewalk—but oh! the tragedies that occur when a bicycle meets a motorist on the street!” Another letter in support struck a compromising tone: “Why not make it a misdemeanor if a cyclist does not dismount when meeting or passing a pedestrian on the sidewalk. With the bicycles licensed, an offender’s name can easily be obtained.”

The final version of the ordinance did not include any language about riding on sidewalks. The licensing requirement was repealed in 1948 at the urging of the Chief of Police, who instead advocated for a voluntary registration program.