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Bike rider

Tim Olson, of Verona, with his chihuahua-terrier mix, Bell, in Downtown Madison in 2014. Despite their love for bikes, few people in Madison register them.

So you do your civic duty and register your bicycle with the city of Madison.

Maybe you register even though you’re a college student or an otherwise temporary resident, because city ordinance requires registration of any bike operated on “any public way.”

Maybe you figure filling out a form with information including the bike’s serial number, frame type, model and wheel size is worth the hassle if the $10 you pay for a four-year registration goes toward city efforts to improve an activity that is good for body, soul and environment.

Or maybe you’ve been duped.

In a city with a biking culture so vibrant it’s one of only five American communities to have achieved, in 2015, “platinum” status for bike-friendliness from the League of American Bicyclists, not even the people who control and influence city policies on bicycling bother to register their bikes.

Current, former mayors missing

Absent from the list of about 9,700 people who own one or more of the 13,982 currently registered bicycles in Madison are 19 members of the 20-member City Council, Mayor Paul Soglin and both “bicycle advocate” appointees to the city’s Pedestrian/Bicycle/Motor Vehicle Commission, Grant Foster and Aaron Crandall.

Also missing: Dave Cieslewicz, the former Madison mayor who pushed for Madison to achieve platinum status and started the Ride the Drive event, in which a couple of major arteries are closed to vehicle traffic and opened to bicyclists. After leaving the mayor’s office, Cieslewicz served as executive director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed for four years.

He did not respond to requests for comment.

Foster, who also did not respond to requests for comment, is president of the local bicycling advocacy group Madison Bikes. Of the 17 current and former board members listed on the group’s website, only four showed up on the registry.

Four City Council members — David Ahrens, Paul Skidmore, Sheri Carter and Marsha Rummel — said they either didn’t have bikes or didn’t use them.

Council President Samba Baldeh suggested in an email that he did not know about the registry’s existence, and said he didn’t register his bikes when he had them.

From as far as California

Among those who do have active registrations are registration program coordinator John Rider, Ald. Mark Clear, state Rep. Melissa Sargent and 91-year-old state senator Fred Risser, who has a tradition of celebrating his birthday by riding a mile for every year he’s been alive.

The registry also includes 45 non-Wisconsin registrations from Illinois, 12 from California and 66 from Minnesota.

Rider estimates that only one out of every 10 bicycles that should be registered under the 21-year-old program are registered, although the city also offers some free registrations that aren’t tracked.

Robbie Webber, a Madison Bikes board member and former Madison City Council member, said on Madison Bikes’ Facebook page Wednesday that it had been her understanding registration fees went only to cover Rider’s work, and she let her registration lapse.

“Now I just give the money directly to organizations that are doing safety programs and education (and sometimes bring beer or a dish to pass when the Registration Coordinator is having a cook-out),” she said. “Seems to be more efficient.”

Bicycle advocates not convinced

The city markets bike registration on its website as “a good way to help protect your important means of transportation, recreation and exercise!”

Bicycle advocates, though, have their doubts.

A subcommittee of the Pedestrian/Bicycle/Motor Vehicle Commission determined a few years ago that the police don’t devote many resources to recovering stolen bicycles, Crandall said, and that the registration program was “flawed and inefficient.”

Madison police officer Howard Payne acknowledged that recovering stolen bikes is not as high a priority as, say, investigating violent crime, and that bicycles stolen as part of larger burglaries will probably get more attention than bicycles stolen by themselves.

But “it’s terribly important from a tracking standpoint to have registered that bike,” he said, because being able to find a stolen bike’s serial number in the registry makes it much easier to get the bike back to its rightful owner.

Madison Bikes vice president Harald Kliems, who also is not on the city registration list, said he registers his bikes with a national online registry that allows for the tracking of stolen bikes and parts.

“Identifying and recovering stolen bikes is the only apparent benefit of bicycle registration,” he said. “And for that to work, a registration scheme cannot be only local, as many stolen bikes are sold far from where they were stolen.”

City ordinance also requires bicycle dealers to register the bikes they sell, but Rider said compliance is limited.

What registration

fee covers

Registration costs $10 per bike, or $8 if a family already has two bikes registered at the $10 level. The program generated $18,882 in revenue in 2017 that was deposited into the city’s general fund, according to city finance director David Schmiedicke.

That’s less than the program costs to administer, assistant city attorney Doran Viste said.

Although if Rider is correct about how many Madison bicycles aren’t registered, registering them all would generate some $170,000 more a year.

Rider said those dollars can’t go toward perhaps the most-obvious bike-related need: building and improving bike trails or other basic bicycle infrastructure.

But according to a November 2008 memo from city attorney Michael May, the city could use the money to pay for some of the recommendations in a report released in April 2008 as part of the city’s effort to attain platinum status with the League of American Bicyclists.

Noting that state statutes and case law require municipal fees be spent only on the purposes for which they are charged, May wrote that “the bicycle registration fee appears to be related to safety, bicycle protection and bicyclist education” and that “many of the recommendations in the Platinum Bike Report fall within these categories,” although others do not.

The 94 recommendations in that 76-page report include ones to expand and improve bicycle safety programs for children, increase and make more consistent the police enforcement of traffic laws, and make bike-friendly traffic signal and intersection changes.

That last goal is important to bicycling advocates.

For safety, comfort

In a 2016 Capital Times story about the launch of their group, Foster and Webber, of Madison Bikes, pointed to the need to make bicyclists feel more comfortable and to improve safety on major roads and at intersections.

Viste said “each program/recommendation would have to be looked at separately” to see if it might qualify for registration-fee funding, but added that “we have not, to the best of my knowledge, been asked to provide any such analysis.”

Kliems said Madison Bikes does not have an official position on bike registration, and it’s not high on the group’s list of priorities, but said he believes the city should consider repealing its registration program.

“Instead of creating bureaucratic and financial hurdles to bike ownership, we should encourage and incentivize our citizens to own and ride their bikes,” he said.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.