19 October 2018

Enrigester--ou Laissez-Faire?

Woonsocket, Rhode Island claims it's "la ville plus francaise aux Etats-Unis": the most French city in the United States. In one sense, that's true:  An estimated 46 percent  of its residents  are of French or French-Canadian heritage. It's believed that proportion is higher in Woonsocket (Don't you just love saying that name?) than in any other US municipality.  Moreover, the city is home to the American-French Genealogical Society.

But of all cities in the States, the one with the most French influence is undoubtedly New Orleans.  You can see it in the food, architecture, street names and the pace of life:  Gallic joie de vivre combined with Southern languor.  And while other US states are divided into counties, Louisiana, where New Orleans is located, consists of parishes:  a remnant of the region's French Catholic colonial past.  For that matter, the city's and state's codes bear more semblance to France's (or Quebec's) Civil Codes than to the Common Law-derived jurisprudence found in the rest of America.

Interestingly, it seems that the former colony and the former coloniser could go in opposite directions, at least in one area of bicycle policy.

Yesterday, "N'awlins" (All right, I'm a New Yorker but I don't say "Noo Yawk".  So this is the last time I'll pronounce New Orleans as a contraction!) announced that bicycle registration is no longer mandatory--except for rental bicycles.  The city will still offer registration; however, it will be voluntary and the fee will rise from $3 to $5 on New Year's Day.

What spurred the change, according to local advocates, is the $1000 in fines levied against musician Kevin Louis when he rode his "raggedy old" bike to buy a pack of cigarettes in the wee hours of morning.  Others have suggested, though, that the process for registering too often proved to be cumbersome, especially for those who couldn't provide a sales receipt or other proof of purchase for their wheels.  Examples include bikes purchased at yard sales or passed down between family members or friends--or, say, a bike someone gave away when he or she was moving.

But I believe there are also other reasons for the repeal.  One is the laissez-faire Southern attitude.  Remember, the city and state are deep in a part of the nation where the Second Amendment (or, at least a particular interpretation of it) is as sacred a document as the Gospels or the book of Leviticus.  People there really don't like governments telling them what to do; for them, having to register anything reeks of "Big Brother."

A more legitimate argument, however, was raised by other people.  Whenever any jurisdiction implements bike registration, a stated purpose is invariably to combat bike theft.  Registration supposedly deters at least some thieves, and makes it more likely that stolen bikes will be returned to their owners.

While there is no way to verify the first claim, one would expect that registration might deter casual thieves or "crimes of opportunity".  On the other hand, while some bikes in New Orleans and other places have been returned as a result of registration, the chances that you will ever see your bike again if it's nicked is depressingly small.

Yet, another jurisdiction--a nation, in fact--is making the arguments about theft deterrence and returning stolen bikes as it proposes a bike registration program.  It's part of a Plan Velo that, if implemented, would take effect in France in 2020.  Each frame would be marked with a number registered in a national database, much as motor vehicles are.

Other parts of the plan include installing secure bicycle parking facilities at SNCF (the French national rail system) stations, creating more widespread networks of bicycle lanes, offering employer-disbursed incentives for employees who ride their bikes to work.  (Similar subsidies are offered for those who use mass transit.)  It also would provide for bicycle classes in elementary schools.

While few doubt that building infrastructure and offering financial incentives could entice some commuters out of their cars and onto bikes, it's legitimate to question whether bicycle registration will actually help, as its proponents claim, to curb bicycle theft.  In fairness, some people, especially in cities, might be more willing to pedal to work if they felt confident they would still have their bikes at the end of the work day.

It's always interesting to see what happens when nations and their former colonies forge very different solutions to a problem.  Could 64 million French people really not be wrong?  Or do 393,292  folks in The Big Easy have the right idea?

What would they do in Woonsocket?

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