Why the Dutch Don’t Wear Bike Helmets: Building Safety Into The Road

It’s not because they’re stupid.  Or because they don’t care about safety for themselves or the kids perches on open seats on top of the handlebars.  I recently traveled in Denmark and the Netherlands and I think I found the answer:  they don’t ride in the road.  More accurately: when traffic is heavy, bicyclists ride in their own roads.

In addition to extensive networks of off-road paths (with separate lanes for walkers and cyclists), most busy urban streets have been divided into four distinct roadways – one for pedestrians, one for cyclists, one for buses and trolleys, and one for cars and trucks.  As much as possible, each of the four roadways is physically separate from the others, with curbs or medians or “bollards”, or even rows of parked cars keeping the uses apart.  Combined with extensive subway and train networks, the cities have an effective and highly integrated transportation system.

This doesn’t mean that cyclists can’t also ride in the car lanes if they feel capable of keeping up with the cars.  And the physically separated “protected bike lanes” or “cycle tracks” are only installed where traffic is heavy or fast.  Everyone shares the same roadway in residential areas and other places where even “traffic intolerant” bicyclists would feel comfortable in the street.

(In fact, some towns are also creating “shared spaces” where everyone shares the same unmarked and undifferentiated surface – with the caveat that everyone has to move at walking speed and the heavier your vehicle the more you are legally responsible for the safety of those around you.)

At downtown intersections, where all the vehicle-specific roadways come together, each has its own traffic lights and pavement markings.  And the different sets of lights are timed and located so that priority is always given to bicyclists or pedestrians, then to public transportation, and finally to cars.  Since cars are capable of causing more damage than bikes or bodies, car drivers are considered legally responsible for staying out of the others’ way, so cars have to go slow.  Prioritizing leg-power over motor-power changes the feel of smaller streets as well.  Nearly ubiquitous traffic calming slows cars down to about 20 mph and makes walking and cycling feel safe for everyone from young children to the elderly.

Of course, the presence of multiple roadways means that you have to look both ways multiple times when crossing the street – which takes some getting used to!

Does all this work?  The elimination of traffic stress has transformed cycling into a mainstream activity.  Nearly 30% of Copenhagen’s population commutes to work by bike.  And because of the widespread transit system, people don’t have to bike 30 or 50 miles down the highway in each direction, turning commuting into a sweaty endurance event only suitable for the very fit.  They ride a bike from home to the suburban train station, leave it there, take the train into the city, pick up their second bike from the huge bike parking facility located there, then bike the short distance to their jobs.  A typical family might have one car but five to ten bikes!

(Of course, this means that people ride low-cost, low-tech, and amazingly sturdy bikes that can be left outdoors all winter – their weather is no better than ours.  Most city bikes are old-fashioned three-speeds, many with coaster-pedal brakes, but solidly constructed.  People spend more on their bike locks than on the bikes!)

And this approach to traffic engineering also improves safety.  In the years since the oil embargo of 1973 convinced Europe that they couldn’t rely on an oil-dependent future and they began turning away from car-centric development, bicycle usage has consistently climbed.  But the number of accidents has dropped – not just as a percentage of the growing numbers but absolutely!

More cyclists, but fewer fatalities.  European traffic engineers feel it is both because of road design and because the more cyclists there are the more car drivers (who are usually also cyclists or whose children or parents are cyclists) learn to expect them.  When I mentioned to my hosts that their bike riders seemed to push through intersections just as aggressively as those in the United States, they replied “but that’s the way cyclists are – it’s the car driver’s job to anticipate it!”

Which brings us back to bike helmets.  Not only are the roads safer, people travel slower.  Cycling at 8 or 10 mph in an environment which gives you priority is a very different risk than trying to get down Mass Ave during rush hour.  So not only don’t people feel they need bike helmets in the city, they also feel totally comfortable letting their kids hang off the front, back, and sides of the “family bike.”

To be honest, European bike advocates I talked to said that wearing a helmet was safer and most of them do, along with a growing number of others.  And people who were heading out of the city for long rides or to race, wearing spandex and riding fancy bikes, did seem to wear helmets.  But advocates were generally opposed to requiring or even recommending helmets on the grounds that it would discourage many people from cycling and the most important source of safety is the cultural climate and political clout created by having large numbers of people using their bikes.

The foundation for safety, I finally learned, is less about what the bicyclist is wearing than how the streets are laid-out and traffic is controlled.  A helmet protects you from the consequences of an accident.  Good traffic engineering prevents the accident from happening in the first place.  I will continue to wear my helmet in Boston, but I am now clear about what it will take to make this the world-class cycling city that the Mayor has promised.

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