What Should Bicycle Advocacy Be Fighting For?

I must be counting on the seasonal spirit of goodwill; but this week’s postings take on two of the more controversial issues in the bicycling community:  the impact of bike lanes and cycle tracks (near-road but physically separated or buffered bikeways) and the value of requiring that all cyclists wear helmets.

The first item (see below) is titled “Bike Lanes, Cycle Tracks, and Being On the Road”, the second, “Helmet Laws – Safety, Freedom, and Public Health”

I will say that while I’m pretty confident of my opinions on the first issue, I’m still working my way through the maze of evidence about the second.  So while I will not enter into a rant- or insult-exchange with people who want to vilify me for my positions, I’m eager to hear what other people think.

Happy Holidays!

Bike Lanes, Cycle Tracks, and Being On the Road

In response to an earlier post, someone wrote me that he appreciates my work, but disagrees with my focus on creating more cycling infrastructure.  He writes that he is “an athletic and experienced” year-round bike commuter using a route with no bicycle facilities.  “This is the norm for suburban commuting, and with a few exceptions will most likely be the norm for the foreseeable future…if you decide to try bicycling, you WILL need to learn how to ride properly in traffic, at least for most portion, if not the majority, of your trip.”

He points out that “bicycle infrastructure designs may be more comforting, but…cycle tracks and obscured (by parked cars) bicycle lanes are one of the most frightening places to ride at high speed, and I refuse to use them.”

The writer is absolutely correct.  If he is going at high speeds he should ride in the street.  And we should never allow laws that forbid him from doing so.

We all owe a great debt to the Vehicular Cyclists who fought for the right to keep bikes on the road at a time when the Interstate was legitimizing a norm of car exclusivity.  But their mantra that “bikes are vehicles,” like the contemporary “same roads, same rules” slogan, has a dangerous implication.  On one hand, it led them to develop valuable “Effective Cycling” lessons about how to drive with traffic which, as the writer points out, is what most of us do most of the time.  On the other hand, it implied that cyclists who could not keep up with cars didn’t belong on the road – meaning that if you weren’t “athletic and experienced” you shouldn’t be on a bike.

And this is where I part company with the Vehicularists.  I will always defend their right to ride among the cars.  That’s often where I ride, too.   But I will fight against their policy suggestions.  In practice, the Vehicularist approach means that if you aren’t in great physical shape and willing to take risks (meaning you are probably young and male), and secure of your status in the societal hierarchy (generally meaning that you are white and relatively affluent) then you have no place in the bicycling community.  I’m sure they don’t intend it this way, but their approach is functionally sexist, racist, and ageist.

Vehicularist thinking ruled the cycling world for several decades and, by opposing the construction of any special cycling amenities, allowed a car-centric society to avoid doing anything to promote non-recreational bike riding.  As public policy, Vehicular Cycling gave us a bicycling mode share that barely hits 1%, a public perception that bikes are recreational toys for kids and weird adults, neglect or even hostility from government decision-makers who therefore created none of the massive educational or enforcement programs that the Vehicularists keep calling for.  Cycling was marginal and weird – which may have been exactly the way a large segment of the bikers liked it.  They were a special, if not privileged, elite.

I have a different starting point and priority than preserving the ability of elite bicyclists to go as fast as they can through city streets – even if I sometimes act that way myself.  In a world where climate change, air and water and noise pollution, and resource limits are pressing issues; where heavy traffic causes neighborhoods to shrink back behind their doors; where lack of physical activity is a major cause of obesity and its associated cornucopia of disabling diseases, where keeping increasingly scarce resources local is necessary for continued economic growth – in such a world, my top priority is transforming the overall nature of our transportation system.  For the sake of people’s health, for the conviviality and safety of our communities, for the sustainability of our environment and economy, I want as many people as possible to use their bikes for as many of their trips as possible – meaning that the typical cyclist will be less fit, go slower over shorter distances, and be enormously less traffic tolerant than today.

So I support doing what it takes to make bicycling mainstream.  I don’t expect to get everyone to use their bike for every trip, just somewhere into the double digit percentages using it for short commutes and everyday activity.   And even getting that level of participation means dealing seriously with the deep traffic intolerance of the vast majority of our population.  Because, contrary to the writer, most people I know “would rather take a longer, slower route if means ‘being safe’ [on their bike].” And that means vastly expanding our network of off-road paths, creating separated or buffered cycle tracks where next-to-road routes are necessary, and putting bike lanes on as many of the remaining busy streets as there is political will to do so.

I agree with the Vehicularists that Education and Enforcement are important components of the six E’s (I add “social equity” to the standard five).  But I think that, in the long run, they are less important that Engineering.  All the evidence shows that if you build it, they will come – if you build roads, you’ll get cars; if you build bike facilities, you’ll get cyclists.

And while the Vehicularists and I happily ride down the middle of the lane, I will be even happier to see the crowds filling the separated bike facilities on the side.  Because at some point, if our numbers become large enough, we will move back onto the roads, not as spandex-cloaked freaks threading our way through motorized killing machines, but as a respected and powerful constituency able to demand that we get our fair share of the public way for ourselves.

For more, see:

Going Mainstream: Overcoming Discouragements To Walking & Bicycling 

Bikes Are Vehicles; But They’re Not Cars


Helmet Laws – Safety, Freedom, and Public Health

I love the Darwin Awards – a wonderful honor (usually bestowed posthumously) on those who improve the human gene pool by removing themselves from it through some idiotic action.

There will always be someone who will do something stupid in almost every situation.  We have a public health responsibility to make it easier, if not automatic, to do the smart thing – which is why cars come with seat belts instead of them being an extra-cost option.  This is not about creating a “nanny-state,” “risk-free society,” or a “stupidity-safe” built environment.  People should always have the freedom to make their own choices, no matter how stupid – so long as they are the only one’s burdened by the consequences of their idiocy and the rest of us don’t have to, for example, subsidize the cost of their long-term medical care through our insurance premiums or taxes.  But to the extent that the decision-making environment is a human creation, which it largely is, we do have a responsibility to shape the landscape so that it tilts towards better choices.

So….what about laws requiring the use of seat belts and motor cycle helmets – both of which I support?   And how are those different from laws requiring bicyclists to wear helmets – which I oppose?

My first thought is that we are actually dealing with three separate issues:  What will help (1) reduce the likelihood of having an accident while driving a car or motorcycle or riding a bike; (2) reduce the severity of injury should an accident occur; and (3) produce the greatest overall societal benefits.

Car Seat Belts: Despite the warnings of libertarian critics, requiring the use of a seat belt doesn’t reduce the likelihood that someone will drive.  The stricter driver testing and retesting requirements needed to reduce the accident rate by raising driver skill levels might have that effect.  Good thing, too – it would make being on the road safer:  car driving accident rates increase as the number of cars and the average miles driven increases.  In fact, the less people drive the healthier our society becomes in several ways – less air and water pollution, less obesity, less noise, less stress-inducing congestion, increased social interaction, and more.

On the other hand, wearing a seat belt significantly reduces the severity of injury should someone be in an accident – a savings not only to society but even more to the person’s family and friends.  So, since I don’t think that driving without a seatbelt is some kind of inalienable or constitutional right, I see no downside to a law requiring their use.

Motorcycle Helmets:  Reducing the number of motorcycle accidents requires improving motorcyclists’ skills (through stricter licensing and retesting requirements as well as experience) and getting car drivers to pay more attention to their presence (which happens through public education campaigns like the ubiquitous “Look Twice” signs and when car drivers become more used to seeing them on the road).  Requiring a helmet might reduce the number of motorcycle drivers.  On the other hand, motorcycling is a relatively dangerous activity and the universal use of helmets might give motorcycling a slightly safer image, thereby increasing the number of people willing to try.   Given the growing number of motorcyclists on the road these days, helmet use does not seem like a significant deterrent, despite the acknowledged pleasure of feeling the wind in your hair.

However, the positive safety impact of increased motorcycle use is countered by its negative impacts on public health, which are the same as, if not worse than, cars – noise, air and water pollution, obesity.

In addition, driving a motorcycle without a helmet is a Darwin-award situation.  The unshielded vulnerability of driving at high speeds makes serious injury almost inevitable should an accident occur.  A helmet, along with properly protective clothing, is the only way to reduce injury severity.

Still, perhaps we ought to provide the option to ride helmetlessly – but only if we can guarantee that the driver bears the full burden of his choices.  Perhaps anyone without a special “injured while motorcycle riding without a helmet” rider on their car, health, and home insurance should personally bear the entire cost of their treatment, or burial.   Unfortunately, even in that case it will be the person’s loved ones who will actually end up bearing the burden, fiscal and emotional – something society has a legitimate interest in preventing.

And therefore, again, since I don’t believe that driving a motorcycle without a helmet is some kind of inalienable or constitutional right, I see no downside to a law requiring their use.  (Personal note:  I used to drive a motor scooter.  And I always wore a helmet.)

Bicycle Helmets:  Bicycling riding is similar, but different.  Recent Boston area data suggest that about 3/4ths of adult cyclists currently wear helmets.  (Current law only requires helmets for riders up to age 16.)  Requiring helmet use can remind people of the potential danger and scare them off.  In addition, putting on a helmet can feel like an annoying burden for a very short ride; having helmet-hair isn’t cool; and it simply feels wonderful to have the air on your head.  Most significantly, as Pete Stidman, of the Boston Cyclists Union, has pointed out:  “If a white, middle class person wanted to run to the local store without a helmet, he might risk getting a warning ticket knowing that it wouldn’t be such a big deal. If that someone is a black teen maybe they wouldn’t feel it was worth the risk of creating another way police can pull them over, and would walk instead. Or maybe the person is a law abider without fail, and they would definitely not ride to the store.”

On the other hand, as with motorcycles, it’s also possible that requiring helmets will create an image of social normality and greater safety that will attract more mainstream riders.  And, as with motorcycles, the more bikes on the road the safer it is for them, in both cases mostly because car drivers get used to their presence.   But the increased presence of motorcycles only makes the streets safer for motorcycles.  Creating space for unmotorized bikes makes cars go slower and makes the streets safer everyone – pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and car drivers.

Rider skill and helmet use are the key factors in reducing the accident rate and the severity of injury for the many bike mishaps that happen while cycling alone.  But when in traffic, even more than wearing a helmet, reducing the speed of traffic is the most important factor in lowering the severity of injury.  We all know the statistics:  if someone is hit by a car going 20 mph they have a 95% chance of survival; if hit by a car going 40 mph – a rather ordinary speed even on small residential streets – the odds of survival drop to 20%.

Bicycling also positively contributes to public health, environmental protection, economic sustainability, and neighborhood cohesion in ways that neither cars nor motorcycles do.  In fact, on a societal scale the positive health impacts of bicycle riding, even if no one wore a helmet, so totally outweigh the risk and cost of the relatively few injuries that policy decision-makers should be constantly looking for ways to get more people on bikes.

Given all this, I believe that the overall social and personal benefits of increased bicycle use means that our top priority should be to get more people to cycle.  This is about a lot more than helmets.  And we should encourage helmet use.  But we should not require it.

How to encourage?  Simply harping on the dangers of cycling may increase helmet use, but scare people away from cycling.  Better to create campaigns that both encourage cycling and make it clear that the best way to bike is to both respect others and yourself by riding safely and wearing a helmet.  Better to create a social environment that takes helmet-wearing as the norm by requiring helmets at all public and organizational bicycle events – as Hub On Wheels, Charles River Wheelmen, MassBike, and others already do.

Best of all is to make it much, much easier for people to own good helmets; this is especially important for kids and adults just (re)learning to bike.  Given the enormous risk-aversive nature of the American public, it is likely that the vast majority of newbies will use helmets — assuming that helmets are easy to get.  Boston’s program of giving subsidized helmets to low-income kids should be expanded to adults and operate through local bike shops and department stores.  City laws should require that all new bikes must be sold with a basic helmet, upgradeable if the buyer desires (and with front and back lights that are also upgradeable).

Ultimately, we need to get to the point where there are so many helmets floating around that they’re not even worth stealing anymore.
Thanks to Pete Stidman of the Boston Cyclist’s Union, Herb Nolan of the Soloman Foundation, and Officer Mike Santry of the Boston Police Department whose ideas sparked this piece.

Related Posts:

What Transportation and Public Health Can Learn From Each Other About Changing Behavior

Is Bicycling The Healthiest Move?

Why Do So Many People Do Such Stupid Things?

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

Take our website survey!