Today I was working at a health fair at a large employer in Milwaukee and a few people gave me some grief about riding my bike without wearing a helmet. Then I got home from work and read Dottie’s post on “Lets Go Ride a Bike” in which she was criticized today for not wearing a helmet.
I frequently hear this same criticism from strangers as well as friends and colleagues. Some people rant at me that it is inherently unsafe to ride a bike without wearing a helmet. Other people accuse that as the Milwaukee Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, it is my responsibility to set the safest example for others to follow.
Yet I actually made a conscious choice to stop wearing a helmet for most of my riding precisely because I am the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator. It was not out of laziness. It was not out of vanity.
Before I go any further, let me say that I do NOT advise that other people should ride without a helmet. In fact, often I DO advise people to wear helmets. I still wear a helmet in many instances.
But it is not my personal hope or professional goal to get more people wearing helmets. I want to get more people riding bicycles because I believe it will create a happier, healthier, economically stronger, more vibrant and livable city. I believe that in order to get more people bicycling, we need to make it more attractive and convenient and remove the myth that it is dangerous.
While statistics vary, pretty much every study shows that your chance of dying from obesogenic illnesses like heart disease (1 in 5) or in a motor vehicle (1 in 84) are much greater than riding a bicycle (1 in 5,000). Then consider that not only is riding a bicycle more than 500 times safer than driving a car, it can also reduce your risk of dying from the number one cause of death, heart disease. It seems pretty clear that if people made transportation choices based on concerns for personal safety and health they should ride bikes and stay out or cars. But they don’t, why?
People drive cars because they have been sold on the idea that they are attractive and convenient. Car companies use traditional advertising techniques to sell driving as attractive, even sexy and tough. Buy this car and you will be just like this super models preening in these leather seats. Drive our car and you will become a care-free hipster cranking tunes with their friends. Get this truck and people will mistake you for a muscle-bound oil roughneck or rancher. Those are the messages people are inundated with.
Why don’t people ride bikes more? Bicycling has been sold in the US as something you need to change clothes to do and that is not convenient. What if instead of using sexy super models going out to dinner in their Cadillac, Toyota showed people putting on a fire-retardant suits, helmets and strapping into a 5-point safety harness before they drove off to the movies? I doubt that ad campaign would sell a single Camery. But that is how bicycling has been sold, even during bike to work week campaigns: Bike to Work, but wear a helmet and a safety vest because it is dangerous.
The places where people ride bicycles the most, they ride in regular clothes and mostly don’t wear helmets. In places like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Beijing, New Delhi, etc. bicycles are used for 25% to 50% of all trips and you will be hard pressed to find anyone wearing a helmet.
Furthermore, in the places where mandatory helmet laws are passed, bicycle use generally goes down. According to Carpenter & Stehr, Intended and Unintended Effects of Youth Bicycle Helmet Laws:“Over 20 states have adopted laws requiring youths to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. We confirm previous research indicating that these laws reduced fatalities and increased helmet use, but we also show that the laws significantly reduced youth bicycling.”
So if I want to get more people riding bikes, I need to work to make it more convenient. One way to do this is to add more bicycle facilities like bike lanes, trails, parking racks, bicycle boulevards etc. But no matter how many trails the City puts in, most people will not ride their bikes to work or to the restaurant if they think they have to change into hi-vis lycra and put on a helmet to do it safely.
So my New Years resolution was to do more to set an example of how anyone can ride a bike almost anywhere, no matter what they are wearing. I resolved to dress better at work by mixing vintage with new and to ride without a helmet more often. I don’t have to wear a suit to work as much as I do, but I do it to set an example (and because I enjoy wearing nice clothes).
Now I’m no supermodel, and I don’t make a bunch of money, so it is a little difficult for me to build a brand image that people will want to identify with. But I can at least set an example that most people can relate to. And I don’t think most people relate well to tight bike shorts and lycra.