Infrastructure & Environment

Zen & the Art of Bicycling

How can public policies make cycling safer and encourage people to ride more often? Hint: It doesn't involve helmets.
by | October 2005

The classic Amsterdam mom ventures out on her bicycle in rush-hour traffic with a child perched fore and aft--and a bag of groceries in the front basket as well. As she maneuvers through the cars streaming around her, she may also be talking on a cell phone.

In Holland, people laugh about such conduct, or they applaud the mother's cycling skill. After all, she is just one of the thousands of cyclists who use a bicycle to get around in this old but also contemporary city. Similar scenes can be found in Copenhagen, Berlin and our neighbor to the north, Montreal.

But in almost any big American city, such conduct would not be applauded. In fact, the mother might be arrested: Many states and cities prohibit cycling without a helmet.

Amsterdam illustrates a strange paradox: Many state and local governments in the United States encourage or require cyclists, particularly children, to wear helmets. As a result, a far greater percentage of cyclists wear helmets here than in other countries.

At the same time, however, far fewer people in this country cycle as a general means of transportation. And this country has far more people who are fat or obese and suffer the health effects of so being. In addition, cycling in this country, despite greater rates of helmet usage, is probably more dangerous than in other industrialized nations. The United States, for example, appears to have a slightly higher per capita fatality rate for cycling than Holland does, even though about 10 times as many people bicycle in Holland.

What's going on here? There's no question that a cyclist unlucky enough to be in an accident will be safer if he or she is wearing a helmet. But paradoxically, the evidence suggests that stressing or requiring helmets is not the best way for states or local governments to promote cycling or make it safer.

For one thing, helmet use symbolically puts the burden of safety on the shoulders, or rather the head, of the cyclist. While this fits right in with the American ethos of individual responsibility, it's not realistic: It's primarily the conduct of others, particularly the drivers of automobiles and trucks, that ultimately determines a bicyclist's safety.

In Amsterdam and many cities where cycling is common, drivers are taught that a cyclist comes first, both practically and legally. In Holland and most Scandinavian countries, if a driver hits a cyclist, the driver is at fault. Period. The European Union is now working to make this a standard policy in its member countries.

The result is a different attitude. "The cars look out for the bicycles, the bicyclists look out for the cars and everyone looks out for the pedestrians" is how one Amsterdam mother described it to me.

These legal and cultural differences lead to another drawback of leaving bike safety policies solely to helmets: the "safety in numbers" phenomenon. The more people cycle, the more drivers tend to watch out for cyclists and the safer each individual cyclist is. A study by Peter Jacobsen published in Injury Prevention found that when you double the number of cyclists, the risk to each individual cyclist drops by a third. But several studies have found that mandatory helmet laws tend to decrease the number of cyclists, probably because they make cycling less convenient and less fun. "More people are dying because they are not moving than people are dying because they are moving on a bicycle and hit by a car," says Jens E. Pedersen, director of the Danish Cyclist Federation in Copenhagen.

Last, to address the more basic issues in bicycling safety, we need to focus on changing the design of streets and highways, which are too often set up to speed cars along without regard to cyclists or pedestrians. How you can redesign streets is a rich subject with many possibilities.

I'm not telling people who bicycle not to wear helmets. Given how dangerous conditions are in this country, it makes sense to wear a helmet here. But what's a good practice for an individual is not necessarily the basis for good public policy. State and local governments have the power to make cycling both safer and more convenient and should concentrate their attention on the conditions that can advance those goals: Educate drivers; stiffen penalties; encourage cycling as a means of transportation; create more bike lanes and turn some highways into streets. If cities and states work conscientiously on these efforts, in a number of years it may just be possible to sally forth on a bicycle in urban traffic, perhaps even with a child balancing on a set of handlebars--and to do so safely.

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