Weekly Reading: Be Sure to Bring a Helmet to the Bike Helmet Debate

Maybe it was the recent roll out of Citibike in New York. Or perhaps it was fall out from the excellent and exhaustive article in Bicycling Magazine by Bainbridge Island writer Bruce Barcott about how most of today's helmets do very little to protect riders from concussions. (PDF of the article is available here, from Barcott's blog) Or the Bike Helmet Safety Institute's rebuttal. But whatever the reason, the debate about bike helmets seems to have intensified during the last week.

Everyone from fashion bloggers (warning: slightly off-color headline, but good article), to writers at The Stranger (both con and pro), to the Washington Post, to Atlantic Cities have been unpacking the data over whether helmets make people safer while riding.

Holding down the anti-helmet end of the debate is Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize. Passionate, funny and articulate, Mikael has argued against mandated helmet laws. His great frustration is that he believes that these mandates--whether intentionally or not--are stifling cycling culture in favor of a culture of fear. He looks at the data and attempts to erode the strength of the evidence evidence used by policy makers backing mandatory helmet laws.

No one can make the case better than Mikael himself, so please check out his TED talk below.

This week Mikael's case may have been bolstered by those who have been his most trusted debaters: the public health community. Thanks in part to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the federal government has withdrawn it's long-standing claim that bike helmets are 85% effective. As WABA report:

In 1989, a study in Seattle estimated that helmets prevent 85% of head injuries. Efforts to replicate those results during the 1990s confirmed that helmets reduce injuries, but not nearly as much as the Seattle study suggested.

So the wall for anti-helmet advocates just got a bit smaller, but why should we care?

Here's why: everyone wants cycling to be safe and convenient. These two camps diverge on how to achieve those goals. The advocates against mandatory helmet laws take the stance that empirically-proven measures like safe, separated infrastructure and a critical mass of riders make riding in the city safer. Pro-helmet advocates don't discount those arguments or dispute the data. However, they make the case that, at least in the US, we don't have either of those elements yet, making helmets a prudent addition to the urban cyclist's attire.

Enter Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog, reflecting on the new data and taking a nuanced stance regarding helmets and the launch of Puget Sound Bike Share in 2014, which will be one of the first bike share operations to have rental helmets due our mandatory helmet law. Tom writes:

There are serious concerns that King County’s all-ages helmet law could have a negative impact on use of the upcoming Puget Sound Bike Share system. Bike share is dependent on people choosing spontaneously to use the system for a short trip here or there. But it is very unlikely that many potential users will carry a helmet with them at all times. PSBS and vendor-operator Alta Bike Share have plans for a helmet vending solution, but this has not yet been successfully implemented anywhere in the world and will add cost to the system and individual users. This cost and reduced ridership due to the helmet law was factored into the system’s plan.

I do not actually care a whole lot about the helmet debate outside of the context of bike share. I choose to wear a helmet, and while I am not a supporter of helmet laws, it’s really not that hard to keep a helmet with your personal bike. There are much more important bike safety issues facing Seattle, like investing in safe bike facilities and encouraging the use of bike lights at night.

But bike share could revolutionize the way Seattle gets around. Our city is perfectly set up for it, with express transit routes moving people into urban centers where people are often dropped off within a short bike ride to their destinations.

That’s why the city/county should modify the bike helmet law for adults (not children). There is very little political will to repeal the law, but there is room for a compromise: Make it a secondary offense (or maybe even make it a secondary offense for bike share users only). Adults who are biking safely and obeying all traffic laws are not a public safety hazard, either to themselves or others. The city should support the success and safety of bike share by doing what they can to encourage the highest use of the system possible. Again: Safety in numbers is 100 percent certain to lower the collision rate for people on bikes.

The compromise here is that people who are not obeying traffic laws and are biking dangerously would get double-ticketed if they do so without a helmet on. So this law change would put an extra emphasis on lawful, safe riding while also allowing bike share to flourish. That’s a politically-palatable win-win that I think most people can agree on.


Despite 70 percent support among New Yorkers, when Citibike rolled out there were still loud howls amongst certain quarters against the program. The most prominent of these detractors was the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, particularly the Pulitzer-prize winning Dorothy Rabinowitz, who, now infamously, observed that "The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise."

Twitter responded, of course, with it's newest handle: @BicycleLobby.

Copenhagen: The Cold Cycle

There’s nothing like a family vacation to drop one’s guard a bit and see things from new and interesting perspectives.  Over the winter holidays, my family and I traveled to Copenhagen to fetch our oldest son after his six-month college foreign study ended. The trip provided a great chance to look at four European capitals and to see how they handle bike transportation issues. America's non-motorized advocacy community often laments that our cities do not have infrastructure systems like European cities or that when they do invest in non-motorized infrastructure the bicycle lane remains empty while the culture seems stuck in the 1950s; this was finally a chance to see what "they" do, and maybe form a couple of opinions about how it might work here.

Why can't we be like them?

In 30 years of practice as a non-motorized transportation planner, I have heard almost nonstop from the urban design community – and to a lesser degree from transportation planners – about the remarkable resurgence of bicycling in Copenhagen, particularly the 33% share of commuting done by bike and the series of “cycle tracks” (physically separated bicycle lanes) that accommodate these many thousands of Copenhagen cyclists.

Witnessing it first hand is a powerful experience. While we scurried about the city, the temperature never got above 19F, so instead of seeing tens of thousands of cyclists every day, we merely saw thousands.  It became natural for me to compare our two cities and cultures and to reflect on whether the American urban design community has considered certain distinctive but highly influential differences - in our physical stting, our legal environment for cycling, and even in our cultural approaches to bicycling.

They're just like us, only different...

The riders of Copenhagen struck me as vastly different from American riders.  It’s hard to describe the Danes as “bicyclists” in the same context as American bike commuters.  First, the bikes that the Danes ride are simple and often in relatively poor mechanical condition. Admittedly, when your commute is as flat as billiard table you don’t need much. Still, in a town as self-assuredly cool as Copenhagen, one doesn’t see fancy bikes or hipsters on “fixies.”  In fact, bike theft is seen by residents as a major problem in town and riding fancy bikes is seen by some as an invitation to trouble.  Most bikes are relatively inexpensive - what our experienced riders here might dismissively refer to as "department store bikes."

That stands in stark contrast to our daily downtown commuters in most US cities.  Here we see well-maintained, well-equipped bikes with indexed shifting, triple chainrings, waterproof panniers and riders in full racing regalia; commutes for 8-plus miles one way are common. In Copehagen, we see office workers in full-length wool coats and knee-boots, with rarely a cleated shoe or helmet in sight. Here, riders spin in low gears and move at 16-18 mph on our avenues, hills, and boulevards; in Copenhagen, it is rare to see someone riding more than 10-12 mph.

Advocacy vs Avocation

Our bike culture is one of avocational cyclists – those who ride for the enjoyment, fitness or environmental consciousness that accompanies riding a bike in an auto-dominated environment.  Riding in such an environment requires skill, preparation, and dedication – a certain pride in survival seems a natural by-product for our urban riders.

For the Danes, the bike is not avocational, but rather it is instrumental: a simple, efficient tool to get to work, which may be why it all works so well for so many practical-minded Danes.

Why does this matter? If we are to truly “Copenhagenize” cities like Seattle, we would need to change the transportation system framework in a manner that will cause the very individuals and organizations who have dedicated themselves to creating a better environment for bicycling in Seattle to take serious pause.  Thirty years of dedicated advocacy work is hard to change, without a clear sense of what could be gained or lost.

More on that in the next post.