Cycling elegance, sans helmet?

Cyclists, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL
Cyclists, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL

“…many European researchers say the test of a mature bike-sharing program is when women outnumber men.”

NY Times, Sept 2012.

From the Article: To Encourage Biking Cities Forget About Helmets

The other day I was aghast to read that Melbourne’s Bicycle Scheme is losing money.

Aghast because at what point is a public bicycle scheme about profiteering? Is it not about amenity, reducing traffic congestion, improving public health through incidental exercise, reducing environmental impacts, perhaps saving travel time and generally promoting health and well being. And to look good doing it!

Cycling commuting must be the most under-rated of elegant activities known to the public. So maybe what we need to make it work is more women riding bikes!

Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL
Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL

The Melbourne Bike Scheme reports that it is moving to supply free helmets with each bike (at the additional cost of $13,000 over 3 months) instead of referring users to purchase a subsidised helmet at a nearby retailer or users bringing their own, in an attempt to encourage use of the system. There of course will be thefts, but that problem has been seen to reduce in volume over time in other systems.

Helmets are excellent safety devices but happen not to add to the elegant aesthetic of a person cruising around, hair flowing on a bicycle.

Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL
Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL

In France (the spiritual home of cycling these days, but maybe not bicycles, that spiritual home is better left to the Italians), you are not obliged to wear a helmet, be that urban commuting or sports cycling. Yet, many sports cyclists choose to wear a helmet whilst urban commuters do not.

For a short ~6 minute documentary “Paris: Velo Liberte” on the Parisienne Velib system narrated by none other than Brad Pitt for the e2 Transport series, click here.

In Amsterdam, the city of bicycles with cycling evident in its DNA, blood and perhaps even hydroponic tulips, you don’t need to wear a helmet either.

Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL
Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL

General Information and High-level Policy Info on Amsterdam Cycling here.

Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL
Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL

Bicycle Death Statistics in Amsterdam here.

Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL
Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL

Blog: “Bike Accident Deaths in Amsterdam. And Murders.” Toby Sterling.

Flash and dash, Amsterdam style.
Flash and dash, Amsterdam style.

Follow up by Toby Sterling – “With all the bikes in Holland and hardly anybody wearing helmets how many people get hurt or killed here while biking?” : “Bike Injuries and Deaths in the Netherlands”.

New York, San Francisco, Chicago are other cities working hard to encourage more urban cycling through the provision of public bicycle schemes.

So what is it about Amsterdam that has seen it so successful as a cycling city plus have successful bike schemes plus have a low rate of injury per cyclist?

The key reasons are:
– Topography, Amsterdam is a small city, compact and quite flat.
– In 1970 Amsterdammers voted in favour of bicycles over cars and city planners went to work to reduce the use of cars through infrastructure changes, reducing speed limits and increasing parking costs.

From a planning perspective, this article provides further detail.

Cyclists, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL
Cyclists, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL

Returning to Melbourne for a moment, recently the Heart Foundation and Cycling Promotion Fund completed a survey of women in regards to their thoughts and views on cycling.

Some of the reported reasons preventing women from cycling were:
– Lack of confidence in cycling ability
– Lack of time
– Speed / Volume of Traffic
– Getting hot and sweaty/ having to wear special clothes
– Looking naff*
– Aggression / abuse from other road users
– Lack of bike paths/lanes
– Being involved in an accident

And it stated that: “The overwhelming majority of women agree that government should improve cycling facilities by providing more bike paths and/or lanes. This is consistent with having more bike lanes and off-road cycling paths that would entice more women to ride.”

In addition: “Women generally feel having more as well as separate bike paths to cycle on would entice women to cycle more.”

*Note that “looking naff” was completely fictitious.

Raining? Use an umbrella.
Raining? Use an umbrella.

So it is not climate, weather, lack of availability, lack of access, or not because men do it and look like a bunch of superheroes on Beach Rd either.

The report also found that 86% of those surveyed felt it is socially acceptable for women to ride a bike but around 82% of respondents said it is hard for women to cycle in skirts and dresses.

So, back to the helmet thing. Mr Piet De Jong has come up with a risk analysis test [] to represent the helmet versus public health debate and created a formula to assist decision making.

Generally, given all other things being equal (stated just as in economic text books everywhere) if helmets deter bicycle usage in a cycling safe jurisdiction, an unintended negative health impact is likely reaped.

So essentially it is a balance between taking into account the probability of an accident per person cycling, adding in the health costs of dealing with these accidents and then offsetting this against the improved and gained health, economic, social, transport, amenity and sustainability aspects of more people cycling more often. Given the right conditions the overwhelming result is that putting forward an optional helmet system in a safe environment gets more people on bikes.

In essence, helmets are about reducing the impacts of trauma when one has an accident, they don’t actually prevent accidents from occurring.

So, if we focus on getting the infrastructure right (cycle paths and foot paths separated and separate from roads, more street space allocated to bicycle use and less to car parking and vehicle roadways), have supporting laws and regulations that put the onus on drivers to protect pedestrians and cyclists safety, provide education and awareness campaigns, and support it with an effective public bicycle scheme, we will have a better chance at achieving more people cycling and realisation of improved public health.

What’s this got to do with ladies on bikes? Well, considering that ladies total more than half the population, and half the male population is on Beach Rd before 6am, then it seems that the rest of the roadways are free for use to confidently go about the business of commuting safely. And if we can get more women riding bikes, the overall benefit to the community is far greater. Sounds good to me!

Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL
Cyclist, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, NL

To finish off the excerpt from the NY Times at the start of this post, it goes on to say:

“In the Netherlands, 52 percent of riders are women.

Instead of promoting helmet use, European cycling advocates say, cities should be setting up safer bike lanes to slow traffic or divert it entirely from downtown areas.

“Riding in New York or Australia is like running with the bulls — it’s all young males,” says Julian Ferguson, a spokesman for the European Cyclists’ Federation. And that’s in part what makes it dangerous.

(Many European countries do require helmet use for children.)“

If you’d like to read about how Amsterdam tackled their car city and turned it into a biking mecca, take a look at this article from San Francisco, it has some amazing before and after photos of Amsterdam in which you might see hints of Melbourne. This really is an excellent article worth reading.

2. “The health impact of mandatory bicycle helmet laws”
3. “Amsterdam is responding to growing number of cyclists”
6. (taking back amsterdam’s roads – good example for Melbourne)
7. “Evidence on Why Bike-Friendly Cities Are Safer for All Road Users”
18. “It’s not just about bike lanes”
19. e2 Series Episode: Transport – Paris: Velo Liberte

Published by marlonquinn

Marlon Quinn Love of the sea Freedom of movement Simple Living

2 thoughts on “Cycling elegance, sans helmet?

  1. Illustrations of cyclists in Vondel Park tell us nothing about cycling in general.

    Amsterdammers have been cycling in Vondel Park since the 1890s or earlier, decades before there were significant numbers of cyclists on the streets of that city.

    1. The Vondelpark is an interesting example, but perhaps there are other images to associate with this article John to represent cycling in general? The images in this instance were selected for their representation of the aesthetic of helmet-less and lycra-less riders.

      As an aside, to see the Vondelpark first-hand and observe the smooth flow of runners, walkers, cyclists (sports and commuter), roller-bladers, skateboarders and other park users on shared non-delineated pathways is quite impressive. Is there an equivalent example to the Vondelpark in Australia?

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