making cycling more appealing to the masses...

This seems to be a topic that has come up a lot recently in my own experience and looking at bike blogs and thinking about my own experiences with biking and what not... so I thought I would just write down some thoughts about it.

Clearly, these days the price of gas is making cycling a more appealing option for quite a few people, but the price of gas isn't to the point yet where most people are looking at cycling more than just occasionally for trips that are really easy.

I've been reading a lot lately about cycling in other countries, such as Denmark and The Netherlands (as well as other European and Asian countries). There are a number of things that are striking me with regard to bicycle safety and popularity. The first thing that was a really big surprise was how much other countries as a whole actually discourage mandating the use of bicycle helmets. The official position of the EU is against mandating helmets as well. Here is the rationale:

Statistics show that the more people who ride bicycles in a city, the fewer car/bicycle collisions there are. This is for a lot of reasons - people getting more used to driving with bicycles on the road, people driving are more likely to also be cyclists, so they are more aware of the issues from both sides of the table, more bikers means more pressure on the city planners to implement infrastructure which provides safe conditions for bicycles and automobiles.

So, that being the case, the more people you can get out riding bicycles, the safer the situation will become.

Now, regarding bicycle helmets - the rationale I've seen presented against mandating them is this: in terms of safety, helmets have largely been shown to be ineffective in terms of car/bicycle collisions, they are largely meant to help you in the case of a fall or something like that, in which case, most of the time, you land on your arms or legs. That being the case, the benefit of wearing them may be significantly smaller than we think. If people are forced to wear helmets in order to ride bicycles, people won't ride bikes just because they have to wear a helmet. If we try to promote helmet wearing by making people afraid of cycling (that is, by citing all the dangers of cycling), again we will see a noted decrease in the number of people riding bikes, because they will be afraid of it. Things like bicycle rental are made much more difficult if bicycle helmets are required by law. A number of countries looking at having stashes of bikes around their cities available for rental have stalled or canceled their programs because they couldn't find a good way to provide free, clean helmets with the bikes, and their law requires a bicycle helmet to be worn when riding. Some cities, like Washington D.C. apparently, have decided to forgo helmet laws in order to make city-wide bicycle rentals possible.

So the idea is this - if you can get as many people as possible riding bikes, you will end up with less traffic congestion, drivers who are more aware of the issues of driving with bicycles, and more experienced at driving with them, cyclists who are not as fearful of riding, and better infrastructure to accommodate both automobile and bicycle traffic. As the statistics show, this causes the percentage of accidents to actually go down significantly. It seems that the prevailing attitude of cyclists and officials alike in many countries including The Netherlands and Denmark (the two heaviest cycling countries in the world), is that cycling as a whole will be safer if the use of a helmet is not mandated by law and/or encouraged with doom and gloom advertising, but if instead, cycling is promoted very positively and actively, and made as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, to get as many people out riding as possible.

This rationale makes a lot of sense to me - rather than simply mandating a helmet and assuming that will make people safe, work at changing circumstances and peoples' experience and behavior so that they behave more safely.

So - then the question becomes, how do we go about promoting cycling to get more people out on the road?

It seems like in Portland, the people riding bikes around on a daily basis are largely either the "cool kids" who are just riding a bike because it's trendy, or those with more athletic pursuits in mind (dressed in spandex or other types of outdoor gear). The types of bikes people are riding tend to go along with this as well. The "cool kids" ride junkers because it's cool to have a run-down bike, and the others ride road bikes or mountain bikes largely.

I don't have anything against cycling for exercise or as an athletic pursuit - I think that's great for those who choose to pursue it, but I think in order to get more people out on bikes, we have to present it as being more accessible and useful to average, everyday people. Present it as an alternative for grocery shopping, taking the kid(s) to school or daycare, commuting to work, etc.

I have a 3 speed bike, not built for speed at all, and yet I still commute to work on my bike faster than I commute by bus. Because I travel different streets on my bike than I would driving or taking the bus, I don't have to deal nearly as much with traffic, and the time it takes me to get to work is much more consistent from day to day than either driving or taking the bus. The same goes for grocery shopping - plus with bags or baskets on the bike, it's easier to carry groceries back than it is to take them on a bus or walk with them.

We should present cycling as something that can be done in regular clothes, and something that we can have fun at, no matter whether we want to race, ride cross-country, or simply go out for a night on the town.

Any thoughts on making cycling more appealing to people, getting more people out using bikes in the city and not just on bike trails or in parks?


  1. David;
    I sort of agree with your helmet comments. I tend to average about 20 mph on my bike on the level and 30 mph on the downhill. I am NOT the fastest cyclist, being more "average" among those that have decent road bikes and ride alot. At that speed, serious head damage can occur, even in the absence of automobiles. Like Woody Allen, the brain is my second favorite organ, and one that I would prefer to protect. There is no reason why somebody would not want to use a helmet. I've taken a spill several times and hit my head, and so am most grateful for the helmet on my head. The easiest way to make cycling more appealing is to place another gas tax (hopefully to fund cycle lanes!). But, don't remove the obligation for helmets. I don't need any more brain deads in my ER.

  2. A couple of comments -

    it depends on the part of town to some extent, but my guess is that the average bike to work, go grocery shopping, take the kids to daycare commuter in Portland (or most other places) is not going to average 20-40mph riding through Portland unless they are completely disregarding all traffic laws and putting themselves in a lot of danger by doing so.

    I know riding through SE Portland or Downtown, that kind of speed average would be pretty much impossible without a designated route where you were allowed to disregard stop signs/lights, go around or in between traffic, etc (or if you just ignored them anyway).

    If you are going on a ride where you are going to be riding 20-40mph for long stretches, sure, wear a helmet. I'm not saying you shouldn't be able to. I just think overall, I would rather they not be mandated by law (which they aren't currently in Oregon).

    The president of Denmark actually suggested that they should further raise gas prices in Denmark in order to break people of dependence on automobiles - I think politicians in the US explicitly stating that they were going to add gas tax to raise prices would cause an absolute riot in America though (even though we still have relatively low gas prices compared to the rest of the world).

    I'd be happy to add some gas tax though to fund biking infrastructure and perhaps further subsidize public transit systems (it would be great to have free public transit for people who can't afford to own cars).

    Except then we'd have even more complaints that cyclists aren't paying for our infrastructure.