Two years ago, I was quoted by a Star Tribune reporter saying that I do not wear a helmet while bicycling because I don’t want the activity to appear dangerous or scary. “I just want it to be seen as something that a normal person can do. You don’t need special gear. You just get on a bike and you just go.” (“King of the road,” Aug. 7, 2012.)
This issue has been a struggle for me, because I used to believe in helmets. But when I went to northern Europe to understand how a city can become bicycle-friendly, I was struck by how few people wear helmets when biking.
My research revealed that there are many causes for head injuries, including slipping while showering, walking down a sidewalk, falling off a ladder and being in a car accident. I began to question why I would wear a helmet while bicycling, if I was not willing to do so during these other everyday activities.
In Australia and New Zealand, helmet laws have had no effect on the already-declining numbers of head injuries in bicyclists, but they have been shown to reduce the number of people bicycling.
This is unfortunate, because people who use a bicycle increase average life span by months due to health benefits, and they only reduce it by days due to traffic collisions. And research in Minneapolis and around the world has shown that bicycling becomes safer as more people bicycle.
This is even true for children. In the United States, the rate of child head injuries did not decrease after bicycle helmet use increased threefold during the 1990s. But as in those Down Under countries, the number of children bicycling did decrease. That has a real effect on kids’ long-term health.
I understand why many people wear helmets when bicycling: It feels uncomfortable on busy streets. But I also understand something else: Most people in Minneapolis don’t bicycle regularly. Which brings me to the question that is more pertinent than: “To wear a helmet or not wear a helmet?”
“To bicycle or not to bicycle?” That should be the question.
In a place like Minneapolis, where the city has a goal of 15 percent of residents biking to work by the year 2020, more and more people should be able to answer that question with a resounding “Bicycle!”
Achieving that goal requires at least four things:
1) Our streets need to be rebalanced so that cars have less priority. Ever since the mid-20th century, when beautiful boulevard trees were removed to widen a network of Minneapolis streets, cars have been king. This has come at the expense of pedestrians, transit and bicycles. Travel times for walking, busing and bicycling have gone up, and neighborhoods and business districts have been divided by walls of traffic.
2) Our streets need to be designed for safety and comfort for everyone from kids to grandparents. People need to feel safe when they ride a bicycle down a busy street. A painted white bike-lane line will not comfort most people, but bike lanes protected by physical barriers and highlighted with green paint at intersections will.
3) More people need to be educated on how to ride a bicycle with confidence and how to drive safely around bicyclists. How can you ride predictably and follow traffic laws on a bicycle? And how can you avoid being hit by motorists who aren’t looking for bikes? I have seen many bicycle riders (and motorists) behave unpredictably and dangerously on the street, and this is oftentimes the result of a lack of education.
4) Bicycling needs to be a year-round activity. Minneapolis has a great start in this area, with a robust network of off-street paths that are plowed in the winter. But plowing for bicycles (and pedestrians and transit users) needs to extend to our streets. Minneapolis is a winter city, and there is no reason to stop bicycling just because it snows.
Bicycling can be a normal, everyday activity. It can be an equal part of a balanced transportation network, where all modes of travel have priority. The bicycle is a healthy and fun choice for short trips around the city, and with a bit more effort, it can become convenient and safer as well — with or without a helmet.
Shaun Murphy is the former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Minneapolis Public Works Department.