Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
In countries where bicycling is routine, people rarely wear helmets. In America, where automobiles dominate, pedalers sport protection.
It's been a long, hard winter in the United States, and in cities like New York, even the most intrepid cold-weather cyclists have been thwarted by icy roads and piles of slush.
To psych us up for warmer days to come, Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms combed through his extensive archive to put together a cyclist highlight reel. It includes scenes from Copenhagen. Groningen in the Netherlands, New York, Minneapolis, Hangzhou, China, Washington, D.C., and several others.
The short video amply demonstrates the universal appeal of biking. But Eckerson notes, one dramatic contrast is evident as soon as you watch just a few clips. In countries where bicycling is a routine form of transportation, with widespread, well-connected, and protected infrastructure, people rarely wear helmets. In U.S. cities, where automobiles still dominate and bike lanes are a relative novelty, the majority of people on bikes sport head protection. (There are other differences in riding style that you will see as well.)
Watching the film reminded me of a conversation I had a few years back with a Dutch friend who was living in New York for a couple of years. She told me that when she first arrived in the city, she was very perplexed to see so many people on bikes wearing helmets and wondered if the city's residents were particularly inept on two wheels. "I wanted to ask, do you all fall down a lot when you are riding?" she told me.
It didn't take long for her to figure out why so many New Yorkers are helmet users. They pedal in perpetual fear of being knocked over by the cars that speed by and constantly encroach on their space. I know, because I have ridden these streets all my life. The only place in the entire state of New York where I feel okay without a helmet is Fire Island, where no cars are allowed. My Dutch friend bought her first ever to use while she lived here.
There are several ways to crunch the numbers on Dutch cycling injury and fatality rates, and the helmet debate will likely never end. Indeed, the Dutch Road Institute for Safety makes a case for increased helmet usage, especially among children. But as it is, helmet use among everyday riders is almost nonexistent, and yet serious injuries and fatalities for cyclists in the Netherlands are very low, as are all road fatalities (total traffic-related fatalities are 3.9 per 100,000 inhabitants per year, as opposed to 10.4 in the U.S.). The average Dutch person travels 2.5 kilometers per day by bike, and bicycles are used for nearly a quarter of all journeys there - and 35 percent of trip under 7.5 kilometers.
Will cities in the United States ever be a place where you can ride comfortably without protective headgear? Is that something the nation should even be aspiring to? The Danes and the Dutch sure make it look nice.