CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

The Helmeted Cyclist as an “Indicator Species”

There are some striking passages in the new “Cycling in the Netherlands” report (via David Hembrow).

Wearing a bicycle helmet for daily trips is unusual in the Netherlands. Only competitive cyclists or mountain bikers tend to wear a helmet for their sport. Some parents give young children bicycle helmets. Usually the helmet is simply packed away for good before the offspring are 10 years old. There is certainly no support for mandatory helmeting. The fear exists that making it mandatory would cause a drop in bicycle use.

Sound dangerous? No, the reverse.

To talk about the relationship of bike helmets to safety is, it seems, to approach the situation in the wrong way. A useful analogy, I think, is to consider the presence or absence of certain species of birds in our environment. The near-disappearance of the peregrine falcon several decades ago was, it turned out, an indicator of the presence of toxic contaminants in our midst (it wasn’t just a bird problem, it was a human problem); we addressed the problem (somewhat), and the falcons returned. Conversely, the appearance of a flock of bike helmets could be read as a sign of safe and responsible individual behavior, or it could represent a species under attack in an unsustainable environment. To take another example, various species of woodpeckers have been on the decline, not just because of habitat loss, but because of the decline of natural processes, like fire, that give them the habitat they need. There too is a metaphor for cycling culture — without habitat, without the right habitat, a species won’t thrive. Given the Netherlands’ experience, helmets matter rather little — much more important are facilities, riders, enforcement, incentives, and the broader culture comprised of these things.

There’s all sorts of other interesting stuff in the report; e.g., this passage:

Most children are taught to ride a bicycle by their parents or a brother or sister at a very early age. This is less apparent amongst the growing of migrant population. Traditionally the bicycle is not part of Turkish or Moroccan culture. Often the parents cannot ride a bicycle, so no suitable bicycles are available in the household. In large cities with many migrants, extra attention is thus devoted to cycling skills in primary school. To ensure that all children gain cycling experience, the Amsterdam municipality makes bicycles available to schools, for instance. In a number of cities cycling courses for migrant women are also held. They can then master cycling in a protected environment. Many participants enjoy this as an opportunity to develop more skills.

The city giving bikes to schools — amazing! Here (in NYC) we read about community resistance to bike lanes so as not to interrupt the smooth vehicular conveyance of children to schools, typically in oversized vehicles that themselves are a threat to the urban environment.

This entry was posted on Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 1:10 pm and is filed under Bicycles, Cyclists, Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
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May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
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June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
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June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
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June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
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July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
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August 12-14
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Royal Automobile Club
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Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
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American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
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April 17, 2012
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January 30, 2013
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January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

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ISL Engineering
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Australian Road Summit
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New York State Association of
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