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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cycling Culture Differences

Sitting in the office cafeteria the other day with Sara-the-Intern, we had the following conversation:

"I don't like cycling."
"But why do you bike to work?"
"It's faster than walking, and cheaper than transit."

So there, there are many women in Germany who dislike cycling, and yet ride their bikes to work. Conversely, there are many women in Mountain View (an arguably better place for cycling year round) who won't even consider cycling to work.

When asked why, most women would say that it's just too dangerous, even if they lived close enough to work to do so. But Munich is just as dangerous --- the bike paths have intersection conflicts that will drive most American League Cycling Instructors wild.

The big difference is in perception --- very few utility/commuters in Munich wear helmets. Cycling to the average person, is no different than walking --- you wouldn't wear a helmet to walk, even if the statistics tells you otherwise. (In fact, if you believe the statistics, you should wear a helmet when driving your car --- head injuries are a common cause of serious disability in car accidents!)

The minute cycling perception shifts to: it's so dangerous to ride a bike that you must wear a helmet, then most women give up cycling. Not just because it's dangerous, but also because wearing a helmet will screw up your hair, which many women know is a no-no, even if they refuse to admit to that little bit of vanity. The resulting reduction in the number of women cycling (by darn near 100%, if you compare the number of women cyclists on the road in Munich versus women cyclists in Mountain View) does eventually make cycling more dangeous, because the easiest way to reduce cycling accidents is to make cycling more popular!

I've heard this opinion articulated before, but living in Munich has really driven it home to me --- it's not uncommon here to see a woman go out on a date on a bicycle --- complete with high heels, making up, and dresses, and of course no helmet. By making cycling seem dangerous, cycling safety advocates and helmet advocates have really made cycling more dangerous for everyone, even those of us who do wear helmets. The irony is rich, and I wish I knew what to do about it.


Unknown said...

I think you're giving too much credit to helmets for differences in the perception of cycling safety. I also think you're giving too much credit to perception of safety for differences in the use of cycling as utility transportation.

I believe the roots of car culture in suburban America are much deeper than bike helmets. The layout of cities, the visual appearance of roads, the cultural symbolism of the automobile, and the sheer inertia of tradition are all huge factors. I think helmet advocacy is at most a tiny part of that picture, and probably caused by those other factors more than it causes them.

For example, the introduction of seat belts and all kinds of automotive safety campaigns didn't cause everyone (or even women) to stop driving because it's dangerous.

For someone already living in car culture, who is already paying the costs, driving is simply the best way (maybe the only way) to get around in America, just as cycling is simply the best way (maybe the only reasonable way) for your intern friend to get to work in Munich, helmets or no helmets.

ark said...

Nice post Piaw! really hit the spot!

Johannes said...

Nice post! I agree with you on this one, pretty much. There's also cause and effect in the other direction, I think: People think something is dangerous simply because they're not used to it, and conversely they live with risks that they face daily without worrying. Never mind that driving around in a car is more dangerous than activity X - still, somehow people are accustomed to the car so they assume that the unknown X is worse. When someone tells me that snowboarding is dangerous, I usually reply that I'm more likely to die on the road to the slope than while snowboarding. This kinda puts things back into perspective.

Piaw Na said...

Dan, I don't think I'm exaggerating the impact of helmets. Here's why: if you made every cyclist in Munich wear a helmet, all women would stop. This is supported by the case in Australia:, where girls stopped cycling once helmet laws were introduced.

In Mountain View, a little company named Google made this (unintended) experiment. It supplied plenty of bikes for intra-campus transportation, but made checking out a helmet cumbersome (you had to go talk to a receptionist). The result --- most people rode without helmets, and the number of women cyclists on the Google campus is co-equal.

Sara Adams said...

Sara, the intern, here. Ok, so I admit, I don't wear a helmet when I cycle. And I admit that I probably wouldn't bike (as much) if I had to wear a helmet. Ah, vanity, isn't it great?

Sara Adams said...

By the way, the day after I got back to Oxford (about a week after my last post), I bought a helmet. Your blog entry made me reconsider.

Piaw Na said...

I hope that wearing a helmet doesn't make you ride less! The British Medical Association study found that those who rode 60 miles a week from age 35 added 2 years to their life expectancy (attribution)