Chicago is in the process of selecting where to locate some 300 racks for its new bike-sharing program, delayed until Spring 2013 by politics (which will come as no surprise to any true Chicagoan).
Modeled after similar programs in Canada and Europe, the bike-share program is simple. The racks are stocked with rental bikes. Swipe your credit card, take a bike. Rent it here, leave it there. As a year-around cyclist myself, I think it’s a grand idea. Everyone wins: daily exercise for the cyclist, less traffic on the streets, reduced air pollution, diminished road rage, and we’ll all be more civilized.
The bicycles themselves are quite heavy and virtually indestructible, as you might expect since they’re designed for constant use by all sorts of bikers. They’re equipped with wide tires and are single-geared, which means you can’t go particularly fast on one, a definite safety feature. You’ll never be able to race against that commuting cyclist, dressed and flying like a juiced-up Tour De France rider, whizzing past on a multispeed titanium shouting “Left! Left!” and expecting you to clear a path. On your rented city bike, as you contentedly engage in a healthful and ecologically sound means of transport, just smile and mutter “Slow and steady wins the race” and enjoy yourself.
Enter the helmet
One serious issue facing the success of this whole project is the bike helmet. Let’s face it, from early childhood we’ve been conditioned to wear one. So, let’s say you spot one of the new bike racks and say, “Wow! This is a perfect moment to rent one of those bikes,” but then you stop, thinking, “Uh-oh, no helmet.” What do you do? Miss out and keep walking? Take your life in your hands and cycle helmet-free?
If you take a look at photos of commuting cyclists in Copenhagen–or in London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and other cities where bike share-programs are in full force–none of the cyclists is helmeted. The number of bicycle injuries and fatal accidents in these bicycle-heavy cities is extremely low and there’s been no call for mandatory-helmet legislation. And yet here in the US, to cycle without a helmet is considered foolhardy, a way to risk life and limb. Helmets have so thoroughly penetrated our culture that you rarely see cyclists in this country, whether in the city or meandering a peaceful traffic-free rural bike, path without a helmet.
Since part of my reason for writing this health tip is to promote the benefits of city cycling, let’s bring up a recent New York Times piece. It’s all about the helmet issue and it’s especially timely because New York is also starting a bike-share program. The article points out that “helmet nannying” has made Americans phobic about cycling. There’s real concern that these marvelous new shared bikes will go unused because people are either fearful of city cycling or won’t have a helmet handy. The point of the article is that people really don’t need helmets, especially if riders are willing to stay in bike lanes and obey the usual traffic rules while riding these slower, heavier bikes.
I agree with the author, partly. My reticence has to do with the bikes many of us are riding, which, given the way we use them, do require helmets. Unfortunately, over the years bike dealers and manufacturers have been selling us the wrong bike for urban transportation. Most of us own lightweight bikes, with racing-style handlebars and multiple gears, great for racing or biking up the Smoky Mountains, but totally inappropriate for safe city cycling. Unless you’re really careful about your speed, you’ll be the one shouting “Left! Left!” to pedestrians and slower cyclists. Increased speed also limits your ability to stop in time if a car door opens or a truck makes a right turn in front of you without signalling.
Going fast on these faster bikes, serious collisions are possible, though the accidents probably could be avoided in the first place by biking more slowly. Bike fast and you’ll be glad you’re helmeted.
I cycle everywhere
I do own a car but almost never use it in the city. I loathe city driving and, as anyone living here knows, traffic, always dreadful, is worse than ever. Stalled in an endless line of fumy vehicles, sitting immobilized, staring over the dashboard, I resent the precious minutes and hours lost forever. At least on a bike I’m doing something.
Those who see me coming and going from WholeHealth Chicago or out grocery shopping, picking up my dry cleaning, or checking out a new used bookstore virtually always see me on a bike. (Yes, that’s my baguette from Treasure Island protruding from my saddlebag. No, I don’t wear a beret.) And I do cycle year-round–Siberia Chicago and Calcutta Chicago–for pleasure and transportation. My bike is virtually identical to the ones you’ll see for rent in Chicago next spring. Speed is definitely not its strong suit. It’s about as lightweight as a Volkswagen. And I don’t wear a helmet.
Interestingly, one of the conclusions of the New York Times article was that on a worldwide basis the promotion of helmet laws is actually bad for your health. Endless badgering from assorted government agencies that everyone should wear a helmet has only managed to frighten untold millions from cycling in their cities, keeping people more inactive than ever. You know, of course, that the US has the highest obesity rate among all developing countries. You may not know that we’re now sitting and staring at a screen of some kind (TV, computer, phone) more than eight hours a day. Sitting, eating, burning no calories.
Do you see how the mandatory helmet finger-wagging might be bad for your health?
Ponder these case studies:
- Melbourne, Australia, a city with flat and open streets (and the third highest obesity rate of the developed countries) initiated a bike sharing program with a mandatory helmet law and averaged just 150 riders a day.
- Across the world in Dublin, with its narrow cobbled streets, a similar program without a helmet law brought forth 5,000 riders daily, reducing traffic congestion and pollution dramatically.
What I suggest is that Mayor Rahm Emanuel continue to add safe bike lanes to our city, as he’s promised, and on a nice day next spring you locate one of the new rental racks and take a bike out for a spin. If it’s been years since you’ve been on a bike, ride the traffic-free lakefront path until you feel tired and then turn around.
You’ll discover in this adventure that you haven’t forgotten how to ride and that you need a helmet about as much as you need one for walking down a flight of stairs or getting into the bathtub. Enjoy the breeze through your hair…
David Edelberg, MD