American “Helmet Culture”

Having suitably pimped for the excellent Urban Velo magazine, I can now get into one of the things that really caught my eye: The November 2012 issue, and John Greenfield’s excellent interview with the “pope of urban cycling” Mikael Colville-Andersen. And like the pope, he hails from the Vatican City of Bikeolicism, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Being a bike evangilist in Copenhagen is like being a cheese evangelist in Paris. Lots of choir to preach to. So when I read about Mikael getting irate about our American “obsession” with helmets, well, I think it lacks context. Going on the obligatory rant about why he is a charletan is pointless because he isn’t, and I both respect his expertise and appeeciate his opinion. But the upshot is that he misses the point. If we had Denmark’s bicycle infrastructure and were all nerded up about helmets and Spandex, his comments would be apt. But we don’t. And purposely or not he makes a badly drawn criticism of our dilemma.

The dynamic has alot to do with both the history of America, and the current state of the discussion over transportation. We have a history involving half-baked concepts of “rugged individualism”! Which is a problem now that corporations are people, and they get massive government handouts, but if you are a regular ‘murrikin individual you go without a bike lane and any of that candy-ass shit and strap on a styrofoam helmet and roll the dice. Denmark has, I am sure, plenty of rugged individualists, or maybe more specifically, rugged socialists. They have made a massive committment to public services in all sectors, but you see it in transportation infrastructure immediately and clearly. I have heard that when you buy one car in Denmark, you pay for three. The usage taxes roughly triple the cost of purchasing a car. They have made a committment to socializing the cost of the automobile, and using the proceeds to maintain roads, and diversify transit modes. I saw it firsthand in 2009 and it was a shocke to be on a divided highway, and seeing a parallel bike path over the entire length. As well, it was roughly parallel to a train route.

If you haven’t noticed, the discussion in America is about maintaining the infrastructure we have, or at least it should be. There is a bit of head-in-the-sand going on in the current infantile political morass we are being subjected to. But we can at least pretend that there are adults involved… Whether it is bridge maintenance, paving, safety measures… much of it is either lacking or failing, so improving and diversifying it just doesn’t get onto the radar. This collides with the fact that most Americans who want to ride a bike are doing it on motorways. Those roads are designed for, optimized for, automobile traffic. It is the kind of place where a bicyclist might need to take evasive action, or even lay their bike down. They can be rough, potholed, and if you ride on the shoulder or breakdown kane, strewn with jagged debris. Since most cities have ordanances prohibiting bicycles from sidewalks (a bad place to ride a bike anyway) you are sharing a lane with cars, and often parked cars as well. This can put you into the “door zone”. There, an inattentive driver will flip open their door, right in front of you, and you get a “door prize”, aka a “dooring”. How do you feel about helmets now? You will ride on roads with poorly enforced speed limits, where traffic hits highway speeds in residential neighborhoods. Helmet? What color? Despite your day-glo specialty clothing, which Mikael especially loathes, you are left dodging potholes and texting drivers, stoned teens, golden-agers, and all sorts of fun folks, while trying to predict their behavior and “ride safely”. Visor, or no? Urban cool or road racer style? Why double down on a broken collarbone with a side of TBI if you don’t have to?

So without belaboring the point, there are many reasons why an American bike rider would wear a helmet. Looking past the criticism of the device, the helmet, I am totally fine with the point behind the snark: could we build effective infrastructure for modes like the bicycle or walking, lessening the need for excessive safety equipment, and making those modes more accessible to all? That is a dynamic that has the power to shine through even the densest, sootiest, Scandinavian Smug.

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