Friday, July 24, 2009

How do you promote cycling?

... or the only safe citizen is one that's scared shitless!

On the way to work this morning I saw an advertisement posted just as I entered the Skytrain Station at VCC that read: "I don’t think I’ll need a helmet today – just cycling for a short distance," with the web address '' below. You don't have to be Steven King to catch the implied; be afraid -- be very afraid message. Since I normally commute by bike (my poor bike needs a new rear hub) I don't usually get to see these promotions. I had to know who these people were.

Their web site says this: "A registered non-profit organization, The Community is governed by a board of directors representing organizations including the BCAA Traffic Safety Foundation, Insurance Bureau of Canada, London Drugs Ltd., BC Ministry of Labour and Citizens’ Services, Pacific Blue Cross, TELUS and WorkSafeBC. In addition, The Community’s work is made possible through the financial and in-kind support of over 30 other companies and organizations."

The list of supporters seems to be a general collections of safety minded organizations, medical associations and groups who generally have some involvement in our health and well being (BC Coronor et al). Sounds Ok doesn't it.

A search for articles relating to helmets brings up a varied collection of stuff that cheers on (with a nice dash of scaring the bejesus out of you) the wearing of helmets when cycling, skateboarding, and ice skating but interestingly states, "helmets are NOT to be worn when on playgrounds, as loose straps may lead to strangulations." You mean they are not the be-all-and-end-all word on safety? The rest of the site is one fear-mongering tactic after another. Promoting physical health through emotional terrorism. How anyone could overcome their fear and want to particpate in any activity after sifting through this site is beyond me.

These articles are not designed to inspire a rational appreciation of risk or an honest discussion of the facts as their response to a post in the Vancouver Province by someone daring to challange the status quo on cycle helemts shows when they retort: "Research has shown that bicycle helmets, if worn appropriately, reduces the risk of injury by 88%." Oh gawd, not that one again.

Although you can very easily find the facts on this oft regurgitated little stat, I'll let Mikael at do he honours: "Virtually every bike helmet advocacy group out there quote the same statistic like it was carved in stone. They repeat it endlessly, like a broken record. No advocates question it - it is merely The Truth.

The statistic in question is that "cycle helmets prevent 85% of head injuries and 88% of brain injuries". This 'fact' is the foundation on which all bike helmet advocacy and helmet law advocacy is based upon. The populations of entire cities and states have legislation in place based on this 'fact'. This statistic dictates the lives of millions of people. Some websites try to tone it down a bit by writing things like "up to 85%" or "around 85%", but the message is the same."

"It originates from a small study in Seattle back in 1987, romantically entitled: A case-control study of the effectiveness of bicycle safety helmets - Thompson, Rivara & Thompson. New England Journal of Medicine 1989, Vol 320 No 21 p1361-7."

Those who have taken the trouble to analyse the paper in detail, however, have found it to be seriously flawed and its conclusions untenable."

"What? Sorry? Untenable? But it is The Truth! All studies since this infamous one have shown less or NO benefit from helmet usage. The guys who wrote that study should be in marketing, branding toxic waste as tasty and healthy."

"They've done their job well. Never mind that it was a flawed study with little merit on a scientific level! It's an impressive statistic. Just start quoting it and hope that nobody checks up on it. And nobody has, by the looks of it."

And clearly the oh-so-caring people at couldn't be bothered. Nor were they bothered to mention that in a British study (that has not been condemned as scientific lunacy by the rest of the scientific community) states that only 1 in 350 emergency admissions to hospital are due to any kind of cycling injury. Around 1 in 1,000 are due to head injury. How's that for just tossing out numbers. It should also be noted that the majority of those are children under the age of 15 and they more often then not involve a motor vehicle. And remember bicycle helmets are not designed or tested to deal with the impact of a motor vehicle -- in fact they are not rated to withstand anything more than a standstill drop at less than 20 kph for which they can not guarantee anything more than protection from minor cuts and bruises. If they are tested at all. Or how about the fact that scientists have estimated that it would take 3000 years of average cycling to suffer a serious head injury (helmeted or not). I'm sure they shy away from mentioning in their fund raising material things like, the British Medical Association has estimated the health-benefit to risk ratio of cycling to be 20 to 1. 20 to 1! That's better than almost any other human activity we undertake and it kicks the crap out of driving or being a passenger in a car and even walking. Yes, you are more likely to sustain an injury -- head or otherwise -- as a pedestrian than as a cyclist.

Well in London England they have decided that real science has merit. Not only have they come to the conclusion -- againts heavy pressure from pro helmet advocacy groups (not to mention the multi-billion dollar helmet industry) -- that cycling is healthy and safe for individuals as well as beneficial environmentally and financially for society as a whole, but they have also realized that you can't promote cycling with fear. You can promote cycling or helmets; you can't do both.

So here is how they have decided to get you on your bike:

Now that makes me want to ride!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cyclists unite!!

This article by John Gibbons was published in the Irish Times this past month.

I usually feel the need to steel myself when I see another piece about cycling appear in the media. They are more often than not uninformed, apologetic on behalf of motorists and littered with poorly veiled scaremongering regarding the over-blown and often invented dangers of cycling. Not so here.

Although he writes about Ireland everything he says is applicable across the cycling world -- especially right here in British Columbia where my sense is that the fight for cycling justice is just heating up. Read it and feel refreshed.

Cyclists unite - you have nothing to lose but your chains.

The seemingly irreversible long-term decline of the bicycle may at last have been arrested, writes JOHN GIBBONS .

‘WHEN I see an adult on a bicycle”, wrote HG Wells, “I no longer despair for the human race.” When asked to choose the world’s most important inventions since 1800, three in five respondents to a BBC radio poll picked the bicycle.

Although a product of the Victorian era, it has a timeless quality. The humble bike is arguably the most efficient machine ever invented.

What other device allows a person to move three or four times more quickly than walking, for the same modest effort?

In an age of energy profligacy, the bicycle is a bewitchingly efficient device. Learning to ride a bike is one of life’s great rites of passage. The expression of unbridled delight and pride on my five-year-old’s face last summer when she first learned how to master her bike was priceless. As adults, most of us can still vividly recall our own two-wheeled independence day.

In 1986, some 23,600 children cycled to primary school. Just 20 years later, that number had plummeted by 83 per cent to just 4,000. The decline in bike usage among children transfers directly into adult life. Today, fewer than one in 50 Irish adults commute by bike. Two wheels good, four wheels better?

Rising prosperity led to huge increases in car ownership and usage; this in turn made the roads feel more threatening for those who still chose to cycle. Many parents began to insist on driving their children to school, even for very short journeys. This means yet more cars on the road, and even less room for bikes – a vicious cycle, if you will.

And let’s be honest: since cars are often as much about displaying wealth and status as a means of transportation, cycling is on the lowest rung of the pecking order. For years, the argument has been that if you have the money, buy a car. If you’re an adult on a bike, out in all weather, you must either be broke or a bit eccentric.

Even public transport seems part of the problem; there is no provision whatever on Iarnr√≥d √Čireann’s new intercity trains or urban rail systems for bicycles. Little thought has gone into integrating cyclists with public transport. Clearly, few planners and even fewer politicians actually cycle. Bicycles actually increase the catchment area for public transport nine-fold, so the gains from joined-up thinking are truly dramatic.

The wheel may, however, be now turning. In the last five years, the number of cyclists in Dublin city grew by 30 per cent; the seemingly irreversible long-term decline of the bicycle may at last have been arrested.

Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey clearly thinks so. His department published the first ever National Cycle Framework Policy (NCFP) earlier this year. Dempsey aims to have 10 per cent of all commuting done by bike in 2020. What’s equally clear is that a multiplicity of factors killed off the bike, and only what the NCFP calls “strong interventions” can reverse these.

A major roadblock is the persistent notion that cycling is dangerous. The British Medical Association calculates that its health benefits far outweigh any hazards cyclists face on the road.

A Danish study found 40 per cent lower premature mortality rates among adult cyclists than their car-bound counterparts.

Lifestyles dominated by the car are not just a health risk to car users; traffic is the number one cause of air pollution in urban areas, while over a fifth of Ireland’s total CO2 emissions are from transport. Then there’s the traffic noise, danger and congestion that are an unfortunate feature of urban living.

As more and more people are feeling the financial pinch, switching even some of your journeys to a bike will save a packet. Regular cycling also provides all the exercise needed to stay fit and keep the flab at bay. Cyclists also shine at work, with lower absenteeism, better timekeeping and improved mental alertness.

Probably the biggest obstacle towards cycling is the attitude of some other road users. Impatience and lack of awareness on the part of drivers (including so-called professionals such as bus and taxi drivers) greatly adds to the sense of hazard for cyclists. In Scandinavia and Germany, a “hierarchy of care” places the onus on motorists to drive cautiously around vulnerable road users. After all, cyclists don’t kill truckers, so the legal duty of care must reflect this inequality of risk.

The other great enemy of road safety is speed. In order for cyclists to use roads safely (many, including Road Safety Authority chairman Gay Byrne, object to cycle lanes, which are often badly designed and maintained) we need to reduce the urban speed limit to 30km/h.

It will require serious political cojones to take on the car lobby, yet it can be done. Every day, half a million people cycle to schools and work in Copenhagen, a city that 40 years ago was as car-choked as Dublin. Cycling is now seen as chic and cars are just not that cool.

Cycling is also innately sociable. I recently found myself striking up a conversation on the street with a fellow cyclist – Dr Mike McKillen of the Dublin Cycling Campaign, as it transpired. That simply doesn’t happen when you’re in a car.

In the words of author Iris Murdoch: “Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times