Scardy Cats and Supermodels Should Ride Bikes

Today I was working at a health fair at a large employer in Milwaukee and a few people gave me some grief about riding my bike without wearing a helmet. Then I got home from work and read Dottie’s post on “Lets Go Ride a Bike” in which she was criticized today for not wearing a helmet.

I frequently hear this same criticism from strangers as well as friends and colleagues. Some people rant at me that it is inherently unsafe to ride a bike without wearing a helmet. Other people accuse that as the Milwaukee Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, it is my responsibility to set the safest example for others to follow.

Yet I actually made a conscious choice to stop wearing a helmet for most of my riding precisely because I am the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator.  It was not out of laziness.  It was not out of vanity.

Who can most people (not most cyclists) relate to: This guy?

Before I go any further, let me say that I do NOT advise that other people should ride without a helmet.  In fact, often I DO advise people to wear helmets. I still wear a helmet in many instances.

But it is not my personal hope or professional goal to get more people wearing helmets. I want to get more people riding bicycles because I believe it will create a happier, healthier, economically stronger, more vibrant and livable city.  I believe that in order to get more people bicycling, we need to make it more attractive and convenient and remove the myth that it is dangerous.

While statistics vary, pretty much every study shows that your chance of dying from obesogenic illnesses like heart disease (1 in 5)  or in a motor vehicle (1 in 84) are much greater than riding a bicycle (1 in 5,000). Then consider that not only is riding a bicycle more than 500 times safer than driving a car, it can also reduce your risk of dying from the number one cause of death, heart disease. It seems pretty clear that if people made transportation choices based on concerns for personal safety and health they should ride bikes and stay out or cars.  But they don’t, why?

People drive cars because they have been sold on the idea that they are attractive and convenient.  Car companies use traditional advertising techniques to sell driving as attractive, even sexy and tough. Buy this car and you will be just like this super models preening in these leather seats. Drive our car and you will become a care-free hipster cranking tunes with their friends. Get this truck and people will mistake you for a muscle-bound oil roughneck or rancher. Those are the messages people are inundated with.

Why don’t people ride bikes more?  Bicycling has been sold in the US as something you need to change clothes to do and that is not convenient.  What if instead of using sexy super models going out to dinner in their Cadillac, Toyota showed people  putting on a fire-retardant suits, helmets and strapping into a 5-point safety harness before they drove off to the movies?  I doubt that ad campaign would sell a single Camery.  But that is how bicycling has been sold, even during bike to work week campaigns: Bike to Work, but wear a helmet and a safety vest because it is dangerous.

Or this guy? I think most people see this and think "That's cool for you, but I don't wanna be in that club."

The places where people ride bicycles the most, they ride in regular clothes and mostly don’t wear helmets.  In places like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Beijing, New Delhi, etc. bicycles are used for 25% to 50% of all trips and you will be hard pressed to find anyone wearing a helmet.

Furthermore, in the places where mandatory helmet laws are passed, bicycle use generally goes down. According to Carpenter & Stehr, Intended and Unintended Effects of Youth Bicycle Helmet Laws:

“Over 20 states have adopted laws requiring youths to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. We confirm previous research indicating that these laws reduced fatalities and increased helmet use, but we also show that the laws significantly reduced youth bicycling.”

So if I want to get more people riding bikes, I need to work to make it more convenient.  One way to do this is to add more bicycle facilities like bike lanes, trails, parking racks, bicycle boulevards etc.  But no matter how many trails the City puts in, most people will not ride their bikes to work or to the restaurant if they think they have to change into hi-vis lycra and put on a helmet to do it safely.

So my New Years resolution was to do more to set an example of how anyone can ride a bike almost anywhere, no matter what they are wearing. I resolved to dress better at work by mixing vintage with new and to ride without a helmet more often.  I don’t have to wear a suit to work as much as I do, but I do it to set an example (and because I enjoy wearing nice clothes).

Now I’m no supermodel, and I don’t make a bunch of money, so it is a little difficult for me to build a brand image that people will want to identify with.  But I can at least set an example that most people can relate to.  And I don’t think most people relate well to tight bike shorts and lycra.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

29 thoughts on “Scardy Cats and Supermodels Should Ride Bikes

  1. Great write-up Dave. I also don’t typically wear a helmet while biking to work, although I never go without when I go on a training ride on my road bike or while I’m mountain biking off road. A big difference is speed, as on my road bike I’ll typically be riding 20+ mph as opposed to the 12 mph I average while commuting. There was a story done a few years back that talked about how cars actually give non-helmet wearers more room when passing than those wearing helmets. Not that I’m promoting non-helmet use, but there can be arguments made either way, and I agree that at this point the most important thing is to get more people biking.

    • I agree. Like I said, I usually suggest people wear helmets if they ask. I am not doing so for the very specific reasons I wrote about here. I do wear one when riding in suburban or rural areas as those roads have a much higher fatal crash rate than Milwaukee streets.

  2. Great post! I’m finding that in some parts of Canada, not only do people expect cyclists to wear a helmet, there now expecting you to wear a reflective vest or jacket.

  3. I love what you have to say in this piece. I sold my car this year and resolved to ride just about every day. I am almost fifty and somewhat of a putz. So I crash from time to time. This has taught me both to be cautious and to wear a helmet and gloves regardless of the toll on my hair. I am thinking about adding elbow pads as well!! Mostly I love that bike riding has brought me back to life – I feel as if I have reconnected with the world, the sun, wind rain and the entire universe. I feel really alive again.

    • Wow! That is awesome that you sold your car and feel reconnected with the world. I used to ride by this old guy at a bus stop on my way to work and every morning he would lean out and sing opera to me. I love those connections.

      BTW, I am 48 or “almost 50″ too.

  4. I get your point, Dave. I have never bought lycra or any clothing designed for *bicycling* – ordinary clothing is fine. Ordinary clothing likes protection, too, and that’s what leg straps are for.

    It would be unfortunate, tho, if bicycle commuting became the recommended helmet-free experience. Maybe some routes, like that gorgeous ride along the lake front on former rail tracks – I use that or the marsupial whenever I go north.

    But for commuting I wear a helmet because my route is S. First Street – not a pretty place to fall.

    • Soldier on Bill. I’m glad you are out there pedalling. I won’t go into the whole Hoan Bridge issue here, but I will say we are working on the Bay View to Downtown Connector in our office right now. We hope to have it done next year.

      • Oh, David, you know that’s a sore point. The route picked by WisDOT is not the route the City, the bicyclists, or the public wanted – on the Hoan. Finish it if you must, but it duplicates the easy-biking parts of First Street, and has some hazards I’ve pointed out in the past. Let’s get real, on the Hoan, helmet or not.

  5. I think it’s important to note that in places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, they don’t just *tell* people it’s safe to ride a bicycle, they construct the built environment to make it *feel* safe for even the lowest common denominator of people. And, in fact, the Netherlands has the best traffic safety record in the world for all road users. There simply is no reason to wear a helmet in an environment like that. The risk of injury on a bicycle is even more minuscule than it is here, and specifically risk of an injury to the top of the head is just so remote as to be laughable.

    That being said, I really appreciate more people in the U.S. beginning to have a rational view of helmet usage and what the *actual* benefits are – that it is really a minimal safety measure, and that the way you ride, and the supporting law and infrastructure are much more important safety measures. Thanks for adding a voice to the discussion, and helping to break down all the crazy hysteria surrounding helmet usage. Cheers!

    • Very crucial use of the word “feel.” I completely agree. Our new bike plan includes things like cycletracks, raised bike lanes and bicycle boulevards. All of those are facilities that should not only feel safer and attract more timid cyclsits, but also actually improve safety. Everything we have done has helped so far. As I mentioned in an earlier post, bike use is up over 300% in Milwaukee over the last 5 years and our crash rate is down 75% as well.

  6. “Why don’t people ride bikes more? Bicycling has been sold in the US as something you need to change clothes to do and that is not convenient.”

    “Bike to Work, but wear a helmet and a safety vest because it is dangerous.”

    I disagree Dave. It’s my opinion that our built environment says more to people than any advert – we respond to our environment. For example, there is a set of doors at the Milwaukee Center that I just can’t stand. When leaving the center, there is a handle on the door that one actually needs to push to get out. ‘Door Handle’ says “pull me”, but pulling on that door doesn’t move a d@mn thing – poor design.

    Similarly, roads in MKE are poorly designed for PEOPLE (walkers and cyclists), they are designed for CARS. We build roads that are flat, wide and devoid of obstructions (trees, interesting artwork, etc). When driving, it feels like we should be moving 40 mph as opposed to the stated limit of 25 – 30mph. Also, local roads in MKE are poorly maintained – smooth pavement is certainly not the norm. With that combination, who wants to ride a bike on that?

    Cars FLY by me everyday down S 1st easily doing upwards of 45 mph – do I want to take my son down that OR even contemplate a family ride? Heck no. The unfortunate reality is that when I want to take him to the Betty Brinn Museum or anything else downtown, we drive.

    But back to your practice of promoting cycling by dressing for success – this is Milwaukee, Dave. If you want to relate to the commoner, perhaps wearing Packer zubas, muscle shirt and a foam cheesehead would play to the audience… :)

    • Too many things to respond to here, so I will pick a few:

      “roads in MKE are poorly designed for PEOPLE (walkers and cyclists), they are designed for CARS.” – Not entirely true. Milwaukee has a WAY better sidewalk network that most cities in Europe and many great bike cities in the US. Motorists don’t yield to peds when they should, but this is not an engineering problem, it is an enforcement, education and encouragement problem.

      “our built environment says more to people than any advert ” – Built environment is certainly important. That is what I try to fix at work. Encouragement is what I try to do here.

      I don’t follow ball sports, but I do deer hunt. I can’t wear mossy oak camo at work though.

      And don’t get me started on zubaz…

  7. I lived in Amsterdam for 20 years and it is true that there are a lot of bikelanes and there is safety in numbers. Also all the people who drive cars there are bicyclists as well, so there is more respect for each other. I think it’s more a question of how confident you are on your bike and at what speed you want to ride. If you are not confident or want to ride at high speed, wear a helmet. When I see video’s of Americans on a bike commute to work it’s almost if most of them are competing in a race. Slow down and you don’t need that helmet. I have been riding bikes all over the world (not yet in America) but at the slow speed I’m going I’m not going to wear a helmet ever. Just get the numbers up.

  8. Pingback: Mucho Milwaukee » Blog Archive » Packers! Earthquakes! Tasteful Biking outfits!

  9. I have to agree with those who say that our transportation infrastructure is not meant for bicycles, and I’m not sure I’d advocate commuters skip the helmet in most cases. I commuted by bike to work for 9+ years here in Seattle (I now work mostly at home) and I didn’t ride without a helmet or reflective gear, and this is a bike-friendly city. Half of my 7.5-mile ride was on a very nice bike trail that one could safely ride without a helmet, but the other half of the ride required a helmet, reflective gear and good lights. This was especially true in the Nov – April timeframe when it’s rainy and dark, and half the ride didn’t have a dedicated bike lane per se. I even got hit while in the crosswalk, but of course, getting hit by a car (or crazy spandex riders) can happen anywhere. Dave, you should work on some kind of map with symbols that show which streets could “safely” been ridden without a helmet, those streets where it’s 50/50 and those streets that definitely require a helmet. Use a little bike helmet with a slash through it for the “good” streets, a half helmet for the borderline ones and a full helmet for those where you should wear one. That kind of guidance would make more sense than telling people it’s generally OK to commute to work without a helmet.

    • Hey Tim,

      I think you missed main point #1: Bicycling is already safer than driving a car, even with airbags, crash bars and seat belts. People ought to wear helmets in cars too, but they don’t. People in cars would be safer if they wore helmets. People on bikes would probably be safer too. People who gave up alcohol and using the elevator would be safer too. How much safety do you want brother?

      • No, I don’t want to get into that kind of endless loop discussion as I’ve had those before. ;) It leads to discussion about why even require the wearing of seatbelts, or motorcycle helmets, etc., as we should be the owners of our own fate, etc. There are times I don’t wear my helmet, such as riding 6 blocks to the grocery store and then there are times when I realize I’m going to be on roads that aren’t meant for bikes or the hazards probably outweigh the risks. And that’s kind of my point; that wearing a helmet isn’t such a bad idea. And btw, the first paragraph of your study cited says this concerning the benefits of helmet use: “We
        confirm previous research indicating that these laws reduced fatalities and increased helmet use,
        but we also show that the laws significantly reduced youth bicycling.”
        Anyway, I enjoy the blog.

  10. I just stumbled upon this site from the comments in the Lets Go Ride a Bike post, and this post is equally as well spoken as Dottie’s. I work in the urban planning field, and it’s frustrating to hear colleagues talk about helmets, or refer to bikes as recreational instruments. As an example, I just attended a national conference on urbanism that focused on healthy communities, where several presentations were given on improving bicycle infrastructure and use. In each case where sample images of helmetless riders from Copenhagen or Amsterdam were used to show bicycle friendly cities, someone in the audience had to make an audible remark about it. Particularly egregious was the young dutch mother taking her children to the market without helmets in her bakfiet. The fact that these remarks are made in a demeaning manner, whether in a conference room or on the street, creates a negative image of bicycling as an inherently unsafe thing to do regardless of factual basis. The sad truth is that most of the leaders in the urban and transportation planning field do not ride bikes for transportation, and as a result don’t understand how an experienced and defensive cyclist can be confident regardless of helmets or clothes.

    Thanks for setting a good example for us!

    • Mike,

      I remember being at a livable communities conference with some planning students at UW Milwaukee. We decided to go to lunch together to a place 3-4 blocks away. The three of them all started talking about who would drive, cost to get back in the parking structure, etc. When I suggested we walk, they stopped talking and just stared at me without comment. I feel your pain.

      • Same thing happened here at work! Just exchange “3-4″ blocks with 2 and “planning students” with senior planner. That’s tough to hear when we’re supposed to be on the front lines of the battle against sprawl and for livable communities.

  11. Im in agreement with your general thesis here, Dave, although I question whether cycling is really being sold at all. It may benefit from a sexy marketing campaign similar to the auto industry. But, naively perhaps, I hope we are not so shallow. Really, marketing cycling as a viable mode of transportation, as a tool, is what is needed. Maybe marketing is incapable of creating that cultural shift. Requiring a change of clothes or not, I think most people view it solely as recreation/excercise. Sex sells a lot of Powerflex home gyms (“…a strong, sexy core”) I’m sure, but how many people actually use them. The ad campaign is “Don’t buy a bike, ride one”. Your efforts here and by example are one of the few forces working towards that end. Now that’s SEXY, with or without helmet hair.

  12. Right on Dave! I couldn’t agree more. If so and so feels they need a helmet to ride fine, but the #1 thing is to get more people riding and helmets generally discourage ridership.

  13. Like Dave said, occupants in autos would be much safer if they wore helmets, and this needs more emphasis. An examination of head injury rates for auto occupants vs. cyclists will quickly tell you that people in cars need helmets MORE than cyclists do. It’s a marginal difference, but you’re in more danger of a head injury in your car, even with your seat belt and air bag, than you are on your bike. If anecdotal evidence is useful, in my work in neuro psychology for head trauma, I saw people every day with serious head injuries from car accidents while in cars with working airbags.

    My point is not that car occupants should wear helmets, even though it’s clear they’d be safer. They won’t of course, even though helmets are easier and more convenient for drivers than for cyclists. Instead we’d rather require thousands of dollars of air bags installed in every car to offer a poor approximation of a helmet.

    My point is that anyone who prioritizes wearing a helmet while cycling over wearing one while driving or riding in a car is being irrational. Sure you’ll be safer anytime you wear a helmet in/on any vehical, but why do people elect–without a single thought–to take a quantifiable risk by driving helmetlessly, and then stop Dave on the street to lecture him about wearing a helmet on his bike. Pure irrationality and the explanation is as Dave has said: there is a popular belief in the dangerousness of cycling compared to the relative safety of driving that is simply not true.

    So, yes, wear your helmet on your bicycle. You have given yourself a valuable, although minimal, margin of safety. But be aware that if you don’t also wear your helmet in your car, you are making cultural and social acceptability choices, not safety choices.

    • That is really the point here. Yes, we could all be safer if we did lots of things in many situations. Evaluate your own comfort level with risk and act accordingly. But right now, bicycling is safer that driving a car, even without a helmet.

  14. David, this blog has given me to thinking about my helmet, but I use it nonetheless. Falls happen – and they happen when you DON’T expect or plan for them. If you could plan, your foot would just land in the correct place and prevent the fall.

    I heard a WPR discussion of concussions from biking and other sports, this morning. She referenced: Information/Conditions and Treatments/Concussion.aspx

    The other day I fell, and hit my head (helmet on) dismounting, on a sidewalk. A gust of wind caught me at the wrong moment. No concussion symptoms, but surely I’d have problems, maybe permanent, without that helmet. I see a need now to replace the helmet – that bad.

    I understand the statistics about dying on a bicycle are way in our favor, but head injuries have serious quality of life consequences, like being laid up for weeks, months, even a year.

    Your desire to increase bicycling, as a leader in this community is well known and I’m proud to be a part of this effort, but it needs to include the science on the subject.

    It is not difficult to encourage new riders to get helmets, but to play down the risk of head injury seems not smart. Sure, encourage riding; and when you have the rider, encourage the helmet. That’s how I was weaned from my attitude of being “bulletproof” – good friends insisting.

    Just saying, Dave. We’re not all in your condition.

    • Bill,

      Thanks for reading, but please do not misunderstand, I am not advocating people ride bikes without helmets. I am only advocating people ride bikes. I want to present cycling in the most attractive light possible, because I am selling cycling. The only reason I bring up helmets at all is because so many people have the misconception that riding a bike is more dangerous than walking or driving a car. I have seem much statistical and anecdotal evidence to suggest the contrary, that riding a bike is much safer than driving a car and perhaps even safer than walking. I am trying to fight this idea in the United States that riding a bike is something only the fearless do.

      In every other country in the world, everyone from grannies ride bicycles to get a loaf of bread without a care or a helmet. Mothers wave their children away to school, without helmets. Couples go out on dates and ride holding hands, without helmets. In many of those same countries, the law treats cars as dangerous weapons and people drive them with a sense of grave responsibility.

      I want bikes to be sexy and mundane at the same time. I want to promote bicycles in the same way cars are advertised as something that can make you sexier, cooler, happier and safer. At the same time, people jump in their cars without a thought to take their childre wherever they want, without a thought to their personal safety, even though automobiles are the number one cause of death for children from about 2 to 16.

      Those automotive ads filled with super models in red cars and moms with kids watching dual video monitors in their silver mini vans never remind people to buckle up. They don’t have the same warnings that drug companies are required to include in their ads. I see no reason to do the same for bicycles.

      We are fighting for the health, vitality, livability and sustainability of our communities and culture. The car companies and road builders are our foes, and they have the lead, a bigger payroll, and a talented team. But we have truth on our side, if only we can make our case.

      All that said, please do wear your helmet if you feel more comfortable with it on. I am happy you are riding your bike and you certainly are safer riding a bike with a helmet on than without one, just as you would be safer driving a car with a helmet on than without one. I would never suggest anyone ride without a helmet. I just don’t advocate for helmets, I advocate for bikes. Bikes can save a lot more lives than helmets can.

      Peace, love and dharma to you,


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