Would You Bike in Philly Without a Helmet?

A New York Times editorial says we should ditch bike helmets and we’ll all be better off.

I’ve been pondering a recent editorial in the New York Times for a few days now. Its thesis: that the more cyclists there are on the road, the more opportunities drivers and pedestrians have to learn how to share it, making cycling safer overall—sort of a safety-in-numbers thing. But bike helmets are a deterrent for a lot of would-be cyclists—because they mess up my hair, they’re expensive, they’re annoying to store—so let’s forgo helmet-wearing (and the pressure and stigma associated with not wearing helmets) to help generate the critical mass we need. In other words: less helmets = more cyclists = safer roads.

See what they did there?

The piece goes on to argue that biking isn’t really that dangerous to begin with (there are studies and stats to back it up) and that compelling people to wear bike helmets only feeds the notion that it’s a dangerous, scary, might-kill-you sort of activity. After all, if it wasn’t, why would it require special safety gear?

I’ll admit it’s an attractive argument, and one that might work in cities where politicians and communities have already rolled out the red carpet to cyclists to try and promote biking as a viable mode of transportation—ones like D.C., which has a robust bike-sharing program and a pretty complex, get-you-anywhere network of bike lanes. Or Chicago, which installed a handy indoor bike storage facility that doubles as locker rooms (want!).

Here in Philly, the cycling community is still in a bit of an uphill battle in terms of winning over the hearts and minds of the citizenry. (Remember that bill city councilman William Greenlee introduced earlier this summer that would wrap an already complicated bike-lane-creation process in even more red tape?) Sure, we have some great infrastructure in place already, with more improvements on the way, and we’re seeing an impact. Nicholas Mirra, spokesperson at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, notes that serious crashes dropped by 44 percent on Pine and Spruce in the year after bike lanes on those streets were installed. That’s great—a definite step in the right direction. But there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done to make cycling in Philly more attractive to the masses, and I don’t think encouraging people to ride helmet-free is the way to get there.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m not ready to shed mine just yet.

>> Tell us: Would you ride a bike in Philly without a helmet? How would you improve Philly to make it a better place to ride a bicycle?

  • Ronald Verweij

    I am from the Netherlands, where we are lucky to have a fantastic road net for bicycles. I am also a hardcore cyclist that loves to make a few thousand miles a year. Wearing a helmet as a solo – cyclist is nonsense and of no use. It only appeals to a public sense of safety, but in reality it doesn’t really add up to a safer bike-trip. Dangerous situations in case you need head-protection only come into view when you ride with a group and choose to stay close behind each other. Then, when your front-wheel touches the rear-wheel of the guy in front of you, you will possibly make a diving move. That is the case when you see the head-injuries pro-cyclists in races often catch.
    A solo riding cyclist will fall most of the time on his shoulders. Better make laws to forbid cyclists to wear headphones. As a cyclist you need to hear what is happening around you, so that you easily can act in a proper way. Particular in dense traffic like you have in Philly.

  • Niel McDowell

    I agree w/ Ronald that most bike wrecks (fortunately) are unlikely to avoid the head. I’ve had 4 in the last 10 years or so of riding – all resulted in scraped knees or, at worst, a strained wrist, but no damage above the elbows. *However*, and it’s a big one – the stakes are so much higher in the case of head injury that I for one will put up with the mild annoyance of a helmet. Even broken arms and legs can mend, but once your’e a vegetable there’s no going back.

    BTW, Philly is an easy and good place to bike, but it’s also full of very narrow, crowded spaces and populated by plenty of people (of all types – drivers, pedestrians, and bikers) who are oblivious to others and present a hazard to safe biking. So no, biking isn’t a risk-free activity here. But it’s getting better.