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?