Friday, July 23, 2010

I've Got Bicycling on the Brain

For more than a century, bicycles have been a popular way of getting around. They're liberating in the same way that many people believe that cars are liberating, but are more honest - not only are bicycles zero-emission vehicles, when you get to where you're going it's because you earned it with your own sweat and exertion. Today, more and more cities are recognizing bicycles as a key component of a healthy urban transportation network. Bixi, a municipal bike-sharing system pioneered in Montreal, has now spread as far afield as London and Melbourne and is set to start rolling in Toronto in 2011.

I'm glad to see it happen. I've been riding bicycles for more than twenty years, and when I lived in Barrie those two wheels were my only option when I wanted to go somewhere on my own schedule. When I visited Montreal last year to attend Anticipation, I had the opportunity to try out Bixi for myself, and discover the city from a new perspective. I came very, very close, but in the end I couldn't bring myself to swipe my credit card and take one of those bikes out for a roll. Why? Simple, really - I didn't have my bicycle helmet.

Though I do have photos of myself as a kid riding a bike without a helmet, back in those freewheeling 1980s, I don't remember ever settling on the saddle without one strapped around my chin. To me it was as vital as a sturdy lock or inflated tires - and that's not only because Ontario required all bicycle riders under the age of 18 to wear helmets starting in 1995. The reason I wear a helmet is, fundamentally, because I'm not a tremendous fucking dumbass.

It seems as if my view is not shared particularly widely. I've recently been reading an article from Washington City Paper, originally published in March 2009, which asks why so many DC cyclists eschew helmets when they cost so little and can prevent serious damage to the single most important part of one's body. Excuses range from perceptions of helmets as "corny" to the ridiculous, with one man claiming "he can't wear a helmet because he wears headphones when he rides." Well, if you're going to be a tremendous dumbass, you might as well go all the way.

Apparently, attitudes such as these are crashing full-force into the law in Melbourne, Australia. Yesterday The Age of Melbourne reported on the city's new Bixi-derived bike sharing system, Melbourne Bike Share, and its tribulations - apparently, despite investing $5.5-million AUD ($5.1-million CAD) in to the system's development, not even 70 trips per day are made with the system's six hundred bikes.

A Bixi station in downtown Montreal, August 2009

Why such a low takeup, when similar systems have seen great popularity elsewhere? The fact that it's the middle of winter in Melbourne right now? No - it's helmets, apparently. Whereas the use of bicycle helmets for over-18 riders in Ontario has been up to the adult's discretion since 1995, the state of Victoria - of which Melbourne is the capital, for all you geography majors - has mandated that all cyclists wear helmets, and that since 1990. As the explanation goes, Melburnians are unwilling to hop onto a Melbourne Bike Share bike because they can't be arsed to wear a helmet.

It's ridiculous. Try as I might, I cannot see bicyclists who eschew helmets as anything other than reckless fools. I know that there are arguments. One of them goes like this: "Oh, but there are so many accidents that a helmet wouldn't do anything to protect yourself from!" I damn well know that. My major bicycle accident involved a collision with a stationary object that wasn't even on the road at all. That doesn't mean I shouldn't have been wearing a helmet.

The brain is an amazing machine, an incredible machine, but the brain is likewise a fragile machine, and while it can still work after sustaining damage it's rarely at optimum capability. I realize that I am my brain. Those 1200-odd cubic centimeters enclose my memories and experiences, hopes and dreams, personality and consciousness. Even the fingers I've used to type out this post are nothing but remotely-controlled mechanisms that allow me to interact with the world.

I'm not sure how we should proceed from this. Personally, in some greyer moments, I've toyed with the notion that we should let consenting adults who choose to ride without helmets suffer the consequences of their decisions. That is, if you get into an accident and you're not wearing a bicycle helmet, your health insurance should not cover it. I know that it's vengeful, and that this would result in thoughtless dumbasses bankrupting themselves and their families to cover medical expenses arising from helmetless accidents, but-- I just don't know. Riding without a helmet is as foolhardy as riding in a car without wearing a seatbelt. From what I understand it took a long, hard campaign of memetic engineering to change the popular attitude. We may need a similar campaign to firmly establish the helmet-safety meme in our society. If that can be combined with shareable helmets as part of bike share systems - perhaps something involving a disposable outer lining, maybe - we could make a lot of progress toward a safer, healthier transportation system.

Ultimately, I believe it comes down to laziness and a sense of invincibility. In Melbourne they claim that no one is riding because everyone must wear a helmet - and yet in Vancouver, where helmets have been mandatory for all cyclists since 1996, bicycle use is exploding - from the dedicated lanes on Dunsmuir Street to the successful lane test on the Burrard Street Bridge, and the racks on the buses which always seemed to be carrying at least one bike along.

I won't ride without my helmet. I'm not about to put my brain into my own hands.

1 comment:

  1. Bike use in Vancouver would be higher if we didn't have a mandatory helmet law. We'd also have a BIXI system today. I always bike with a helmet, but I don't think it should be mandatory. The mandatory bike helmet law does more harm then good. I recommend reading the wikipedia page on bike helmets for a summary of some of the interesting arguments for and against.

    In essence it comes down to two simple issues:
    1) Bike use drops when helmets are required.
    2) Cycling is safer when you have more cyclists.

    Helmets only prevent head injuries. They don't make cycling safer. Infrastructure like the Dunsmuir bike lane makes cycling safer.

    I also find it strange that their is so much emphasis on bike helmets, but little on skiing helmets, rollerblading helmets, skateboarding helmets, etc. Heck, walking and driving would be "safer" if everyone wore helmets.